NHL trying to do what it can in ongoing CTE crisis

Craig Berube , an assistant coach with the Flyers in 2011-12, stands behind Jaromir Jagr.

      They say ice hockey is the most physical of the four major professional sports because it’s “football with walls.”

      There’s no getting around the fact the body-crunching nature of the sport can lead to serious health problems and topping that list is the threat of brain injury.

      We were reminded again of that this past week when two former NHL players committed suicide. Both were suspected of having a medical condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) from repeated hits to the head.

      There’s no way to confirm this diagnosis until after a player has died and his brain is examined for damage.

      Both Chris Simon, 52, and Konstantin Koltsov, 42, were physical players who not only received lots of natural hits in the course of games but also participated in fights.

      Yet the NHL continues to choose not to directly address the issue of fighting – or multiple head hits in the course of regular play – as a cause for CTE.

      According to an article in the New York Post, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told NHL insider Frank Seravalli that the study of hockey-related brain injuries is still a work in progress.

      “Chris’ passing is tragic,” Bettman told Seravalli in Florida on Wednesday. “And, you know, on all these matters, we wait to see what the medical experts tell us.

      “Having said that, I think it’s well documented with all the progress that we’ve made over the last couple decades to make the game as safe as possible.”

      Back in 2017, Simon disclosed in an Ottawa court room that he filed for bankruptcy because he was unable to work due to injuries sustained during his hockey career. Simon believed he had CTE symptoms “thought to be attibutable to significant brain trauma during his hockey career.”

      Those symptoms included dealing with anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder which are linked to CTE.

      A Columbia University study of more than 6,000 players between 1967 and 2002 found that players who had 50 or more fights in their career died a decade earlier on average “compared to their less pugilistic peers.”

      The study also found that players who totaled more than 50 fights were likely to “die of suicide and drug overdose, common occurrences in players with CTE.”

      Former Flyer player and coach Craig Berube, who led the 2019 St. Louis Blues to their first and only Stanley Cup championship, was one of the most prolific fighters in NHL history.

      The current Bucks County resident totaled 303 fights, fifth on the all-time list and just 30 behind all-time leader Tie Domi (333).

      Berube’s 3,149 penalty minutes in 1,054 games rank seventh on the all-time list.

      Without question, Berube stuck up for his teammates in Philadelphia, Washington and several other cities. He served as a big deterrent against teams trying to take physical advantage of his team’s skill players.

      While rule changes and increased penalties have reduced fighting in the game, there are still enough instances to continue to raise alarms.

      Fortunately, at 58, Berube continues to enjoy good health. He was let go by the Blues this past season but wants to get back into coaching as soon as possible.

      In a telephone interview, Berube made it clear he believes hockey is headed in a better direction.

      However, he also stressed that hockey is a physical game and there is an assigned risk to playing such a violent sport. Fighting causes concussions but so does hitting along the boards and open-ice collisions.

      “It (the recent suicides) is obviously bad news,” he said. “Concussions have been around for a long time. I believe the league does a great job now with spotters (to sound an alarm if a player looks to be in distress). If someone doesn’t look right on the ice, they pull him off, they get tested and checked out, which is great.”

      Research has shown a player with a diagnosed concussion should not play again until he is completely symptom-free. Yet, there are players who can slip through the cracks.

      “The league has done a great job but having said that, I think there are always going to be issues,” Berube said. “You know, you play in these physical sports – and the game is so fast, you don’t see a lot of the hits. It’s such a quick game, you get caught off-guard a lot. You get jolted a lot.”

      Berube insists you don’t see as many “dirty” hits as you did 20, 30 years ago. Fights don’t break out at the drop of a hat.

      “But it’s still a physical game,” Berube said. “You don’t want to take too much of that out.”

      Critics of the NHL’s discipline system say a five-minute major or a 10-minute misconduct isn’t enough to stop most fights from happening.

      “It’s always been a part of the game,” Berube said. “It’s dropped off over the years. I think it still has some importance in the game. To be honest, I’m not seeing a lot of injuries from fighting.”

      Berube disclosed he’s never been checked by a neurologist. He maintains he feels fine. But he does recommend players see an expert at the first sign of trouble.

      “There are guys who are more susceptible,” he said. “Everybody’s different.”

      Berube’s been on both sides of the bench, so he is qualified to pass judgment on a game which relies so much on bodily contact.

      “I think the game is in a good spot,” he said. “Fighting might have picked up recently but that’s because we’re at an intense time in the schedule – teams are battling for playoffs. There’s a lot on the line.

      “The intensity part of the game is good, it’s normal. When you have an intense game, it gets physical. Sometimes things just happen.”

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About Wayne Fish 2426 Articles
Wayne Fish has been covering the Flyers since 1976, a stint which includes 18 Stanley Cup Finals, four Winter Olympics and numerous other international events.