Bettman tackles NHL player safety at Smashfest

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has said he is focused on improving safety. (CP/Chris Young)

Amongst the bustle of dozens of staff, the confident struts of paddle-wielding NHL players, and the aged bricks of Toronto’s Steam Whistle brewery stood someone few would have expected to see at the NHLPA’s Smashfest: Commissioner Gary Bettman.

Only eight months ago the PA and the league were in the midst of their agonizingly prolonged labour dispute, but with a new 10-year labour deal in place, the time has come for both sides to begin working jointly on solving issues pertinent to the game. None of which are bigger than head trauma.

Although he wanted to downplay his appearance at an NHLPA event and did not stray too far from the VIP area, Bettman spoke to about the fundraiser’s end goal.

“Player safety is of paramount importance,” Bettman said. “We were the first sports league to have a working concussion study group with the players and the trainers. We were the first sports league to do baseline testing. We were the first sports league to have protocols for diagnosis and return to play decisions. We were the first sports league to have a department of player safety, and the list goes on and on.”

Despite the rule changes instituted by the league since 2010, there remains doubt as to what has actually been accomplished. Most recently is a report by Dr. Cusamano, a neurosurgeon at Toronto’s St. Michael’s hospital, who claims that the number of concussions has in fact not decreased.

“I follow all the literature on the subject,” Bettman said. “There has yet to be unanimity of agreement on what the state of medicine is, which is why we continue to spend tremendous time, money and effort to focus on this issue.

“This is a work in progress because the medicine continues to evolve.”

Organized by Dominic Moore, Smashfest is a charity ping-pong tournament created to raise funds for concussion research. Numerous players, including Martin St. Louis, Phil Kessel, David Clarkson and Kevin Westgarth, attended the second annual event Thursday.

“Great to see (Bettman) supporting a great charity event at Smashfest. Maybe we can get a dunk tank or something and make a little more money off of it,” quipped Westgarth, a tough Hurricanes winger who was heavily involved in the labour negotiations. “We want to bridge the gaps in our relationship, and hopefully (Bettman’s support for concussion research) can go a long way to doing that.”

The physical nature of hockey will naturally lead to concussions, Westgarth conceded, but that frequency and severity of head injuries is something worth trying to reduce.

“It’s an incredibly important topic to our membership in the PA. We’re going to do everything we can to make sure concussions are as small an issue as possible and that guys get treated properly and have long lives after their very short careers.”

The future of hockey may rely on both the league and players’ ability to jointly tackle the issue of head trauma. The task of reducing concussions dwarfs the two sides’ earlier disagreements over contract length and salary caps.

“There’s no question that to get anything done we need to both be on board,” Westgarth said. “The league is going to have their issues, the players are going to have their issues, and at the end of the day our goals are the same — to keep players safe and to make sure we have an incredible product on the ice, without risking people’s livelihood and health.”

Bettman insisted both sides are working together, not only on the concussion issue but also on a relationship so fractured last winter.

“I believe we have a constructive, cordial, cooperative and professional relationship that gets stronger by the day,” Bettman said.