Former governor general David Johnston pushing for hockey to be safer

Former Canadian governor general David Johnston believes the NHL needs to get tougher on contact to the head. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

TORONTO – Former Canadian governor general David Johnston is calling on the NHL to take player safety more seriously and levy harsher penalties for dangerous hits to the head and fights.

“I’m actually quite surprised that they have been slow to face up to it. The other major North American sports have – football, baseball, basketball, soccer,” he said.

“One doesn’t take contact out of hockey. It’s a fast game and people do bump into one another. But we can take steps to make it a safer game.”

Johnston made the comments Tuesday at an event where the U Sports men’s hockey trophy was renamed in his honour. Eight schools will battle for the newly-named David Johnston University Cup in Fredericton, N.B., this weekend, with the final going Sunday at 1 p.m. ET on Sportsnet 360.

Johnston has been outspoken about these issues before. During his time as Governor General, Johnston hosted a special conference on concussions in late 2016 and declared head injuries in sports as a “public health issue.”

Prior to the 2016-17 season the NHL implemented concussion spotters. The spotters watch games live and from an office in New York and are authorized to remove a player from a game if he is believed to be showing visible signs of an injury following a direct or indirect blow to the head.

When asked for comment on this story, the NHL could not be reached.

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Before his seven-year term ended in October 2017, Johnston admits he may have “been pushing the envelope a little bit,” since the office is supposed to be non-political in nature.

But on Tuesday, he praised the work of former NHL goaltender/executive, Canadian politician and “very dear friend” Ken Dryden and his “powerful” book, Game Change.

With the advancements in neuroscience and the treatment of concussions over the past 25 years, Johnston says he can’t understand why blows to the head aren’t punished more severely.

As for fighting, he suggests a first encounter should warrant a 10-game suspension. A second should result in a 20-game ban and a third should lead to a season-long suspension. Heading into Tuesday night’s play, according to hockeyfights.com, a fight occurred in 18.71 per cent of NHL games this season. That figures mirrors last season and is the lowest mark since the site started recording such data in 2000-01.

“People will look back at us in 10 years’ time and say, with the evidence we have on what an injury to the brain does, how could you stand idly?” Johnston said.

Johnston was an accomplished player himself and played on an under-17 team in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. with future Hall of Famers Phil and Tony Esposito, as well as Lou Nanne.

His career almost ended at 15 when he suffered three concussions in a five-month span. (Two happened on the football field.) His doctor told him he’d have to wear a leather helmet if he wanted to continue playing hockey. He heeded the advice, despite ridicule from teammates.

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Johnston went on to Harvard University and captained the team to a conference championship in 1963. He was named to the Eastern College Athletic Conference’s all-time list of its top-50 players in 2011.

Upon graduation, Johnston was offered a tryout with the Boston Bruins. His Harvard coach Cooney Weiland – a former B’s bench boss – suggested he decline.

“The chances of making a National Hockey League team as a 150-pound defenceman were not very good,” Johnston recalled.

Johnston opted instead to attend law school at the University of Cambridge.

While he’d never go on to play pro hockey, Johnston, 76, says he still skates regularly and loves the game.

He’s not naïve to think any legislation will eliminate concussions, but he does believe more can be done so his 14 grandchildren can play the game in a safer environment.

“I don’t think with any contact sport you can eradicate head injuries,” he explained. “I don’t think we’d want to take the speed and quickness away from the game. You’ve got this speed element and it’s in a confined space. But there are very simple things we can do to alleviate the possibility of injuries – and especially severe injuries – by a considerable percentage.”

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