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Fighting back: NHL holds ground on fisticuffs

Boston University announced a diagnosis of mild chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the brain of deceased enforcer Derek Boogaard (R), who died after mixing alcohol and painkillers in the summer. (Getty Images)

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Boston University announced a diagnosis of mild chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the brain of deceased enforcer Derek Boogaard (R), who died after mixing alcohol and painkillers in the summer. (Getty Images)

By Nicholas J. Cotsonika

Boston University announced a diagnosis of mild chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the brain of deceased enforcer Derek Boogaard (R), who died after mixing alcohol and painkillers in the summer.

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – This is what NHL commissioner Gary Bettman cannot quite come out and say: Frankly, the league likes fighting. The fans like it, rising from their seats whenever two guys drop the gloves. The hockey community likes it, because it deters other barbaric acts on the ice. And it isn't going anywhere, because despite the tragedies and medical research and media attention, the players know there are risks and essentially sign a waiver as soon as they square off.

Bettman came close to saying all of that on Tuesday. But the truth isn't politically correct, and the league is always going to look hypocritical as long as it cracks down on concussions on one hand and allows players to beat each others' brains in on the other. The league looks even worse when Bettman says the data is inconclusive regarding the dangers of fighting – even though he's right.

After two days of discussing issues at the NHL board of governors meetings – including the realignment of the league, the looming labor negotiations and the future of the Phoenix Coyotes, all of which are addressed below – the hottest topic was what the power brokers did not even consider: a ban on fighting.

The end of the meetings coincided with the final installment of a three-part New York Times series on Derek Boogaard, who died accidentally May 13 at age 28 after mixing alcohol and painkillers. He was the first of three enforcers to die last summer, preceding Rick Rypien and Wade Belak. Rypien committed suicide. Belak reportedly committed suicide, but others insist he died in an accident. All three reportedly suffered from depression.

Boogaard's brain was donated to Boston University researchers, who announced a diagnosis of mild chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which they describe as a neurodegenerative disease linked to repeated brain trauma. They have now found CTE in four deceased NHL players: Boogaard, Reggie Fleming, Bob Probert and Rick Martin.

A reporter asked Bettman how many brains was too many.

"Do you know everything that went on in their lives?" Bettman responded. "Were there other things going on that could also cause CTE? And until you understand that what exactly causes CTE, it's speculation as to one or two elements in each case that were in common. The data is not sufficient to draw a conclusion, and our experts tell us the same thing."

That is true.

No one has been able to determine definitively the role that fighting played in the deaths of Boogaard, Rypien and Belak, despite the stories of the unique mental and physical stressors on enforcers.

[Related: NHL player's take: The politics of safety]

Experts consulting the NHL and the NHL Players' Association have said no one can draw a straight line from head trauma to CTE to mental problems because no one has proven what causes CTE, what its effect is or what the risk is of developing it. They have criticized BU researchers for making simplistic, sensational statements unsupported by science in the past, and it should be noted that BU seemed especially careful in how it worded its press release on Tuesday.

"It is important not to over-interpret the finding of early CTE in Derek Boogaard," said Robert Cantu, a co-director of BU's Center for the Study of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. "However, based on the small sample of enforcers we have studied, it is possible that frequently engaging in fights as a hockey player may put one at increased risk for this degenerative brain disease."

But that debate is on a scientific level. On a practical level, there is no debate that banging your head is bad for your brain. It's common sense.

And this is where the NHL runs into trouble.

Bettman said: "We do know that if we take the steps to reduce the incidence of concussions, that's a good thing for our players." But while the NHL has stiffened the rules governing boarding and illegal hits to the head, has revamped the supplemental discipline system and has seen concussions drop by about one-third this season, it has not stiffened the rules governing fighting.

Why?

"Our fans tell us that they like the level of physicality in our game," Bettman said, "and for some people it's an issue, but it's not as big an issue in terms of fans and people in the game to the extent that other people suggest that it is."

Bettman said concussions resulting from fighting have remained constant and therefore are "not an increasing problem."

