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Opinion
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Health

The Canuck Concussion That’s Rattling Hockey’s Future

The NHL is a sham. Proof: The brutal hit on teen phenom Elias Pettersson.

By Geoff D'Auria 23 Oct 2018 | TheTyee.ca

Geoff D’Auria writes about sports culture and history when he’s not playing on the back line for the New Westminster Rovers. He is also a dean of the Uncharted Journalism Fund.

One of the Vancouver Canucks’ rising young stars, 19-year-old Elias Pettersson, was slammed to the ice. A week later, the reverberations are only growing louder.

Pettersson is a silky-smooth skater, puck handler, passer and sniper. People use words like “slippery” for the way he dances around checks.

Some said he was too young and too slight for the NHL. But he was younger last year when he was MVP of Swedish Hockey League championship, playing against men.

He’s considered the future of the franchise.

Five games into this season, the skinny rookie had five goals, leading the team in points.

Then came the hit.

Pettersson was in the offensive zone and embarrassed Florida Panthers defenseman Mike Matheson with a deke so sick Matheson fell on his face.

As Daniel “Carbomb” Carcillo, a retired NHL tough guy player put it on Twitter: “Mike clearly gets pissed when he gets dingle dangled.”

Matheson then gets up, tracks down the Swede, hammers him into the wall, and then, with Pettersson in the air and in no position to protect himself, shoves him head-first to the ice.

Pettersson’s head bounced a couple of times off the hard surface.

As sickening to watch as that was, what happened next revealed more about a league, a city, and the future of professional hockey.

Toxic code persists

What do you do when someone celebrates a little too much the seventh goal in a 7-0 trouncing? You beat the shit out of him is what you do. That’s what Brad Marchand did earlier this month.

What do you do when another team hits one of your skill players? You beat the shit out of him is what you do. That’s what this same Mike Matheson did last year to an opposing player.

On-ice payback is the norm in the NHL.

But on this night, the Canucks did nothing.

Rather, they focused on hockey, scored a few minutes later and won the game.

In a league run informally by an eye-for-an-eye code, such a response was remarkable for its restraint.

But here at home, the response to that non-response was outrage.

Barry Deley, sportscaster at Global News, off the top of his segment looked squarely into the camera and metaphorically wagged a finger at the team. More “push back” he urged. That’s what this team needs. His colleague, Squire Barnes, echoed the comments later.

Just this Saturday, the almost incomprehensible elder statesman of toxic masculinity, Don Cherry, garbled something about the Canucks’ need for pushback or enforcers or… something. Hard to understand the man at this point.

Let’s put this in perspective (leaving Cherry’s clowning gibberish aside):

Journalists, who as a group pride themselves on their objective and dispassionate telling of the facts in service of the public good, were advocating for the use of vigilante justice… in a game.

Don’t take it too far, they qualified, but “push-back” is what this team needs. Otherwise all the other teams will take advantage.

But “push-back” — like “limited engagement” or “collateral damage” — is a thin linguistic veil over human savagery, a veil that distances those who use it from its consequences.

We, of all cities, should remember that violence unleashed does not heed limits. It escalates in ways unforeseen.

Lest we forget Todd Bertuzzi broke a man’s neck defending Markus Naslund, another of the Canucks’ silky Swedes. He didn’t mean to. But one thing led to another and…

But it’s understandable that Deley and Barnes were upset. They must have been as sick and frustrated as the rest of us.

This is what happens when institutions are a sham. Otherwise good people call for vigilante justice.

But that's what the NHL is. A sham.

It's an embarrassment of billionaires dangling a shiny cup in front of wide-eyed young men and failing to protect those young men as they mash each other's brains into the ice with dull thud after dull thud in a desperate attempt to touch that cup. The Cup, as they revere it.

It ostensibly frowns upon vigilante justice while setting up the very conditions for it.

Worse, they profit from it.

