Gary Bettman Is Gambling With The Future Of The NHL

The 2017-18 NHL season will begin with the addition of its first expansion team since 2000. The Las Vegas Golden Knights are joining the league as the first major professional sports team of the four major leagues to play in Sin City.

Generally, one doesn’t go to Vegas to watch sports in person unless you are a fan of the teams that play for UNLV or want to attend the occasional prizefight. No, you go to Vegas to bet on sports. I’m a little tweaked by the fact that the NHL is the first professional league to place one of its teams in the middle of the Nevada desert, and I think the decision makes it clear that Gary Bettman, the league’s commissioner, has overstayed his welcome.

Photo Courtesy of Chris Bawden.

Let’s Talk Concussions

I let the above few lines sit for about a week due to work and other commitments, and then I came across a pretty damning article in the New York Times that ratcheted up my now boundless loathing for Mr. Bettman.  

By now, most sports fans are familiar with the term chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. It has affected a slew of NFL players, and a growing number of hockey players who suffered multiple concussions over the course of their careers. Unfortunately, CTE cannot be diagnosed while a person is still breathing, but a number of symptoms can manifest themselves that would give pause to those around the affected individual. Things like headaches, memory lapses, confusion, rage, tremors, drug abuse and other irregularities could signal the onset of the disease, but so far, research has not yet come up with a reliable testing method that doesn’t involve filleting the brain as you would a salmon.

In November 2013, a group of five class action lawsuits was filed on behalf of ex-NHL players alleging that the league failed to warn players about the dangers of head injuries in the sport. The cases have since been consolidated into a federal multi district litigation, which assures that all the cases will be heard individually by one judge in one federal jurisdiction.

In March 2015, the NHL made a request to have the complaints dismissed based on insufficient evidence. The request was denied.

In May 2016, the NHL made another request to have the complaints dismissed on the grounds that they violate pre-existing U.S. labor laws. That request was also denied.

Since the judge decided that the lawsuits will move forward despite thwarted efforts to get them dismissed, the NHL has now decided to attack the science behind CTE and whether or not too many hits to the head cause the disorder, much the same way the tobacco industry did six decades ago when scientists determined that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer.

According to the Times, Bettman and his legal cronies are now trying to subpoena every stitch of research on CTE from Boston University, which is not involved in the suit. Apparently the NHL is demanding the data from all the case studies BU has looked at, including information on individuals who never played hockey. Scientists familiar with how the tobacco industry tried to deny the link between cigarettes and lung cancer say this is typical legal maneuvering.

When the judge decided that there was enough evidence to argue a connection between head injuries and CTE, the NHL had legal precedent from tobacco lawsuits to go after the science in an attempt to discredit the players and their families. In this case, the NHL is insisting on so much information, it could potentially shutter BU’s CTE Center, halting all the progress researchers have made.

The Times wrote:

“The N.H.L.’s demand is so onerous that it would cripple the scientists’ ability to continue their work — which is to learn more about a devastating disease that causes symptoms similar to those in people with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, dementia and A.L.S. To fulfill the league’s request, Boston University said in a court document, the research center would have to cease working for months.”

Morever, Bettman all but denied a connection between concussions and CTE when questioned by U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). He wrote:

“The science regarding C.T.E., including on the asserted ‘link’ to concussions that you reference, remains nascent, particularly with respect to what causes C.T.E. and whether it can be diagnosed by specific clinical symptoms. The relationship between concussions and the asserted clinical symptoms of C.T.E. remains unknown.”

The NFL No Longer Denies the Connection

About a year ago, Jeff Miller, the NFL’s senior vice president of health and safety, acknowledged a connection between head injuries and CTE. When Miller spoke during a meeting of the congressional Committee on Energy and Commerce, his response was “certainly yes” when asked if there was indeed a link between concussions and neurological impairment. At the time, BU’s CTE Center had logged evidence of it in 90 of 94 brains of deceased former NFL players. The NFL subsequently released a statement saying it was in agreement with the comment Miller made during that meeting.

