NHL commissioner takes a hit over Steve Montador-CTE quote

Steve Montador's lawyer 'shocked' by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman's stance on CTE.

The lawyer representing the family of former Blackhawks player Steve Montador, who died Feb. 15 and whose autopsy revealed he suffered from extensive CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), said Friday he was "shocked" when he was watching Game 3 of the Western Conference finals and he read a tweet from a Tribune reporter featuring a quote from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.

Meeting with the media between periods of Thursday night's game between the Hawks and Ducks at the United Center, Bettman was asked about the autopsy report revealing CTE in Montador. He replied that there has been no connection established between the brain disease that is linked to concussions and playing in the NHL.

"The fact of the matter is, from a medical and science standpoint, there is no evidence yet that one necessarily leads to the other," Bettman said. "I know there are a lot of theories, but if you ask the people who study it, they tell you there is no statistical correlation where they can definitively make that conclusion."

William Gibbs of the Chicago-based law firm Corboy & Demetrio, who plans to file a lawsuit in the coming months on behalf of the Montador family against the NHL, said he was floored when he read a portion of that statement on Twitter.

"I presumed that he must have been misquoted because it made no sense to me," Gibbs told the Tribune. "I guess there has been no medical or scientific study saying that if you have 15 shots of whiskey and drive the wrong way down an interstate highway you're going to hurt someone. Do we need such a study to know it's dangerous? Mr. Bettman seems to be saying that there is no link between repetitive head trauma sustained during a professional hockey career and later in life issues, which is shocking in this day and age."

Montador was found dead in his Mississauga, Ontario, home at age 35 and on May 12 the Canadian Sports Concussion Project at the Krembil Neuroscience Centre in Toronto announced the 10-year NHL player, who suffered numerous concussions during his career, had CTE.

Though the Sports Legacy Institute in Boston maintains evidence "indicates CTE is caused by repetitive brain trauma," Bettman said the league does not see a definitive connection.

Gibbs, who will file the lawsuit that could have a dramatic impact on future litigation when it comes to former players and later-in-life cognitive or mental health issues, believes there is evidence of a link.

"Certainly, we believe very strongly that there is a lot of evidence regarding that correlation and that connection," Gibbs said. "The only way that one can acquire CTE — I'm no scientist — but I've read, is through repetitive head trauma. When we know that someone has been involved in a sport professionally for a decade that encourages fighting, which certainly exposes the brain to trauma, and through the natural course of a game has certainly a propensity to cause trauma to the head, it doesn't take a genius to add that all together and say professional hockey in Steve Montador's case caused his CTE."

What of Bettman's claims that there is not enough evidence?

"He's wrong," Gibbs said. "There's a lot of evidence. Maybe he hasn't seen that."

The issue hits home in the Hawks' dressing room, where Montador spent the 2011-12 season before suffering the concussion that effectively ended his NHL career.

His best friend, Hawks winger Daniel Carcillo, has been a leading advocate of getting the NHL and the players' association to better inform and help prepare players for post-retirement life along with the mental and physical toll of the game.

Carcillo wrote an article (and posted a video) for The Players' Tribune calling for change and has been vocal across media outlets to get his message heard.

Depression is a symptom of CTE and Carcillo said Friday he hadn't heard Bettman's take on the subject or further thoughts regarding the league's exit program for players.

"Preparing players for after their career is something that we try to do but it's something you have to do with the players' association," Bettman said. "When it comes to the well-being of players, the players' association typically takes the leadership role. Having said that, we do lots of things in terms of our counseling programs, our education programs and we still make them available to the players after (they) retire."

Carcillo acknowledges the league "definitely is doing more than what (it was) before everybody started talking about (CTE). … More and more every year you see guys talking about how the public perceives this glamorous lifestyle of a professional athlete and it's not all it's cracked up to be. I'm not going to bash our PA, but we don't pay dues to the NHL, we pay dues to the NHLPA. Morally, does the league have a responsibility? I don't know. Maybe."

The NHLPA declined to comment directly on CTE but revealed plans to launch an athlete development program next season in conjunction with the NHL. The PA recently surveyed a large group of players to get feedback about plans for post-playing careers.

As a gritty player who has amassed 1,233 penalty minutes in 429 games and has had several concussions during his career — including one this season with the Hawks — the 30-year-old Carcillo realizes the dangers of CTE and the fact he might have it.

"You want to bring it to the forefront and then your first thought is you don't want to think about it," Carcillo said. "I'm just trying to … enjoy my life and enjoy my kid. I'm not thinking too far ahead.

"I watched Steve delve into the research and really try to figure out what's going on. One of the reasons he was struggling so much (was) because the more you research the more you realize there's no reverse to what symptoms you have."

ckuc@tribpub.com

Twitter @ChrisKuc

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