NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has repeatedly denied the link between brain injuries and CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated head trauma.
“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,” Bettman wrote in response to questioning from a U.S. senator back in 2016. “The relationship between concussions and the asserted clinical symptoms of C.T.E. remains unknown.”
As recently as 2019, Bettman continued this denial and dismissed the links between head trauma suffered in hockey and CTE. Bettman’s stance on brain injuries has continued to be a concern among past players, including former NHL defenseman Chris Therien who told Yahoo Sports in 2022 that “Gary Bettman denies that concussions are almost real,”
It’s a clear contradiction to the NHL’s recent stance, while arguing Steve Montador, a 14-year NHL veteran with six NHL clubs, knew the risks of CTE and brain injuries, which eventually played a role in his death. Montador’s father is currently embattled in a wrongful death lawsuit in an Illinois state court against the NHL related to the passing of his son in 2015.
“During his life, Montador struggled with substance abuse, depression, anxiety, insomnia and strained/abusive personal relationships,” the NHL wrote in new court filings this week. “Despite being repeatedly made aware of and informed about potential long-term risks of head injuries, including CTE, by numerous individuals as detailed above, Montador continued to play in the NHL for years.”
The league added:
“Montador was told by multiple specialists that he should stop playing hockey due to his concussion history but ignored these medical professionals and continued his career, suffering additional head injuries,” the NHL continued. “Montador also expressly told Blackhawks’ medical personnel that he assumed the risk of continuing to play hockey at the professional level.”
While mentioning their league, and the continuation of Montador’s injury struggles, the NHL also asserted that “None of these injuries can possibly be attributed to his play in the NHL.” The league asserts Montador, who fought 69 times in his NHL career, and amassed 807 penalty minutes in 571 games, suffered his brain injuries playing in other leagues.
Although the comments were criticized by many, according to leading brain injury and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) specialist Dr. Chris Nowinski, the founding CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, the comments themselves are not more dangerous than the NHL’s refusal to acknowledge CTE.
“Ever since CTE became a topic of discussion in 2007, the NHL has claimed that there’s no proof their game causes CTE,” Dr. Nowinski told Yahoo Sports. “To still be saying that in 2023 is absurd.”
Research has shown the link between repetitive brain trauma and CTE, particularly as it relates to impact sports like hockey and football. Despite the overwhelming evidence of a recent study conducted by 14 leading experts in the field, the NHL said they will not change their stance based on a single study. “A single medical article does not determine our view on these issues,” Bill Daly, the league’s deputy commissioner, told The Toronto Star. “We rely on the consensus opinion of medical experts to guide us.”
As Dr. Nowinski says, the court filings in Steve Montador’s case show the NHL knows their own statements are false.
“[CTE] is caused by repetitive traumatic brain injuries,” said Dr. Nowinski. “This court filing shows that even the NHL doesn’t believe their own story. That they claim that Steve Montador was informed about CTE risk by the NHLPA at the same time they were telling players there was no risk, I’m just in shock. I think of it as a window into what [the NHL] actually believes, but I also feel great sympathy for Steve Montador, at that time in his life he’s being told by the league that orchestrates the game he played that he’s not at risk for CTE.”
As Dr. Nowinski stated, youth are taught to look up to leagues like the NHL and NFL, and trust these institutions as groups “who were trying to do the right thing or had some moral authority.” In the case of Steve Montador, who passed away at age 35 in 2015, only four days prior to the birth of his son, Dr. Nowinski says Montador could have believed the NHL was working in his best interest, despite the evidence.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if Steve believed the NHL…it’s bizarre, but it’s another sign that the NHL, when they talk about their game not causing CTE, they know it’s not true, but they’re saying that to protect their assets at the expense of the players’ health and the entire hockey community’s health.”
“They will say anything if they think it will protect their assets,” Dr. Nowinski continued. “They’ll say it doesn’t cause CTE to prevent future lawsuits, but for current lawsuits they’ll say you were informed about the risk by someone else and you should have believed them over us; that’s what’s happening here.”
In 2018, the NHL was forced to pay $18.9 million to settle a class action lawsuit by more than 100 ex-NHL players who accused the NHL of "failing to better prevent head trauma or warn players of risks while promoting violent play that led to their injuries.”
In the case of Steve Montador, his mental state was documented to be deteriorating in the weeks and months prior to his death. As evidenced from scientific studies involving football players who have suffered concussions and traumatic brain injuries, the ability to manage interactions with others, and “more-frequent problems with executive function in everyday activities” are common features of those suffering with CTE.
While no one is arguing Steve Montador was unable to make his own decisions, or assume the risk as the NHL states, the link between executive functioning, decision making, risk taking behavior, and harm has been documented in individuals who have suffered concussions and other traumatic brain injuries. As Dr. Nowinski says, while it’s clear that people should not be driving, or “making difficult decisions, life decisions” in the days following a concussion, at some point the brain recovers. When those injuries become repetitive, however, many of these functions become permanently impaired.
“The more brain injuries you've had, people sometimes trend toward taking riskier and riskier behaviors,” Dr. Nowinski said. “Your ability to gauge risk can become impaired.”
Dr. Nowinski explained that science is not at a point where people in their 30s, as Montador was at the time of his death, who suffer from CTE, can’t make good decisions, but there are examples of this occurring. One example, as noted by Dr. Nowinski, is that of former NFL player Phillip Adams, who suffered from CTE at the time he killed six strangers before taking his own life at age 32. As Dr. Ann McKee who examined Adams’ brain said, his football participation “definitely ... gave rise” to his CTE diagnosis, and that Adams suffered from an impairment due to those injuries.
“There were inklings that he was developing clear behavioral and cognitive issues,” McKee told ESPN in 2021. “I don't think he snapped. It appeared to be a cumulative progressive impairment. He was getting increasingly paranoid, he was having increasing difficulties with his memory, and he was very likely having more and more impulsive behaviors. ... It may not have been recognized, but I doubt that this was entirely out of the blue.”
The deterioration of Adams’ mind is not unrecognizable to those closest to Montador. As former NHLer and Montador’s friend Dan Carcillo stated, “Over the years, I saw that deterioration of [Montador’s] mind, and he must have felt that as well. Just recently going home to Mississauga and to his home and seeing the number of sets of keys he had for the same lock kind of tells you the story of what was going on in his head and his memory loss and his mental state.”
While Dr. Nowinski was not ready to assert Montador suffered similar impairments to Adams, he believes the impacts of CTE and brain injuries on decision-making is definitely a point to consider.
“I don’t have any evidence to say this is necessarily the case here, to say he couldn’t accept the risk,” Dr. Nowinski said of the Montador case. “But in the big picture, it’s a question we can and should ask and try to understand better, how judgment becomes impaired with early CTE and the more brain injuries you have.”
“If players have had a ton of concussions, and may be self medicating because of those concussions, and they may have a degenerative brain disease in process in their brain, will they be making good decisions? The answer is, they’ll be making worse decisions than they used to.”
A wrongful death lawsuit filed by Montador’s father Paul was recently transferred from U.S. federal court to an Illinois state court. First filed against the NHL in 2015 following his son’s death, the lawsuit contends Montador suffered at least 11 undocumented concussions while playing in the NHL, including four in 2012. The case is ongoing.