Although the NFL is involved in quite a bit of legal wrangling over compensation to the families of affected former players, it has at least acknowledged the existence of CTE. Even though Bettman and the NHL are currently choosing to keep their heads up their collective posteriors, they have to realize that there is a legitimate link—which brings me back to my original topic: the NHL’s decision to place an expansion team in Las Vegas.

Show Me The Money

It is plainly obvious to me why the NHL chose to award an expansion franchise to Bill Foley and the city of Las Vegas. It should be obvious to everyone else as well. The reason? Money.

Hockey has a bit of minor league history in Vegas with the now-defunct Las Vegas Thunder, and the Wranglers, the team that was part of the East Coast Hockey League. Then there was that “epic” preseason outdoor game between the L.A. Kings and the N.Y. Rangers at Caesar’s Palace in 1991. In 2009, there was speculation that Hollywood film producer Jerry Bruckheimer was attempting to convince Bettman to move that other desert-dwelling team, the Phoenix (now Arizona) Coyotes to Vegas.

Now, Bettman has gotten his wish: an NHL team in the glitziest of all North American locations. It certainly beats putting a team back in Quebec City, the center of the frozen, francophone tundra, or in the smog-choked, industrial armpit of Hamilton, Ontario, or even in Seattle, where the majority of the local populous would never dream of leaving their homes if they aren’t bedecked in Seahawks’ lime green and navy blue.

Bettman chose Vegas because it is where the NHL has its best shot at earning major scratch. The T-Mobile Arena, where the team will play, is a brand-new, state-of-the-art facility right on the strip. Weary gamblers who lost one too many blackjack hands can now partake in a major league sport just steps from their casino of choice. Can’t get tickets to the hottest show? Go to a hockey game instead. And speaking of hot, if the Barclays Center is having such a tough time keeping the ice frozen in Brooklyn, I can only imagine how challenging it will be in yet another desert locale. Generally, the coldest months of the year in Vegas are January and February. That’s if you consider a daytime high of 65 degrees cold.

The NHL is most certainly pulling a Rod “Show Me the Money!” Tidwell by expanding the league to Vegas. Spectacle generally has a short shelf-life in the desert until the next big thing comes along. The NHL might be able to string together a modest few years of success until, say, Uber decides to build a 90,000 seat football stadium complete with a retractable roof and a cooling system that uses enough Freon to blow a hole in the atmosphere on Mars. And what about the future Golden Knights players? There’s nothing like killing time by throwing your extra cash into a progressive slot machine while nurturing a gambling addiction. Just ask Jaromir Jagr how much he’s got left after covering his old Atlantic City markers.

It would likely be more prudent to put a team back in Quebec City or in Seattle for a number of reasons, but I don't believe Bettman is willing to wait for resolutions to the complications that exist in those two markets. Businessman Chris Hansen has spent the better part of the last four years attempting to secure commitments from the NBA and NHL for teams to play in a proposed new area in Seattle near SafeCo and CenturyLink Fields, but he's had a difficult time of it because he's also asking for the city and state to help fund the arena project.

Canada's economy took a hit last year when oil prices bottomed out and the Canadian dollar lost about a quarter of its value against the U.S. greenback. So even though the less than 2-year-old 18,259 seat Centre Vidéotron sits empty in Quebec City, a team in that market would likely be a financial loser. All this just happens to coincide with the lawsuits, and the NFL's recognition of the link between concussions and CTE.

Maybe Gary Bettman has some secret Trumpian plan to leverage the league by gambling its future on the Vegas strip. Maybe he intends to acknowledge the connection between concussions and CTE once he has a few billion in his war chest to cover the legal fees and all the settlements he’ll have to reach with a growing number of plaintiffs. In the meantime, he will continue to live in denial, while former players suffer with life-altering neurological ailments. And let’s not forget about all the current and future players: the kids who would likely benefit from all the valuable research that will hopefully discover new tests and treatments for CTE. Denial won’t do anything to help them.

In the end, it’s all about the gamble. Roll the dice and win, or get checked into the boards one too many times and lose everything.

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