Bettman says NHL in a “good place” – is it?

Marc Elliott

Chris Simon: 1972-2024, RIP

ST. PAUL – The National Hockey League held one of its bi-annual Board of Governors meetings in Florida earlier in the week. At the Sunshine State get-together a few minor rules tweaks were discussed and recommendations were made to be forwarded to the Competition Committee for review.

Most of the "tweaks" were regarding coach's challenges and expanding what could be challenged by a coach in-game. The two hot topics in that discussion were delay of game penalties and some specific high-sticking infractions.

Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly gave an update on the upcoming Four Nations tournament to be held next season which will feature the United States, Canada, Sweden and Finland.  This will be an in-season tourney commencing on February 12th and concluding on the 20th. Any players not competing in the event will be on their mid-season bye for eight days.

With the 2026 Winter Olympic Games around the corner I believe that the participating countries and their Olympic committees will be looking at the Four Nations as a bit of a dry run to get their preparations in order and to get a look at some potential players for their National teams before heading to Italy for the games. These teams already have their "top 10" lists, they are the easiest. It's filling out the rest of your roster where things can get tough.  

Commissioner Gary Bettman was on hand and gave an update on projections for hockey-related revenues for the season. The NHL is expected to bring in $6.2bil in that regard and is on track for that. There were some other minutiae discussed and there was a Q&A with Bettman and the media before all departed for home.  

A great deal of these meetings are monotonous and I can guarantee you will engage in some daydreaming at some point. But once in a while there might be one sentence, one casual statement made that just might snap you out of that. For me it was when Bettman proclaimed that he felt the game was in a "good place."

OK. I tend to mostly agree with that thought. League revenues are at all-time highs, and the overall fan experience at league games has never been better. A great many of the rule changes and tweaks the league has made thrtough the years have had a good impact on the game.

The 2024 NHL has vastly improved since the 1961 NHL I first watched. I firmly believe that Bettman had a big role in these improvements.  

But then it hit me. Didn't I just find out hours ago that another former NHL enforcer had committed suicide? Yes I did. And oddly enough the Minnesota Wild were the last NHL club Chris Simon had played for.

In his second stop of the 2007-08 season Simon got into 10 games with 0G-0A-0 Pts. He had 16 PIMs in his final NHL stint. He would go on to play in the KHL for another six seasons. In 782 NHL games he accumulated 1824 PIMs. Many of those were from fighting majors.    

By the time Simons' playing days had ended after the 2012-13 season he had several health issues resulting from his style of play along with substance abuse issues. By 2017 he filed for personal bankruptcy and at the trial for that Simons representatives stated that he was unable to work based upon the physical and mental toll the game had placed upon him.

A physician testified on Simon's behalf that he suffered from chronic CTE, (head trauma-brain injury) depression, anxiety, PTSD and arthritis. It is a story I have unfortunately seen many times before.  

At the time of his death, the First Nations Ojibwe was living back in his native Wawa Ontario on the northeastern shore of Lake Superior. His passing has left two ex-wives and five children behind. They firmly believe his CTE was the main cause of his desire to end his life.

For myself I can only offer up speculation. You can add up all of his many afflictions and draw your own conclusions. It isn't hard to imagine the path of his final years though and they likely weren't very pretty or much fun for him and those in his life.  

So the game is in a "good place"?

Derek Boogard's family would say it isn't. The families of Wade Belak, Rick Rypien, Steve Montador and many others would agree with them. The family of Montador had the unmitigated gall to sue the league over their loved one's premature passing. That litigation was vacated in 2020 after five years but was brought against the league once again in 2021 and a result is still pending.   

Regarding Simon, Bettman is quoted as saying "Chris' passing is sad, it's tragic. We extend our condolences to his family and friends. And you know, on all of these matters, we wait to see what the medical experts tell us."

But Gary, you are afraid of what the "medical experts'' will tell you, especially if it will cost you a buck or two via litigation from a deceased player's family. You've been ignoring it for years. The medical community is united in its belief that multiple concussions lead to CTE, which in turn creates a poor quality of life and in its worst cases leads to some final conclusions like Boogards and Simons.

I understand that's a lot to string together to come up with a viable, provable, and legally acceptable conclusion but I've seen too many examples of this to be a disbeliever.      

And that's what the NHL has hung on to for several years. I thought of an analogy of a young NHL player without free agent rights yet having to take his club to an arbitration hearing in an attempt to get the salary he believes he is due on his next contract. During the season he is a "great player" and has a "promising" future. When the door to that hearing closes though you'd think the kid never had on skates before. He'd be lucky to make his local Mites squad.          

It is somewhat similar in the league when the CTE issue gets brought up. You can hear some lip service now and then about player safety and the like, but if one of these situations ever gets into a court of law, the league will drive you under the ice. They'll talk of inadequate medical study and scientific proof and use it to make sure you exit that courtroom without a check in hand bearing their name.

If you thought you felt bad and were used by the league after losing an arb hearing, it will never approach the depressing feeling you'll have after losing one of these cases. Your loved one gave his all to the league for his entire career and didn't even get a gold watch on the way out the door.  

The NHL doesn't care and I have to presume that means the owners don't either. Gary Bettman is an employee of theirs. It is clear to me that he doesn't work for the players. His sole duty is to enrich the owners and protect them from any financial peril. They have done quite well by him. Chris Simon and others? Not so much. PEACE