The NHL’s problem with science

"It seems that the NFL and the NHL are doing exactly what the tobacco industry did."

National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman speaks with the media during 2017 NHL All-Star Media Day on January 28, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

In the 1950s, tobacco companies responded to research proving a link between smoking and lung cancer by trying to discredit the science. They formed their own research group to poke holes in the data and to stave off public panic that cigarette smoking could cause serious diseases and death.

More than 60 years later, the NHL has responded to a class-action lawsuit regarding head injuries with a similar approach.

The suit, brought by former players and their families, claims that the league hid the dangers of brain trauma. The plaintiffs are seeking unspecified damages.

It now looks as if the NHL, which makes about $4 billion a year, has chosen to go after the science behind the brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. It’s late to this game. Even the NFL — a longtime and loud naysayer that blows to the head cause CTE — has acknowledged the link.


Court documents filed Monday in U.S. district court in Minnesota showed that the NHL had demanded troves of information from research done by neurology experts at Boston University who have examined the brains of more than 200 athletes for CTE and have done groundbreaking work on the subject. The university is not a party in the case.

The NHL has asked Boston University for research materials, unpublished data and, among many other things, the CTE research center’s information on the people who donated their brains for study — brains that were donated in many cases on the condition of anonymity and are protected by medical privacy laws. The league also wants medical records of the deceased and interview notes which would include discussions with their families, even though most of the athletes never even played professional hockey.

Hand it all over, the league said, so it can “probe the scientific basis for published conclusions” and “confirm the accuracy of published findings.”

This tactic sounds familiar to Stephen Hecht, a scientist who for more than 40 years has been researching the connection between smoking and cancer. He has experienced that tactic firsthand.

In 1973, Hecht joined the American Health Foundation, a group whose founder, Ernst L. Wynder, was an author of an influential study in 1950 that linked smoking to lung cancer. It essentially instigated Big Tobacco’s aggressive campaign to prove that the science connecting smoking to cancer was wrong.


“They will try to discredit you at every stop, and it’s harassment,” Hecht said Wednesday in a telephone interview from his office at the University of Minnesota, where he is the Wallin Land Grant Professor of Cancer Prevention. “But when you’re right in science, you’re right. It seems that the NFL and the NHL are doing exactly what the tobacco industry did. But the only people who think the science is wrong are the people who are going to be hurt by it.”

Because blows to the head in football have been linked to CTE, the NFL has been ordered to pay an unlimited amount to retired players who have been affected by the neurological disorders. Fear of CTE has probably spurred the decline in participation in youth football, too. But the NHL doesn’t seem willing to accept that its athletes, too, might suffer the effects of frequent brain trauma.

CTE has been diagnosed in all five professional hockey players whose brains were studied by Boston University, and in 92 of the 96 NFL players studied, according to a university spokeswoman.

But the NHL commissioner, Gary Bettman, needs more information about it, perhaps from the NHL’s own scientists, who need to double-check Boston University’s work. Apparently, the university’s peer-reviewed studies — there are more than 60 — are just not enough.


Here’s what Bettman said last fall about CTE, when responding to questions from a U.S. senator about the effects of concussions in hockey.

“The science regarding CTE, including on the asserted ‘link’ to concussions that you reference, remains nascent, particularly with respect to what causes CTE and whether it can be diagnosed by specific clinical symptoms,” Bettman wrote.

He added, “The relationship between concussions and the asserted clinical symptoms of CTE remains unknown.”

It’s as if Bettman slept through the last decade of CTE revelations and research.

The NHL’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 ALS. To fulfill the league’s request, Boston University said in a court document, the research center would have to cease working for months, or perhaps even longer.

The university and the NHL said they wouldn’t comment on the case because they don’t publicly discuss continuing litigation. So let Hecht explain what the NHL’s burdensome request really means.

“It’s hard enough to do good, solid science because it’s more than a full-time job,” he said. “So when you have an industry, like the tobacco industry, or the NHL, making all kinds of additional demands, it will essentially shut you down. Their hope is that you just go away.”

But Hecht did point out an upside to the NHL’s tactic.


“If there’s somebody out there saying what you’re doing is wrong,” he said “it only makes you want to work harder.”