30 Thoughts: Concussion case will get worse before better

Elliotte Friedman and Damien Cox discuss all the news and rumors around the NHL, including the possibility of Pavel Datsyuk heading back to Russia.

A few of you have wondered (via Twitter) why I haven’t commented on the NHL email dump. It’s pretty simple: some of mine are included. I don’t have access to my old CBC correspondence. Tough to comment when you don’t know what’s there.

The fight to unseal the documents is Lawyering 101, an effort to push the NHL into a settlement. From the plaintiff’s perspective, it’s the right strategy. Will it work? That probably depends on the individual owners. How much pressure do they feel? That’s a critical question, because I can’t see Commissioner Gary Bettman wanting to give an inch.

Almost six years ago, we did an Inside Hockey feature for Hockey Night in Canada on concussions. The interviewees were Dr. Robert Cantu, at the forefront of research into the topic, and Dr. Ruben Echemendia, who co-chairs the NHL/NHLPA Working Group. I was very proud of that piece.

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It was an interesting process. I don’t think I ever did a story with more calls from the league before it aired. We’re not talking about editorial control, but “do you have this info?” or, “Is there anything more we can do?”

What is this, I asked? I’m paraphrasing, but the response was, “This is big for the Commissioner. He’s worked hard on this.”

When Bettman put this committee together, he thought he was doing good. That’s why, for years, he made a point of letting everyone know the NHL was the first league to do it. He mentioned it all the time. He’s not talking about the lawsuit right now, but I will bet my house he’s angry at seeing this end up in a legal storm.

That’s why he’s digging in and determined to fight.

There’s no doubt head trauma is a serious, serious issue. In 25 years (maybe sooner), we’re going to look back and say, “Was there even debate on this?” just like we laugh there was debate about the Rothman’s king-size cigarettes my father smoked on our front lawn. Here’s the thing, though: the path from here to there hasn’t been as easy as I assumed it would be.

For example: Dr. Charles Tator, a Canadian physician who’s given his career to awareness, prevention and treatment of spinal cord and neurological injuries, wrote an op-ed for The Globe and Mail last week entitled, “The NHL needs to do more to prevent head trauma among its players.” One year ago, CFL players sued Tator and that league, accusing them of the same thing retired hockey players are alleging against the NHL. I don’t understand how an expert like Tator can be both progressive on this issue and accused of hiding the truth of it.

The other example that stands out is Todd Ewen. Ewen, who played 518 NHL games, committed suicide last September. Five months later, it was revealed his brain had no sign of CTE, the telltale indicator of concussion damage. It was stunning, to say the least.

And it bothered me. It bothered me because I wonder if we are committing anyone who suffers from concussions to a lifetime of depression and fear. Is there hope? Ewen’s situation stopped me cold. What are we missing here? Am I failing in my reporting?

If you’ve read League of Denial, or the masterful work by Alan Schwarz in The New York Times, you see the difference — so far — in what’s been uncovered in the NFL. That level of deception does not exist at this time in the NHL, although there is plenty more to be revealed. To me, the biggest potential problem for hockey is the tie-in with Dr. Elliot Pellman. Pellman, who’s worked for the New York Islanders, chaired the NFL’s Brain Injury Committee and has been hugely discredited. (If you saw the movie Concussion, he’s played by Paul Reiser.)

The language of the emails doesn’t bother me. If you’ve been in an argument with a player, an agent, a coach or any executive — you’ve been called worse. Besides, actions speak. And, since many of those notes were written, the game’s changed.

Fighting is down. Staged fighting is on life-support. The one-dimensional player is extinct. The biggest complaint I get about NHL games is not enough hitting or physical play. Dustin Byfuglien on Mark Stone is so rare. Watch a game and see how many situations a player would have clobbered another in 1986 or 1996 or 2006, and in 2016 avoids making the hit. The biggest danger now? It’s speed, not intent.