Gary Bettman’s dirty check

Just three months ago, the NHL was in court defending itself against a class-action lawsuit brought against it by former players suffering from brain-related injuries. The players claim the league failed to warn them of the risks of concussions.

Here’s how the New York Times described the NHL’s hardball legal approach as compared to the NFL’s:

"In contrast [to the NFL], the NHL strategy has been largely to ignore negative publicity, or at least not to seem outwardly rattled by it, and apologetically attempt to use the law to its advantage...”

The story then quotes Mark Conrad, the director of the sports business program at Fordham University: “To play such hardball, I don’t believe they are embarrassed, they don’t have shame,” he said. “But ethically, how long do you want to continue?”

Further, over at TSN in May, Rick Westhead reported that league owners claimed in depositions not to know anything about the neurodegenerative diseases associated with concussions.

Kind of like how tobacco companies didn’t know about the health effects of cigarette smoke.

“These teams are businesses that earn and lose tens of millions of dollars,” said Jodi Balsam, a former lawyer for the NFL who Westhead contacted for comment, “and the idea that they wouldn’t keep themselves up to date on the science and medical developments that affect their most important assets is remarkable to me.”

Rather than take responsibility and help the workers hurt in its own enterprise, the league spent $50 million (as Balsam speculated in that report) playing legal games.

The judge has since recommended the two parties come to a negotiated compromise.

An ‘it’s complicated’ relationship

But the fault may not lie entirely with the NHL head office and the owners.

In 2016, CTV, which had intervenor status, gained access to emails sent in 2011 between Gary Bettman, league commissioner, Bill Daly, deputy commissioner, and Brendan Shanahan, then the league’s chief disciplinarian, responsible for suspending players for dirty plays like Matheson’s.

The emails showed the executives discussing whether to eliminate the enforcer role because of a possible link between concussions, depressions and “personal tragedies” in 2011. Three high-profile enforcers had recently died in a span of four months, one of whom, Rick Rypien, was a part of the Canucks organization.

At first, Bettman wonders if those drawn to enforcer roles are predisposed toward “personal tragedies.” He then goes on to say the bigger issue is the NHL Player’s Association. The Player’s Association is like a union for the athletes and is tasked with protecting player rights.

Said Bettman: “…the bigger issue is whether the [NHLPA] would consent to in effect eliminate a certain type of ‘role’ and player. And, if they don’t, we might try to do it anyway and take the ‘fight’ (pun intended).”

Replied Shanahan: “The previous regime at the [NHLPA] definitely would fight it. But I thought their current position on illegal checks to the head is that it should encompass ALL contact, [sic] If we keep this simply about concussions and brain injuries then how can they argue against it.”

Bettman replied that it was still unclear whether the NHLPA would agree to eliminate fighting.

Point being, the owners, the league executives, and even the NHLPA seem in the grips of this dangerous code.

Who, exactly, are the adults in the room here?

Vancouver’s complicated anger

In response to the hit on Pettersson, Terry Jones, a sportswriter with the Edmonton Sun and part of the Hockey Hall of Fame tweeted:

“…this will be another one that convinces Canuck fans that NHL has vendetta against them. I'd have given him four.”

And it’s true. Vancouver hockey fans feel cheated here by a league that, as former Canucks general manager Mike Gillis described it, keeps moving the goalposts, which is likely why this market reacted as it did.

In the lead up to the 2011 Stanley Cup run, then-GM Gillis built a team with a different identity than most, keying off messages from the league that it was going to clean up its sport.

Based on the unique puck-possession abilities of Henrik and Daniel Sedin, the strategy went something like this: Use skill and speed to keep the puck, wear the other team down, draw penalties. Don't retaliate. Score on the power play. Win games.

“I felt… the best way to win hockey games was not to be in the penalty box,” Gillis told Vancouver sports radio station, TSN 1040, in a rare interview two days before the Pettersson hit.

“I thought that was the most entertaining thing … really high tempo, high skill, lots of integrity,” he told hosts Matt Sekeres and Blake Price.

