This past autumn I published a book with a nontraditional readership goal in mind. I was looking to reach one reader. Not millions, or even hundreds.
The book is called, Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador and the Future of Hockey, and it is the story of an everyman player, not a superstar or a goon. It’s about science as it relates to brain injuries, and about a game — how it has changed throughout its history, and how, as it’s become better and more exciting, it has left its players more vulnerable to head hits. But the book is not foremost about what’s wrong. It’s about what steps — specific, concrete, do-able steps — can be taken to make it right.
I wrote the book for NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
On every matter of significance, he is hockey’s central decision-maker. So I wrote the book to try to create for him the conditions he needs to make the changes necessary when it comes to concussions and head hits. Now, a few months since the book came out — and after hearing from countless hockey and non-hockey people — I’m more convinced than ever that commissioner Bettman and the NHL cannot wait, and need not wait, any longer before initiating these changes.
The time for action is not 10 years from now.
The time is now.
Because hockey, as we currently play it, has a problem.
Shorter shifts have allowed players to go faster, and the game has speeded up, which has resulted in more collisions of greater force, and more serious injuries to the players — concussions, brain traumas, post-concussion symptoms that linger for weeks and months, and sometimes longer. These injuries have shortened or diminished the careers of many, and effected life-altering conditions or death for some. What stands in the way of change is not an absence of awareness of the problem – there’s plenty of awareness — but of a decision-maker willing to take immediate steps that turn the awareness into action. Making decisions. Doing what needs to be done.
And that’s where the commissioner comes in.
Gary Bettman is smart, capable and experienced, and he has the authority to see implemented the changes that are needed. He can bring about a strict liability for head hits — “no hits to the head, no excuses.” He can ensure that the league’s on-ice officials enforce the rules that already exist. The league did as much this season with the rules on slashing, and has expressed great pride in the effectiveness of its clampdown.
The commissioner can, and should, take this decisive action on head hits without falling back on the existence of court cases pending between former players and the league as a shield to justify delay. Any preventive measures he enacts now would not be admissible in court as evidence of the league’s prior negligence, nor would it be prejudicial to the NHL in these cases. In fact, the failure to act now, with knowledge of safer ways to play, and of any new scientific information, would be prejudicial to the league in the case of future injuries.
Hockey, unlike football, has very do-able answers. Answers that if implemented would have no significant impact on the existing pleasures of the game. We already penalize hits to the head — no high-sticking, no elbowing. In earlier times, high sticks and elbows brought cuts. If there was no blood, there was no injury, it seemed. But now we know better. It’s the unseen injuries to the head that are the most dangerous.
The rule changes needed wouldn’t be revolutionary. They would be evolutionary, brought on by changes in the game.
And the solution is not complicated.
We need only to penalize all hits to the head, because whether a blow is from a stick, an elbow, a shoulder or a fist, whether it’s done intentionally or accidentally, whether it’s legal or illegal, the brain doesn’t distinguish.
The damage is the same.
Most journalists I’ve spoken with since the book was released, and most of the people who have stopped me on the street or in airports — men and women — have kids. And like all parents, when it comes to their kids, they worry most about the unknowns. They fear that their hockey-playing kids will tear up their knees, lose their dream of playing in the NHL and live the rest of their lives with regret and a limp. But far more than that, they fear that their kids will tear up their brains, lose all of their dreams and live the rest of their lives as … not them.
When I give public talks, I always ask the audience three questions. How many of you have had a concussion yourself? On average, about 30% raise their hands. How many of your kids or grandkids? About 50%. And finally, how many of the kids of your friends or coworkers, somebody you feel close to? About 70 to 80% raise their hands. To these people, brain injuries aren’t just an “issue.” This is personal. Because of that, they understand the stakes.
This is especially the case with “the hockey guys” on the sports networks and in the newsrooms. Most of them are men. They know the game. They played it. They lived it with their fathers and with their buddies. They live it today. They love it. They learned many of their most meaningful life lessons from it; and they’ve passed many of these same life lessons on to their kids through it. To them, you don’t mess around with the game because this stuff is just too important.
And they know all the arguments for and against everything. They know the hockey lore. They know that a big crushing hit makes every player on one team feel like they’re kings of the jungle, and kicks the stuffing out of every player on the other team. They know that if a guy’s head is down when he gets hit, he deserves it. They know that fighting is exciting because it is exciting. They’ve done it. They’ve felt it. Two guys putting their all on the line, so committed to their team and their teammates that they are willing, literally, to fight for them. This is a tough game, a “man’s game,” they like to say. The scoreboard tells only of the goals scored, but the game puts unavoidably in front of them all kinds of other character-revealing tests that challenge everything about them. Passing these tests is the source of their deepest pride.
These hockey guys have a local team to cover. They have last night’s game to rehash, and tomorrow’s to preview, and they only tend to talk about concussions when a hit occurs that might change the fortunes of a season. But they know there’s a problem. That’s because they know these players. They interviewed them when they first came to town, young and bright-eyed. They interview them now, years later, when their tongues and minds have gone mushy. They know what’s happened, and they’re sad about it, and they’d be angry too if they knew what to do, but they don’t. No point getting mad about what you can’t do anything about.
