September 15, 2011
NEW YORK -- NHL Players' Association executive director Don Fehr sat down recently with Yahoo! Sports for an hour-long interview at a Manhattan hotel.
In addition to the rebuilding of the union and the upcoming labor negotiations, Fehr touched on player safety.
Three NHL enforcers have been found dead in recent months. Derek Boogaard(notes), who had a problem with pain killers, mixed alcohol and oxycodene. Rick Rypien(notes), who suffered from depression, reportedly committed suicide. Wade Belak(notes), who also suffered from depression, also reportedly committed suicide, though others have said his death was accidental.
After Belak's death, Fehr released a joint statement with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman that read:
"While the circumstances of each case are unique, these tragic events cannot be ignored. We are committed to examining, in detail, the factors that may have contributed to these events, and to determining whether concrete steps can be taken to enhance player welfare and minimize the likelihood of such events taking place."
Here are the highlights of our discussion on player safety:
Q. What is the union doing about the pain-killer issue and mental health?
FEHR: "We've already had some ongoing conversations with the players at the board meetings and the regional meetings, and we will talk at the fall tour about these issues. We expect to be meeting with the doctors we hire to determine what steps we can take both to secure more information if needed and to determine what else we can do to try and ascertain what the appropriate response is to, as you put it, the pain-killer issue and so on."
Q. The NHL has strengthened its return-to-play protocol for concussions, broadened the rules for boarding and illegal checks to the head, and introduced curved stanchions near the benches. Are those steps sufficient?
"I hope they turn out to be sufficient, but that's a matter of watching what happens and being vigilant and seeing. I think the players are becoming -- and I hope that they are -- much more acutely aware and conscious of the ordinary risks involved in the playing of the game so that when there's an injury or a potential injury, they do something about it rather than just sort of wait and see. Every doctor will tell you that earlier examination and treatment, if it's called for, is always preferable to later examination and treatment if things get worse or at a point in time in which you're treatment options may have diminished and so on.
"And secondly, given the generalized safety issues related to conditions around the ice with the stanchions or anything else, obviously there's been a lot more attention paid to that. And when we get into bargaining, I suspect we'll be talking about setting up sort of permanent committees or permanent joint committees that can have an ongoing role in making sure if something arises it gets done quickly or gets done to everybody's satisfaction. Nobody has an interest in making things any more risky or any more dangerous than they absolutely have to be."
Q. Mathieu Schneider(notes), your special assistant, has been working closely with Brendan Shanahan(notes), a former teammate who is now the NHL's vice president of player safety and hockey operations. Is there anything else the union is doing on its own regarding player safety? Ultimately, isn't it the players who are hitting each other?
"There's a lot of ongoing conversation about what the rules are, how they came about, what they mean. The rules that are going into effect this year came out of discussions by our staff and the NHL staff before the competition committee meeting, and it's my hope that those kinds of conversations will sort of continue and people will adapt and react based on what happens during the conduct of play itself. So we'll have to see."
Q. What do you think of Shanahan's plan to release a video explanation each time he hands out a suspension?
"If it works that the uncertainty is markedly reduced, that would be great."
Q. Has there been any thought to having an independent neurologist cover each NHL game to standardize the treatment of concussions and boost confidence in the process?
"Short answer is, in internal discussions at the Players' Association, there have been all kinds of possibilities, including that one, that have been discussed as a possible bargaining issue. That's what it would be ... no conclusion has been reached."
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