Earlier this season, one coach said, “Scoring is down. No one fights anymore. No one hits anymore. What are we selling? Passing?” I think there are a lot of people who wrestle with that. They understand why, but they miss some of that edge, that battle.

There are legitimate medical issues among the plaintiffs. What I know in some cases and suspect in others is they felt neglected by both the NHL and NHLPA. A common complaint was that when their careers ended, no one took their calls. That’s created bitterness and inflamed the situation.

There will be more email revelations. The accusers will be deposed by the NHL. Their lives are going to be dissected to the bone. How much do you drink? How many concussions before you became a professional?

This fight will get worse before it gets better.


1. However annoyed Patrick Roy may have been with Matt Duchene (and however Duchene feels in return), this will not be a rush job if Colorado decides to make a move. The Avalanche made it clear when the forward’s name was bandied about earlier this season that Duchene was not going anywhere unless the return made sense. For the Avs, that’s probably a defenceman of some renown.

2. Roy probably liked the tamest first-goal celebration of all-time: New Jersey’s Blake Pietila, who scored with six seconds left in a 3-2 loss to Florida. Didn’t even crack a smile.

3. If you missed it during the Los Angeles/Vancouver broadcast Monday night, John Shannon reported Vancouver’s position on Brock Boeser’s future has evolved. Boeser, who the Canucks selected 23rd overall last June, goes to this weekend’s NCAA Frozen Four on a high. The North Dakota freshman has 54 points in 40 games, with his play elevating to new levels as the games’ importance increased. If the forward chooses to go pro, Canucks GM Jim Benning will not stand in his way.

On the same broadcast, Billy Jaffe added the Canucks are pursuing UND free-agents Drake Caggiula (a forward) and Troy Stecher (a defenceman). Caggiula is hot property, with several suitors. Last week, I mentioned Ottawa and Philadelphia among them. The Senators are still very much a part of this, but a few sources indicated the Flyers may not be. Stecher, a local boy who attended Vancouver’s development camp in 2014, told reporters his father had season tickets to the Canucks and he “dreamed” of playing there.

4. Interesting off-ice move in the organization, as Victor de Bonis moved from COO of Canucks Sports & Entertainment to CEO of Aquilini Group. (That’s the family with ownership of the club.) De Bonis was point man for the team’s business operations over much of the past decade, and it’s expected his replacement will report to him. Since the change was announced late last Friday afternoon, wild conspiracy theories followed. One was president of hockey operations Trevor Linden being promoted, allowing room for another executive somewhere on the totem pole. (The popular rumour was George McPhee, who has a tie-in with Vancouver and traded Linden back there from Washington.) I was told I have an overactive imagination, so forget that.

5. The decision for Michigan’s Kyle Connor is whether or not to go back to school for his sophomore season. Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff and agent Rich Evans would not comment, but word is the talented forward won’t play for Winnipeg this season, even if he chooses the NHL. The Jets save time on Connor’s contract (including the need to protect him for any possible 2018 expansion draft), while the player can prepare for a possible invitation to the world championship. With the World Cup coming in September, it wouldn’t be a surprise if invitees choose to skip next month’s event. That might open a spot for him.

6. One reporter’s guess on the list for Yale free-agent goalie Alex Lyon? Carolina, Chicago, Edmonton, Los Angeles, Philadelphia.

7. It appears as if The Model Goaltender, Mantas Armalis, will not be signing with Toronto. The Maple Leafs added a different netminder, Kasimir Kaskisuo, a Finn who played at Minnesota-Duluth. Not sure if Toronto chose one over the other or if they had received word Armalis was going elsewhere, but it appears as if the Lithuanian-born, Swedish-trained goalie is joining San Jose.

8. Europeans to monitor: Word is Alexander Radulov’s representation is poking around, gauging interest. Everyone assumes Colorado, but there are more teams. I’m very curious to see what kind of commitment he gets.

