Gov. Gen. David Johnston proposed NHL summit on fighting, concussions

Gov. Gen. David Johnston says he tried to organize a meeting with top NHL officials on about fighting and concussions in professional and amateur hockey, but it never materialized.

Governor General doesn't buy the argument that fighting is part of the game

Governor General on violence in hockey

The National

5 years ago
David Johnston discusses his feelings about violence in hockey with Peter Mansbridge. 0:58

Canada's Gov. Gen. David Johnston says he tried to organize a meeting with top NHL officials about the issues of fighting and concussions in professional and amateur hockey.

In a sit-down with CBC chief correspondent Peter Mansbridge for The National, Johnston, who incurred three concussions in three months while playing sports without a helmet when he was 16 years old, reiterated his view that there is no place in hockey for fighting and the harm it causes to player health and the culture of the sport. 

"We want our children to play our game, but we want them to be able to play it safely, and we want them to do it in a way that they learn the rules of sportsmanship that have been a part of Canadian endeavours in so many spheres," said Johnston.

When asked by Mansbridge why the Governor General did not use his hockey clout — Johnston was captain while playing for Harvard and turned down a chance to try out for the Boston Bruins — to sway league officials, Johnston said he tried to organize a meeting, but it never materialized.

"I've had discussions with [Commissioner Gary Bettman] and the other deputy commissioners of the National Hockey League … we attempted to organize a summit at one point for two days, in which we brought medical experts and other people associated with the game, really focusing on the rules," he said.

Gov. Gen. David Johnston says efforts to curb the number of injuries and concussions in the NHL rely on the league’s leadership. (Andy Clark/Reuters)

Johnston said the summit idea didn't get very far, because it evolved to include an increasing number of parties and "it was difficult to bring a large group of people together."

"It began out of a meeting here with the National Hockey League physicians, and focusing on their concerns, but we still are attempting to bring together the people associated with amateur hockey in Canada, and to direct our attention at the parents," he said.

'No lack of interest' in game with 'sensible rules'

​The NHL is embroiled with a concussion lawsuit involving over 100 former players, which recently resulted in a U.S. federal court releasing emails that showed league executives like Bettman, deputy commissioner Bill Daly and former discipline czar Brendan Shanahan discussing the connection between fighting, concussions and what Daly called "personal tragedies."

The email exchange appeared to show a departure from the position the league had previously taken publicly, which was that there was not enough evidence to conclusively link the roles of enforcers in the game with physical and emotional struggles off the ice.​

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The National

5 years ago
Unsealed emails reveal NHL executives discussed possible links between fighting in hockey, depression and drug use 2:28

Johnston said efforts to curb the number of injuries and concussions rely on the league's leadership, and he also contested some of the NHL's counter-arguments to a fighting ban.

On the premise that hockey needs tough guys, he said he doesn't buy it.

The line of reasoning "that you need to have the fighting to … let the pressure off the steam valve … I don't buy that because it doesn't exist in other games," said Johnston.

"Another argument is it will lead to other forms of retaliation. Well, penalize the other forms of retaliation," he said. "You can't have a person hitting the other person over the head with a stick."

Hayley Wickenheiser greets Johnston after being awarded the rank of Officer in the Order of Canada. Johnston says the popularity of Olympic hockey shows people are interested in a game played with 'sensible rules.' (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Johnston also disagrees that hockey needs fighting in order to attract more viewers.

"I don't think that's ever been studied from a market point of view," he said. "And when I look at the attention that is given to the Olympic Games, to Canadian and American women playing the game according to sensible rules, there is no lack of interest."

He also believes hockey can and should be enjoyed for the game itself.

"Hockey separates itself from other sports, and draws people … because it's so unique. It's so much faster than anything else," said Johnson. "You have to play within a system, but you have to also have a virtuosity that is very, very attractive."


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