By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Sidney Crosby is the best hockey player on the planet. He’s also had to deal with concussions several times in his career, including during this current postseason run for him and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Considering most sports leagues tend to protect their most prominent star players (you can look no further than the NFL’s rules for protecting quarterbacks or the NBA’s “You Can’t So Much As Breathe On LeBron James” rules for proof), it’s fair for hockey fans to wonder if Gary Bettman and the NHL care to protect Crosby from potentially having his career cut far too short from an otherwise preventable injury.
However, according to the NHL, that concern is apparently not valid.
Rob Rossi, a longtime hockey reporter in Pittsburgh, asked Bettman a question about that very topic prior to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.
“How concerned are you with some of the things you’ve seen happen to Sidney Crosby and the other players?” Rossi asked Bettman. “And what can be done to make this a safer sport?”
Bettman’s answer included all of the boilerplate responses the NHL has become conditioned to spew out: “Player safety is of paramount importance to us. … The concussion protocol. It is evolving. It is working well. … We take player safety very seriously. The education we’ve been doing, particularly with concussions, we think is working. … Concussions were down this season.”
It was pretty standard fare for a Bettman press conference, and it wasn’t out of the ordinary.
However, it apparently rubbed Colin Campbell the wrong way, as Rossi noted that Campbell confronted him after the press conference to say the question was “crazy” and “out of line.”
Rossi later said in a video that Campbell asked Rossi if he’s ever played hockey.
Nothing paints a better picture of how the NHL really feels about player safety and concussions than Campbell’s response to a simple question.
Granted, Rossi’s recent history of determining what’s wrong and right is a bit checkered, but that can be left out for the time being.
What’s more significant is the response of Campbell, the NHL’s senior executive vice president of hockey operations, confronting a reporter for asking a question.
This is the same Campbell, mind you, who in the wake of Matt Cooke’s career-altering hit on Marc Savard, said privately, “someone should teach that young man something about keeping his head up.”
That’s the same Campbell who, in previously released emails, described Savard as being a “little fake artist.”
It’s the same Campbell who, despite overwhelming evidence, failed to find reason to punish Cooke in any way for a predatory hit that resulted in a major injury to a star player.
It’s the same Campbell who referred to Mike Van Ryn as being “soft” for suffering a concussion, broken nose and broken hand on an illegal hit from behind. Van Ryn later said that hit led to his early retirement.
That’s the same Campbell who referred to critics of his discipline system as “tree huggers” and “Greenpeace pukes.”
It’s the same Campbell who responded to the Ottawa Senators’ head athletic therapist’s suggestions for changes to the concussion protocol by saying, “This guy is a freaking idiot!”
And let’s not forget that this is the same NHL that fights tooth-and-nail behind the scenes to separate itself from bearing any responsibility for brain injuries.
Bettman’s denial of concussions was evident in his February 2016 ruling against Dennis Wideman, a player with a clean history in his decade in the NHL who was disciplined for hitting an on-ice official. In that ruling, he asserted more knowledge than doctors in claiming that Wideman was well within his normal frame of thinking when he committed the hit.
That’s the same Bettman who did not punish the Calgary Flames’ team of doctors and trainers who apparently instructed Wideman to publicly deny having any concussion-like symptoms after the incident. It’s the same Bettman who did not pursue the Flames for failing to remove Wideman from the game despite showing signs of having suffered a concussion.
That is the Bettman who sat in front of a microphone on Monday evening and said his league’s concussion protocol is working excellently and that his league takes player safety concerns “very seriously.”
And it’s the same Bettman who privately sought to separate his league from bearing any responsibility in the deaths of former players like Bob Probert, Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak.
“An interesting question is whether being an NHL fighter does this to you (I don’t believe so) or whether a certain type of person (who wouldn’t otherwise be skilled enough to be an NHL player) gravitates to this job (I believe more likely). I believe the fighting and possible concussions could aggravate a condition. But if you think about the tragedies there were probably certain predispositions,” asserted Bettman, who holds no medical or psychological degrees yet nevertheless speaks with great confidence about a field as complicated as neuroscience.
That’s the same Bettman who instructed GMs during the 2013-14 season to “push back” against the “hysterical” media members who were making the issue of concussions in the sport “more important than it is.” In Bettman’s mind, concussions being a problem in his sport was just a media construct, as evidenced by his instruction to GMs: “Please don’t speak to the media about it. Helping the media with the controversy of the issue doesn’t help things.”
That’s the same Bettman who oversees a league where the best player in the world suffered a concussion, returned to play after missing just one game, and then was promptly ignored by the trainers and doctors who are supposed to remove a player from the game when it’s suspected that the player has suffered a concussion.
After that game, Penguins head coach said that Crosby was not evaluated for a concussion during the game. Crosby himself said that he was evaluated.
Considering this involved Crosby, who’s missed 115 games in his career due to concussions, it drew quite a bit of attention. And it inspired no real response from the league … until Monday night, when Colin Campbell admonished a reporter for daring to ask about it.
Unquestionably, the NHL’s decisions over the years have raised questions about how seriously they take concussions. Their private communications that became public have only given more reason to wonder if they care at all about the health of the men who make up their league.
You can add Monday’s encounter between Campbell and a reporter as the latest incident. Clearly, both men were just doing their jobs.