9. Another KHLer looking to come back to North America is Geoff Platt, who played 46 NHL games with Columbus and Anaheim. Platt, who will be 31 in July, went overseas in 2008. He had 21 goals this season, tied for ninth in the league. He will play for Belarus in the world championship and could stay in Europe. But he’d rather take another shot at an NHL run.

10. We are also awaiting a decision from Czech forward Daniel Pribyl, who did not reach an agreement with Montreal after being selected 168th in the 2011 draft. Calgary’s made no secret of its desire for size on the wing, and, listed at six-foot-three, 220 pounds, he’d qualify. Nashville and Pittsburgh are believed to be in this, too.

11. No doubt you’re familiar with the epic rant unleashed by Oilers coach Todd McLellan following Saturday’s 5-0 home loss to Calgary. One segment stood out: “We turned the puck over 1:10 into a shift and then cheated on a change. We had a centre change for a centre who happened to be two zones away. I don’t know how that can happen.”

I was curious. Where did these occur? Looking through the game, I think I found both. The first comes as Joe Colborne scores to make it 2-0 Flames. A Taylor Hall offensive-zone pass is intercepted. As Calgary turns up ice, Hall, already out there for 1:34, goes to the bench. Linemates Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins give chase, but they are already 1:12 into their shifts. Colborne beats them to the net for an easy tap-in. Poor Lauri Korpikoski got a minus on the play.

Those ones make people crazy. The second one actually came earlier, a little over five minutes into the second period. You can see Connor McDavid in the Edmonton zone as the Oilers break out. Nugent-Hopkins is at the other blue line. You can hear someone yelling, “Nooooooo!” just before a too-many-men penalty is called.

12. McLellan wanted to cancel the players’ day off on Sunday. But that was one of those predetermined CBA-mandated breaks. You can’t remove them simply because the team plays poorly. Instead, he grinded them on Monday. As one player said, “We were told we were going to learn how to backcheck.” You’re not expecting those kinds of practises after Game 80.

13. Masterton ballots were due Monday. My guess is Jaromir Jagr wins it, but Joe Thornton was on my ballot, as was Max Domi. Thornton’s going to be somewhere on my Hart list, too. An opposing coach said Peter DeBoer’s made some “small nuance changes in San Jose…neutral zone forechecks, quick ‘ups’ to the forwards,” but generally made sure to commit to the veterans, putting them in position to succeed.

Three months from his 37th birthday, Thornton’s been fantastic. At five-on-five, the Sharks score 72 per cent of the goals when he’s on the ice. That’s the best number for any individual player this year. “Pete’s style is just a little different, it took a bit of time to get used to his system, but he’s a huge believer in the way I see the game…push, get into the forecheck, create havoc. He hasn’t asked me to change many things.” Well, except one. Thornton was never interested in staying away from the rink. If anyone was there, he’d go on the ice. Even on days off, he’d go and work on his sticks. “He convinced me to stay away, get rest. The light turned on…it’s okay not to skate, not to work out. I’m a creature of habit. So I changed my mindset, and it definitely helped. My energy level, I feel so alive, no fatigue.” What was it like sitting at home? “So strange,” he laughed. “I didn’t know what to do, so I took the kids to school. Very strange.”

14. People who know Thornton better than I do say he could follow Jagr’s footsteps and play into his 40s. Does he agree? “I love the game, I love the guys. The fellowship, competing. I love everything hockey has to offer, if my body and mind allows me to play until I’m 44? You can’t predict that.”

We talked about Nicklas Lidstrom and once he felt he was below his standard, that was enough. “At that level he was still a stud,” Thornton said. “But, yes, I would want to be a guy that it is still hard to play against. Someone other teams have to prepare for what you will bring.” He has said before he would like to go to Switzerland, where his wife is from. Is that still the case? “Definitely a possibility for the family. It is important for me to give back to them. Their side of the family rides shotgun while we’re here. They know Swiss-German, speak it at home every day, but I want my children to know their grandparents and cousins.”

