Friday July 31st, 2015

It’s potentially the most significant hockey story of the year. And we might never hear a word about it.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is scheduled to be deposed on Friday by lawyers representing a group of players who are suing the league over the concussions they suffered during their playing days. But what he reveals today will be sealed, at least until/if presiding judge Susan Nelson decides to make it public.

Lawyers representing the players—a group that includes former stars Bernie Nicholls and Reed Larson, along with such short-timers as Brad Aitken and Darren Banks—allege that “the NHL engaged in a decades-long plan to conceal from the players the risks of concussions and developing serious brain diseases from playing hockey in the NHL.” They’ll be looking to pin Bettman down about what the league knew about the effects of brain injuries and, more importantly, when it knew about them. The lawyers will also try to ascertain what measures the league did or did not take to protect the players.

It will be a significant bit of testimony, but it’s unlikely to provide a gotcha moment for the players, let alone a smoking gun.

This is, after all, Bettman’s natural environment. The Cornell Law School grad served as general counsel for the NBA before being hired for the NHL’s top job in 1993. He’s not just an astute legal mind. He’s one of the sharpest people around. Whatever he says today will be exactly what he wants to say.

And it’s crystal clear where Bettman stands. He’s spoiling for a fight.

When asked by reporters during the playoffs about the link between repeated head trauma and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the commissioner took a stand. “From a medical science standpoint, there is no evidence yet that one necessarily leads to the other,” he said. “I know there are a lot of theories, but if you ask people who study it, they tell you there is no statistical correlation that can definitively make that conclusion.”

SI Vault: Chris Pronger has a headache

No telling who the commissioner has been talking to, but there is another side to the argument. A study released by the National Institutes of Health says that it has been known since the 1920s that “repetitive brain trauma associated with boxing may produce a progressive neurological deterioration [now known as] CTE.” Add a pair of skates and a variety of ways of introducing that trauma—high-speed collisions with the boards, the ice, sticks, elbows and bare knuckles—and hockey certainly puts players at risk of serious and debilitating damage. 

So to hear Bettman’s response to questions about head trauma is something every player and fan deserves. Of course, there’s no telling if, or how, those questions will be asked. The deposition process can be highly contentious, with the phrasing of queries batted back and forth between opposing attorneys before the person being deposed actually has to provide an answer. It could be a long day for all parties involved.

And while he’s arguably the most significant party to the process, Bettman is hardly the only one on the grill. There are still many more individuals to be heard from, ranging from team officials to medical professionals. And it’s yet to be determined if the lawsuit will be certified as a class action, meaning that it would represent all retired players whether they are signatories to the suit or not. Best case scenario: the case finally comes to trial some time next year.

In the meantime, though, here’s hoping that the judge will recognize the public interest in Bettman’s deposition here and unseals it sooner rather than later. Ultimately this isn’t just about the damage suffered by a bunch of old pros. The case will have implications that reach down to the grassroots of the game. And if, by chance, the commissioner reveals something that could impact a parent’s decision to let their child play this season, that information belongs in the public discourse.

And even if Bettman just does what he does so well, we’ll all still love to watch him dance.

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