But give these hockey guys something to think about, give them another way of seeing what they’ve always seen, another way of understanding what they’ve always understood differently. Give them another approach, something that includes all the amazing changes of recent years and fewer of the stomach-cringing ones. Give them something that is better, that is possible, do-able — no hits to the head, no excuses. Give them a how, and they will think, and argue, and rehash, but now with one more thing on their minds.
After the book came out, I received two emails I didn’t expect. The first was from Ray Ferraro, who played more than 1,200 NHL games in his career, and is now one of hockey’s best TV analysts. We had never met.
He wrote me about his son Landon, who is 26. “He is a forward who signed a 2-year contract with Minnesota this summer. As he had the puck a lot as a kid, he was, of course, a target. I hated it. It wasn’t the game I played. He has had 1 documented concussion, but I’m assuming he has had more as he has played contact hockey for 16 years. I fully support your suggestions to improve the game. I am dumbfounded by those in power that hold onto something that wasn’t so. They hamper the possibility of a different way.”
The other email was from Scotty Bowman. Bowman won more games, 1,244, than any coach in NHL history, by far. He won Stanley Cups in three different decades, nine in all, five of which we shared as coach and player in Montreal. He is the greatest hockey coach ever, maybe the greatest coach in professional sports history.
“I have just finished reading your book and … [I] trust and hope it has a significant effect on the future of hockey. My 12 year old grandson is just now getting over his concussion after suffering for 2 months, and [our son and daughter-in-law] are being very careful going forward.”
Then more emails arrived.
One was from Terry Gregson who was an NHL referee for 25 years, for 1,427 regular season games, the eighth most in league history. He was also the NHL’s senior vice president and director of officiating from 2009 to 2013. Gregson’s email mentioned how coaches, players and officials had met during the 2004–05 lockout to talk about the most controversial on-ice issue of the time — obstruction — and had agreed on a standard of enforcement. When play began, he recalled, “there were some growing pains,” but “we got through the rough patches.” He went on to say that “it was proof that if everyone signs on to a change, it can happen,” and that it “demonstrated the great ability of players and coaches to adapt to the style and culture change put in front of them.”
But one unintended consequence of the rule changes, which has resulted in greater vulnerability for the players to head hits, is that without obstruction to provide “speed bumps” to control the velocity of the players, as Gregson put it, there are “no fender-benders anymore; they are all major collisions.” He made one simple suggestion in his note to me. Change the heading in the NHL’s rule book from ILLEGAL CHECK TO THE HEAD to CONTACT WITH AN OPPONENT’S HEAD. There should be no such thing as a “legal” check to the head, he said.
Don Meehan also wrote. He owns the largest hockey agency in the world. His clients during his 37-year career have included Nick Lidstrom, Jarome Iginla, Chris Pronger, Al MacInnis and Pat LaFontaine. Among his present clients are Henrik Lundqvist, Erik Karlsson, Steven Stamkos, Drew Doughty and P.K. Subban.
“Whatever else our roles, we are fans,” Meehan wrote. “We want the best for [our players], on the ice and off, now and in the future. I have had clients whose careers have ended with head injuries. It’s not nice to see. And it’s not necessary. I fully support the changes you have recommended.”
A player, a coach, a referee, an agent — each from out of the blue.
We see, we learn, we do. But then things change and we are obligated to see again, to unlearn, to undo, to relearn and to redo.
It is far from impossible.
The game today is already moving beyond its past. And the changes necessary to make it less dangerous have never been easier to make.
Just watch any NHL game and, for just a moment, don’t only watch your favorite team, watch the whole game, too. Hockey has become like football without the line play: everyone is, all at once, a quarterback and a receiver, a linebacker and a defensive back. And if you watch very closely, you’ll notice that there aren’t many head hits — and if those you see were removed, there would be virtually no impact, or no impact at all, on the play and spirit of the game. The game would still be the game.
You’ll also notice players breaking for open ice, the puck zipping from stick to stick, speed that is almost breathtaking. All those extra months of the year that kids, teenagers, juniors and pro players now spend on the ice have made a difference. All those practices and games and better coaches, all the special clinics, the personal instruction: It’s all there now on the ice.
To those still filled with the myth and lore of the old game: Don’t know what’s there. Watch. Look. See. Moore’s Law says that the capacity of computer chips doubles every two years, which is now just about as long as it takes for the next generational hockey player to arrive. The exceptional now becomes almost instantly the norm. It’s as if suddenly the creativity of the mind and dexterity of the hands have caught up with the speed of the skates. I had been seeing this little by little, year after year, but not really. Now it’s here. Undeniably. This is the game. Not the myth and lore of what was and must surely still be because the game is the game and the game doesn’t change. This is NHL hockey. And, the sky hasn’t fallen.