15. Did Thornton believe the Sharks would be right back in the thick of the top-heavy Pacific Division? “Yes, I thought we’d have a good year right from get go. A lot of people didn’t think we’d be in the playoffs. But I loved what (GM Doug Wilson) did. Martin Jones, Paul Martin, Joel Ward, I knew it for sure. I knew the type of guys we had on this team, and I never wavered in believing we were good hockey team.” The Sharks feel he’s been a hugely positive influence, but Thornton credits Tomas Hertl for the impact he’s had on the line with Joe Pavelski. “My game changed for the better when Hertl joined us. He added a special dimension we needed. And he’s competitive, he’s pushed me a little bit.” I explained there’s one writer, Adam Gretz of CBS Sports, really pushing him for the Hart. “He’s a smart man!” was the reply.

16. Two final notes on Thornton. Would he want another series with Los Angeles? “Oh I’d love it. We’ve had great series with them, one to Game 6 and two Game 7s. It’s fantastic to have three California teams back in. Would be a great challenge…we’re a new team and it’s a new year.” Who’s got the better beard, him or Brent Burns? “His grows so fast, mine has so much, so much grey. I don’t mind it, but my wife hates it. I’ll look 25 again when I shave.” Was a fun conversation.

17. Expect a large ovation for Pavel Datsyuk on Wednesday, as the Red Wings play their final home game of the regular season, a titanic matchup against Philadelphia. Datsyuk is considering the possibility of a return to Russia for next season, one year earlier than expected. Nothing would be final until a post-season meeting, and it would not be a surprise if Detroit offers him an extra year’s contract as an incentive to stay. If he does leave, the Red Wings’ cap situation could be alleviated if someone is willing to take his salary to get to the floor. (He’s to earn $5.5M in actual cash next season.) That’s a bigger number than we’ve seen so far, as Chris Pronger ($575,000 this year and next in Arizona) and Marc Savard (same situation in Florida) are much lower on the pay scale. But, we’ve all learned to expect the unexpected. Failing that, the Red Wings and/or the NHL could block Datsyuk from playing in Russia if they wanted.

18. Dylan Larkin, 77 games played. Andreas Athanasiou 34 and Anthony Mantha 10. That’s the first time since 2001-02 three players under 22 appeared in at least 10 games for Detroit. Back then it was Jiri Fischer with 80, Sean Avery at 36 and Jason Williams getting into 25. One of the biggest surprises in Detroit is how much the Red Wings needed these young players to make offensive contributions, as the club is on pace to score its fewest goals since 1976-77. Sometimes, you’ve got to change your philosophy to survive. Larkin (23) could lead them in goals. Tomas Tatar is next with 21. Justin Abdelkader needs two, Gustav Nyquist three and Datsyuk four for 20.

19. One opposing coach on Florida, which set a franchise record by accumulating 99 points after its win over Toronto: “Interesting team for a playoff matchup. Don’t play with as much structure as other teams, which is by design. That benefits Jagr.” Because it’s harder for Jagr to get up and down the ice, Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau have to do the heavy lifting, using their speed to get it to him. It’s not a typical arrangement, but it’s worked very well. “I’m curious,” he added, “to see how an opponent game-plans for that.”

20. Entering last weekend’s games, Roberto Luongo had 59 games played, 32 wins, a 2.37 goals against average and a .921 save percentage. That’s at age 36. Only one other goalie matched/bettered all four of those numbers at that age. It was Patrick Roy in 2001-02: 63 GP, 32 wins, 1.94 GAA, .925 save percentage. The only older goalie to match these numbers? Ed Belfour, in 2002-03 (age 37). He had 62 GP, 37 wins, a 2.26 GAA and a .926 save percentage.