Gillis said the 2011 version of the team still invested in gritty players but was deliberately tipping the balance away from grit towards skill.

And it worked.

With the Sedins leading the way, the Canucks had one of their longest runs of success in team history, winning the Presidents’ Trophy twice for the best record through the regular season, but never the Stanley Cup.

In doing so, they must have become traitors to the code of toxic masculinity. That they were winning because of it just made it worse.

But that was in the regular season.

When it came to the Stanley Cup playoffs, things were different. In the playoffs, two things traditionally happen.

First, referees stop calling penalties.

Second, Canadians jump on the bandwagon of the last Canadian team standing.

In 2011, the former happened, the latter did not.

Gillis, in his recent radio interview, remembers it likes this:

“The Canadian media pressure itself was almost unbearable. In trying to manage all these other guys that came from other cities in Canada and did not want us to win… it was quite clear they had an agenda.”

(At which point one of the TSN radio interviewers interjected, “The Canadian media was warring with the Vancouver media. I was forced to defend you!”)

In a recent column, Jason Botchford at The Athletic suggested it was something of a whisper campaign started by league executives and carried out by Canadian media.

And so, in 2011, the long-shot Boston Bruins pummelled the Canucks. Brad Marchand punched Daniel Sedin in the head in front of the referee — no penalty. Mason Raymond is shoved into the boards and broke his back — no penalty. And the Bruins won.

Old-school hockey. Like Eddie Shore.

This is a simplification. But the point is the Canucks couldn’t play their game.

They lost; Canada celebrated.

Unprecedented.

In the years that followed the organization lost its way, Gillis said, misinterpreting the reason as a lack of toughness rather than accepting they came up against the wrong team at the wrong time.

Despite winning the Presidents’ Trophy again the next year, Gillis fired the coach. Gillis, apparently against his will, hired a new coach who preached fire and brimstone from hockey’s Old Testament, a man who tried to fight an opposing coach in the middle of a game. Soon after, Gillis was gone. A new GM was hired, this one from the Boston Bruins organization.

The organization has been struggling to find its identity ever since, a reflection of the league’s own mixed messages.

The triumph of the Vancouver style?

Pettersson skated yesterday, but people expect he’ll be out a while longer. Concussions set their own timeline.

Matheson has finished his two-game suspension and apologized, for what that’s worth.

Although the league said, “This was not a hockey play,” two games’ worth of punishment hardly sends a message that this behaviour is unacceptable. Rather, it says mediocre thuggery still trumps talent.

There are those like former Canuck Cliff Ronning, a waterbug who flitted around checks himself for the Canucks back in the ‘90s, who tweeted:

“This would not of [sic] happened with Gino Odjick on the bench.” Odjick, was a beloved enforcer from Ronning’s era.

On the other hand, “Carbomb” Carcillo, the former enforcer, now raises awareness about traumatic brain injuries.

And for every Cliff Ronning, there’s a Trevor Linden, Ronning’s former teammate, who said of enforcers, “I don’t think that works anymore,” adding, “the game has changed.”

Gillis himself suggested other teams since 2011 are succeeding with the Vancouver style, like the Vegas Golden Knights that used skill and speed to reach the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season last year.

Near the end of last season when the Sedins announced they were retiring, they were praised from many corners of the league for how they changed the game, for their toughness and dignity in the face of hockey’s ugliness, with Vancouver sportswriter’s like Botchford leading the way.

Vancouver, as a city, wrapped itself in the stoic integrity, implying “this is us.”

So, perhaps when we see a team that focuses on hockey rather than an insecure hyper masculinity that needs violence to prove its manhood, we should applaud it rather than shame it back into the dark ages.

And maybe we should own the fact that, while we may feel cheated out of a Stanley Cup by a league going through its own identity issues, the example set by the Canucks of 2011 could be far more important.

It could be saving lives.  [Tyee]

Read more: Health

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