If you’re still not sure, go to a local rink in Moscow, or Mississauga, Ontario, or Scottsdale, Arizona, Auston Matthews’s hometown. Watch some kids play. It’s their try — they never let up — and it’s their skill. For all of hockey history, there was always one kid who matured faster than the others, who would take the puck in his own zone and power his way up the ice, too big and strong for everyone else. Now that player has his head up, now he sees his teammates breaking into open ice, moving faster than he is, now he passes them the puck, and, with their heads up, now they pass it back to him. Hands, minds, skates all moving fast, in synch. Ten-year-olds! Unbelievable.
And when these kids are not playing, what do they think about? What’s in their imaginations? The same as what was always in the imaginations of every kid. They want to be just like the players in the NHL. These kids don’t often watch full games — they don’t have time. Instead they watch highlights of the games from the night before on cable sports networks or YouTube. I wanted to see what they see, so a few months ago I watched the highlights on two consecutive Sunday mornings, November 26 and December 3, after a near-full schedule of NHL games the nights before. The first Sunday, highlights were shown from 11 games, in which there was one fight, one injury, no hits, five or six saves (mostly by Carey Price, to show his return to form in his first game back after his injury), and 27 goals. The second week, in eight games worth of highlights, I saw one injury, two hits, four saves, five missed chances (to demonstrate the Buffalo Sabres’ goal drought), and 24 goals, one of them, scored by the Canucks, accompanied by tracer lines superimposed on the screen to show the 12 passes that had led to the goal.
This is what the kids see. This is what’s in their heads before their next practice, and what they’ll try out at every moment they can sneak in for themselves during that practice, each move done with their own signature twist, of course. And this is what they’ll do in their own game a few days later.
These kids want to make magic. This is the magic they want to make. Not the crash and smash of head hits. And now that they have magic in their heads and hands and feet — we should let them.
This is the hockey of today, and the hockey of tomorrow. A game that needs the full capacity of the brains of its players to play.
There’s a lot on the line here.
When the financial crisis in the U.S. in 2008 triggered economic turmoil across the world, it became clear that to not prop up the banks would mean an even broader, deeper financial collapse. Simply put, some banks had become too big to fail. Too important to fail.
Sports is not the global financial system, but go to any local hockey rink in Canada on a Saturday morning and you’ll see just how much hockey matters — not just to its players and fans, but to a need inside all of us to do things together, a need that is satisfied almost nowhere else, by almost nothing else.
In its own way, is hockey in Canada too big to fail? Too important to fail? Yes. But too important to change? No.
It’s too important not to change.
This is Gary Bettman’s obligation, and opportunity.
A commissioner can outwait almost any problem. Other things come up. The media get bored and move on. Some media will cave to the influence of the league. But sometimes one moment isn’t the same as the next. In late February, HBO’s Real Sports aired an episode on the NHL and concussions that came off as largely angry and accusatory. It pointed fingers. To many of those watching, the commissioner’s statements about CTE and hockey clanged. For years on TV we saw tobacco company CEOs deny the connection between smoking and cancer, and for years we didn’t feel certain enough not to be confused by their comments. Then something changed. Without warning. The same tobacco CEO saying the same things he’d always said suddenly looked different. The public, as if overnight, had made up its mind: Tobacco causes cancer, and cancer kills people. The public’s reaction to that person on the screen became unforgiving: This guy’s a liar. For those CEOs, it was all downhill from there. Unrelenting media coverage, public outrage, government hearings. Even more difficult for them to deal with were their next-door neighbors, and those who were members of the same clubs, and who ate at the same restaurants. They now started seeing their tobacco-CEO friends differently. It got embarrassing. And worse.
In hockey, the public has made up its mind: A hit to the head is not a good thing.
Now is the pivot point for commissioner Bettman and the league. He and the NHL can continue to fight back as they have in the past, but all this will become more unpleasant — the most recent media, like the Real Sports episode, tends to set the tone for the coverage that will follow. Far worse, players will continue to suffer life-changing injuries that they don’t need to suffer, and more parents of would-be players will decide their kids will play something else.
Or, the commissioner and the NHL can make a different decision.
The answer is right in front of them.
No hits to the head — no excuses.
It’s an utterly, totally do-able answer that players and coaches will adapt to almost instantly. And the commissioner needn’t fear that making this decision would throw under the bus all those loyal to the old game — some fans, some media, some in the NHL offices. Listen to their voices even now. When there’s a crushing hit, more often than not they don’t explain it away with the debate-ending phrase, “It’s a hockey play.” They describe it as what it is, “a head hit.” They love the old game, and they love the skill and speed of the new game.
When language starts to change, the mind is already changing, and the story starts to change. And then it actually changes. Ahead can be the best of times for the game, for the players, for the league and for Gary Bettman himself.
There is nothing — I repeat, nothing — that now stands in the way of him doing what needs to be done. Focusing on lawsuits is fighting the past to win the past. This is about winning the future.
As a commissioner, sometimes you manage and sometimes you lead. This is a time to lead.
A big problem, a do-able answer, what could be better? To Gary Bettman, the waters have been tested. The public, the parents, the hockey guys in studios and newsrooms are ready.