21. Can’t help but feel for Steven Stamkos. A serious leg injury eliminated his chances at playing in the 2014 Olympics (although Hockey Canada still presented him with a gold medal), and now a blood clot has jeopardized his Stanley Cup playoffs. No doubt he will work as hard as he can to hit the early side of that one-to-three month timeline, but it’s so hard to predict. His impending free agency adds a significant layer to the equation. If Tampa can’t sign him, you have to assume they will try to trade him, with the extra contract year as the carrot. The Tampa doctors will have their reports, his agency might hire another doctor and no doubt any club wanting him will desire an examination of their own. One exec pointed out the week-long “talking period” before July 1 is very helpful in this situation, because you can get him to visit. But, if Tampa decides trading him at/before the draft is the right idea, will the acquiring team get a chance to examine him? Whatever the case, hope he makes a full recovery and gets back in these playoffs.

22. Really don’t know what to make of the Lightning and Jonathan Drouin. Tampa knew on Friday that Stamkos’s injury is long-term. Saturday night post-game, GM Steve Yzerman says Drouin would be a consideration to replace the captain. But they have an extra forward in the NHL, so it’s not immediately necessary. Drouin suffered an injury of his own on Sunday and isn’t playing. Just weird all around.

23. Anaheim’s Brandon Pirri on being Ryan Getzlaf’s linemate: “It’s the same as playing with Patrick Kane. They tell you, ‘Just play.’ They’ll find you.”

24. During the first period of Ottawa’s 2-1 win over Winnipeg last Wednesday, Matt Puempel was defending the weak side in his own zone, watching the puck along the far boards while occasionally turning to keep an eye on Dustin Byfuglien, who was at the point. Byfuglien tried to sneak into the middle of the blue line, Puempel making sure to go with him. When the play stopped, the Jet defender skated up to the Senator forward, said something, then skated away as both laughed. What was it? “He told me I’m not supposed to follow him to the middle,” Puempel said later.

25. Drew Doughty admits his desire to win the Norris. Erik Karlsson? “You certainly appreciate it when you walk up to receive it,” he said last week. “But this season’s been so disappointing, it’s not something I’m thinking about. Or should be thinking about.” Karlsson’s a serious contender, though, and is four assists ahead of Joe Thornton for the NHL lead. That would make him the first defenceman since Bobby Orr to finish first in that category. Has he ever met Orr? “No, but my father got a picture with him on the dads’ Florida trip. He was so happy.”

26. Mark Scheifele had 29 goals in 156 NHL games before this season. He scored his 27th in 68 2015-16 games Sunday night against Minnesota. Did he doubt how much he could score in this league? “I wondered, but I’ve learned I can,” he said last week. “I set a target range before the season.” What was it? “I’m not going to tell you that,” he laughed. “But…I’m right in the middle of it.”

27. In the past two months, Nazem Kadri’s been fined for a throat-slashing gesture and diving. His season came to a premature end after cross-checking Luke Glendening’s head. Kadri played hard until it unravelled. He leads the NHL in penalties drawn, but it’s obvious the lobbying effort against him for that skill did not fall on deaf ears. Curious to see if the Maple Leafs or his agent have him meet with the department of player safety to get back on the proper path. No sense in starting next season with a target on your back. What’s more interesting will be his contract. Another one-year deal? Or, does the organization show all of its positive commentary is backed up with something longer term.

28. Over the weekend, the NHL denied it was considering games in Mexico City “at this point.” Mexican news site La Aficion reported the possibility last week.

29. Another rumour shot down: that the OHL would move its beleaguered Flint franchise to Belleville. The Eastern Ontario city lost its Bulls one year ago.

30. I’m too young to have covered the Oilers in the glory years of the 1980s, so my Rexall Place memories aren’t of those great runs. But, I was fortunate enough to be there for the surprise of 2006, a charge that took the club to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final. It was a crazy, loud building that spring, a fun place to be. One night, Walter Gretzky was in attendance. It had been a hard time for him, as his wife of 45 years, Phyllis, passed away seven months earlier. Walter went on the Zamboni for a turn around the ice and the place went insane. It was really something, a “thank you,” and a “we’re with you” all in one. There were a lot of tears in the crowd. Very special moment.

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