PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- In response to questions about the three-part series on former NHL player Derek Boogaard by John Branch in the New York Times, League Commissioner Gary Bettman said Tuesday it is premature to draw a connection between fighting in hockey and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.
Boogaard's brain was analyzed after his May 13 death, and Branch reported the former player had CTE, which can only be diagnosed posthumously.
It was the fourth brain of a former NHL player to be analyzed by researchers and confirmed to show signs of CTE.
"I think in this whole area there is probably entirely too much speculation and rumors and the like on something that is simply a tragedy," Bettman said, speaking at the conclusion of the NHL Board of Governors meeting. "With respect to what Boston University might find on CTE, they're still looking at a very limited database and in those particular cases there is no control element because you have to look at everything that went on in the person's life before you make a judgment on what a brain may show when you open it up.
"So, I think when you look at the fact that the medical community has only been dealing with the issue of concussions in the way that they have for probably the last few decades, and if you look at our history starting in 1997 and we've been across all fronts -- whether it's the study, the working groups, baseline testing, diagnosis and return-to-play protocols, rule changes, the creation of the Department of Player Safety -- we've been doing lots and lots and we'll continue to do lots and lots. But, there are no easy answers yet. And, I think it's unfortunate if people use tragedies to jump to conclusions that probably at this stage aren't supported."
Boogaard's death was ruled an accidental mixture of alcohol and oxycodone toxicity. He was the first of three current or former NHL players who died this past summer.
All three players (Boogaard, Wade Belak and Rick Rypien) were considered enforcers -- guys for who fight more frequently than their teammates. The deaths sparked discussion in the media about the role of fighting in the sport, and Branch's report in the Times has intensified that dialogue this week.
"Our fans tell us that they like the level of physicality in our game, 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 it is," Bettman said, discussing fighting. "Maybe it is [dangerous] and maybe it's not. You don't know that for a fact and it's something we continue to monitor. The level of concussions from fighting is not rising, it's constant, so it's not an increasing problem. But, it is something we'll continue to monitor.
"You know, playing our game, even if it's a legal hit can result in a concussion. We play a very fast-paced, physical game in a closed environment. So, I think people need to take a deep breath and not overreact. It's important to react and it's something we're monitoring closely, so I don't want to be viewed as pollyanna-ish on the subject. And, it's the reason we were the first sports league to have the working study group, to have baseline testing, to have the protocols for diagnosis for return-to-play decisions, to have the protocols now with the quiet room, to have rule changes, to have a Department of Player Safety, to look at equipment and try to reduce it so it's not a weapon. We are being extraordinarily proactive, but there is a gap in the medical science that I think people are focused on and working on. But, it's also not a time for people to make things up or over-conclude when the data isn't there yet."
Both Bettman and NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly noted in their Tuesday's remarks that players are already penalized -- with, at minimum, a five-minute major -- for fighting in the NHL. Bettman said there is no current sentiment to "warrant a change in the rules."
"It really goes to the nature of the penalty, and that's really all the fighting issue is," Daly said. "We can pass all the fighting rules we want, we're not going to totally eliminate fighting from the game. Fighting is going to happen. The question is how is it responded to and what the penalties are for it. And, that's the issue that ultimately has been evaluated over time. The whole instigator rule was implemented at least in connection with the fighting issue. It's something that has been repeatedly monitored and acted on by the Board over time. So, the question becomes do you want to make the next fundamental change in those rules?"