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Another Hockey Death, More NHL Denial

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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The death of a well-liked hockey journeyman has put another face on the National Hockey League's growing concussion problem. It's also highlighted some of the pitfalls of covering an issue in which the sports media will play a key role in any progress.

Former defenseman Steve Montador was found dead in his home on Sunday at the age of 35. A concussion had forced him to retire in 2013, and he had been very vocal about his brain injuries and the depression he suffered in his post-playing days. Police have ruled out foul play and suicide, believing the cause of death to be natural, and are conducting an autopsy. According to Canadian law, autopsy results remain private unless they serve a public interest.

Montador's concussion history has led to speculation that his death was related to brain trauma, an understandable but premature assumption given what we don't yet know. And questionable news judgment quickly veered into journalistic irresponsibility: Toronto Globe and Mail hockey reporter James Mirtle erroneously tweeted that Montador's death was "believed to be a suicide," a statement he had to swiftly retract. Other coverage drips with baseless implications. For example, a report by the Globe and Mail's Eric Duhatschek never actually mentions suicide but is rife with quotes from distraught former teammates about the "demons that he had to deal with."

In their moment of grief, players who knew Montador are forgiven for not choosing their words all that carefully. But it's a journalist's responsibility not to embellish an already tragic story with unfounded speculation. It's not just reckless reporting -- it also discredits coverage of a concussion issue that has strong science and statistics supporting it.

Here's what we know about Montador: In February 2012, he suffered a concussion while playing for the Chicago Blackhawks, and then sat out all but one game for the rest of his season. That would be his last year in the NHL; he left the sport two years ago during a stint with Zagreb of the Kontinental Hockey League after leaving a game with lingering concussion symptoms. Since the initial injury, Montador had spoken publicly about the "roller coaster" he went through during recovery, saying he suffered from "anxiety and depression" over the uncertainty of his hockey future. He was also very frank about directly connecting his depression with his concussion, describing it as "an actual physical issue" upon learning of the neurological impairments that accompany brain trauma, including damage to axons and small blood vessels in the brain.

But perhaps the most interesting detail is this: TSN reports that Montador had joined the concussion lawsuit against the NHL, and his family may pursue his claim on behalf of his estate. This information comes on the heels of another lawsuit filed against the league by a group of 29 former players, headlined by former New York Islanders great Butch Goring. Goring helped lead the Islanders to four consecutive Stanley Cup championships in the early '80s and is now an on-air analyst for MSG. It's unique for a plaintiff to be currently employed within the league -- or, at least, by a network owned by a team -- and puts him in a position to be especially vocal about the concussion issue and the NHL's tepid response to the litigation.

In November, the league issued its first legal response with a classic "they knew the risks" defense. Its culpability goes well beyond just failing to educate its players on the dangers of the sport. Rather, the NHL has proved to be yet another League of Denial, delaying the implementation of its concussion program, avoiding studying the long-term effects of concussions, and having Commissioner Gary Bettman deny the link between hockey fights and brain damage until just a few years ago. 

Just last week, Bettman spoke to WFAN's Mike Francesa to extoll the league's player-safety policies, praising the NHL for being the "most proactive" and "the first sports league to have protocol for diagnosis of concussions." That may be true, but the bar isn't set particularly high when it comes to other leagues' practices, and the NHL's concussion program pretty much existed in name only for nearly 14 years. As lawyers representing the plaintiffs note in an e-mail, "To date, the Concussion Program has taken no public position on the long-term effects of concussions," as the league continues to insist that "further research is required."

Of course, the scientific literature on the effect of concussions is overwhelming. We don't yet know if Montador's death is directly linked. But even if he is not another Wade Belak or Rick Rypien or Derek Boogaard, his death does add to the urgency of necessary action on brain trauma. Like those other players, his concussive and depressive symptoms manifested soon after the initial injury; unlike those men, he wasn't a fighter and didn't have a long history of dozens of concussions. 

The NHL can continue to evade the concussion issue, publicly dismissing the mounting lawsuits and touting its player-safety policies. But fans will likely continue to see the human impact of the league's years of inaction as beloved players show physical harm that no amount of league spin can make disappear.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net