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Kevin Lowe, the Edmonton Oilers' president of hockey operations, said fighting is down and "seems to be regulating itself and policing itself." He said if there is going to be a change, the players would have to push for it, because the league's brass still sees a place for it in the game.

"Over the years, there has been a great deal of discussion about it, whether it's necessary," Lowe said, "and I think enough hockey people believe that it's still necessary."

Finally, Bettman said there is an obvious difference between hitting and fighting. Fighters are not unsuspecting victims. They are "willing combatants."

As for the aftermath of that combat, Bettman and NHLPA executive director Don Fehr released a joint statement after the deaths of Boogaard, Rypien and Belak saying they would evaluate their existing assistance program and determine "whether concrete steps can be taken to enhance player welfare and minimize the likelihood of such events taking place."

Bettman said he met with Fehr about the issue recently, and the league and union are both "looking into" hiring someone to independently evaluate their programs.

That's about all they have done and are going to do for now. Like it or not.

• Realignment: Now that the governors have authorized Bettman to realign the league into four conferences based on time zones, he needs to check with the NHLPA.

"It's something traditionally we've never discussed with the union," said deputy commissioner Bill Daly. "But this would be along the lines of a rule change that could be interpreted as a change of the terms and conditions of employment. And for that, we need to go to the players' association. They need to consent or not, but they can't withhold their consent unreasonably."

[Related: Realignment winners and losers]

Daly said he didn't anticipate there would be any problems. The union sent the league a letter a month ago and he spoke to a union representative twice in the last week. Daly said the league invited the union to make its own proposal, and the union did not do so.

Another issue left to determine is the playoff format. The top four teams in each conference will make the playoffs, and the first two rounds will be intra-conference clashes. Bettman said he would let the general managers decide how to handle the third round.

Some GMs still want to take geography into account.

"I think you'd stay East and West there," said Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke.

Other execs weren't so sure.

"I think you should recognize maybe the team that comes out of the strongest division maybe gets home ice," Lowe said. "Geographically, I don't think we need to keep the third series in the West. … [Teams] just want the good fortune of being there. If there's going to be less travel in the first two rounds and you have to travel a bit in the third round, that's not a bad thing."

One more issue: what the conferences will be named. Daly said the league had not even settled on the process to determine them.

"Ultimately it would be the board that would sign off on it," Daly said. "I suggested something to Gary today that he didn't like, so …"

So what was it?

"I'm not going to share it if he didn't like it," Daly said, smiling.

• Labor: The collective bargaining agreement expires Sept. 15, and talks aren't expected to begin on a new CBA until after the All-Star Game. Bettman and most executives declined to say much about the situation.

The owners aren't pushing for radical change like during the lockout of 2004-05, when they fought for a salary cap at the cost of a season, and Lowe said there "doesn't appear to be any doom and gloom on the horizon."

"From our perspective, we really knew where we stood the last time around as far as needing to fix things significantly," Lowe said. "Although there appears to be a need for some change, it's not as significant as last time around. So that's the optimism."

Still, there is uncertainty.

"It's a better feeling than last time around, but until we know what the other side is asking or expecting, it's kind of an odd feeling quite frankly," Lowe said. "I guess we'll know in a couple months where we stand."

• Phoenix Coyotes: Daly said the NHL remains committed to keeping the Coyotes in Phoenix. The NHL bought the franchise out of bankruptcy and has been trying to sell it.

"There are interested purchasers right now in the Coyotes," Daly said. "We're continuing to work with them, and we hope we get to a resolution. Obviously we've owned the club now for more than two years, so it's taken a while to get to the finish line. We're not there yet, but we're still working toward it."

Time is growing short, however. Though the league has set no deadline, Daly acknowledged that it cannot wait as long as it did last season when it waited until May 31 to move the Atlanta Thrashers. Winnipeg had an ownership group that was already running an AHL franchise in an NHL-ready rink. Quebec City has an ownership group and plans for a new rink, and Kansas City has an NHL-ready rink. But Daly said: "I'm not sure there is a comparable scenario."


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