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NHL commissioner disputes link between hockey and CTE brain disease

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman shakes hands with Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals prior to the 2023 NHL All-Star game.
Jeff Vinnick
/
NHLI via Getty Images
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman shakes hands with Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals prior to the 2023 NHL All-Star game.

Updated April 19, 2023 at 7:49 AM ET

For hockey fans, it's the best time of the year – the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs. But the physical aspect of playing the game has led to increased concerns about potential links between hockey and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). National Hockey League (NHL) Commissioner Gary Bettman says he remains unconvinced that there are any connections between the degenerative brain disease and playing NHL hockey.

"We listen to the medical opinions on CTE, and I don't believe there has been any documented study that suggests that elements of our game result in CTE. There have been isolated cases of players who have played the game [who] have had CTE. But it doesn't mean that it necessarily came from playing in the NHL," Bettman told NPR's A Martinez on Morning Edition.

Preliminary findings of a study conducted by Boston University (BU) appear to contradict Bettman's assertion. Researchers found that each additional year of playing hockey may increase a person's chance of developing CTE by about 23%.

"In football, we've shown this really robust relationship between years of football play and risk for CTE. We wanted to take the same approach for hockey and our numbers are now such that we can start to make estimates about the relationship between years of hockey play and risk for CTE," Jesse Mez, associate professor of neurology at the BU School of Medicine and a BU CTE Center investigator, tells NPR.

The study looked at the brains of 74 people, ranging in age from 13 to 91, who played hockey at various levels from youth hockey to professional sport. Nearly half of the individuals, 46%, also participated in other contact sports such as football. All of them donated their brains to research after their deaths. The researchers found that among 74 donors, 40 of them, or 54%, had developed CTE.

The researchers note that more research is needed, as the study may not represent the general population of hockey players. After years of denial, in 2016 the National Football League acknowledged a link between CTE and playing football and last year revised its concussion protocols once again.

During a sometimes-heated exchange with NPR's A Martinez, Bettman dismissed any comparison between football and hockey. "The two are not comparable in terms of the amount of contact," he says.

Both football and hockey, however, are among the contact sports with some of the highest concussion rates.

"It should be in the NHL's purview to try to reduce head impact, so I don't think it's useful to make statements that there seems to be no relationship [between hockey and CTE]. I think there should be a desire to help to address the health and safety of players," Mez says.

Several NHL players who were diagnosed with CTE after their deaths were "enforcers" whose unofficial role is to protect the team's top players. This can include aggressive responses, such as bare fist fights to retaliate or intimidate, although Bettman says there are no "designated fighters like we used to [have] in the old game."

Bettman says roughly eight out of ten games today are played without a fight. And he characterizes the fighting that does erupt as "spontaneous emotional reaction."

"At the end of the day, it is a part of the game that is an emotional outlet," Bettman says.

The NHL's Stanley Cup playoffs continue through the end of May, with the Cup Finals slated to begin on June 3.

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.


Interview highlights

On fighting during NHL games

Roughly 80% of our games do not have fights. That's probably a record low. The types of fights we have compared to years ago are spontaneous emotional reaction to what takes place on the ice. We don't have players who are designated fighters like we used to in the old game. The role of fighting in the game has evolved and really acts as the thermostat, because remember, we have a very fast, physical, emotional game where players are encouraged to have body contact. And, by the way, they happen to be carrying sticks.

On the NHL diversity and inclusion report that found 84% of league employees are white

That was a number that was not unexpected. But making the decision to have such a report and make it public is consistent with our goal of making sure that we're welcoming and inclusive and that we're going to hold ourselves accountable in a very public fashion as to how we're progressing to improve and increase our diversity. So having that report and making it public was a conscious effort to say, we're going to do better.

On some players and teams refusing to participate in NHL Pride Night events

Clubs make their own decisions. To the extent that they have Pride Nights, the elements that they put into them have always been left up to the clubs, and it's always been left to the players as to who wants to participate. And overwhelmingly, our clubs and our players support Pride Night and what it stands for. And I don't think that the notion that a couple of players on each team or on some teams we're not comfortable wearing pride jerseys is not an indictment. To the contrary, you have to be tolerant of all views and all expressions. And sometimes respect and endorsements are not the same thing.

Kaity Kline produced the audio version of this interview and Jan Johnson edited the digital. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

H.J. Mai