For many years the National Hockey League (NHL) and its officials have denied there has been any connection to fighting in hockey and concussions. However, newly released emails between top NHL officials seem to convey that they did indeed know of the link.
This is not the first time the NHL has been in the spotlight concerning concussions. Following the 2013 court case where the NFL agreed to a $765 million settlement to former players suffering mental and emotional complications blamed on repeated concussions, the National Hockey League claimed the hockey situation was not the same.
Following a recent U.S. federal court decision in Minneapolis to unseal messages between high-ranking hockey executives, lawyers and reporters were astounded. Within the emails, the NHL’s top officials privately acknowledge that fighting could lead to concussions and long term health problems, including depression, and that the leagues so—called “enforcers” habitually use pills “to ease the pain.”
The emails, mostly between long time Commissioner Gary Bettman and his top officers beginning in 2011, contradict what the league has long acknowledged publically. Nevertheless, also conflicting what the league has argued in defending itself from a class action lawsuit brought by a plethora of former players over the effects and symptoms of concussions that continue to plague them even into retirement. This came after three enforcers died in 2011 between May and August, all either by suicide or accidental suicide. Prompting league officials to consider in a series of emails, believe it or not, whether or not to eliminate fighting from the NHL.
“An interesting question is whether being an NHL fighter does this to you or whether a certain type of person gravitates to this job,” Commissioner Bettman stated in a 2011 email to Bill Daly and Brendan Shanahan. Then Bill Daly was the Deputy Commissioner and Brendan Shanahan, the league’s senior vice president for player safety and hockey operations. Shanahan, former player and now president of the prestigious Toronto Maple Leafs, started the email chain after sharing a newspaper article titled “Getting Rid of Hockey’s Goons,” in The Globe and Mail of Toronto.
Daly responded to Bettmans email saying “I tend to think it’s a little of both. Fighting raises the incidence of head injuries/concussions, which raises the incidence of depression onset, which raises the incidence of personal tragedies.”
After a few minutes, Bettman replied.
“I believe the fighting and possible concussions could aggravate a condition,” Bettman wrote. “But if you think about the tragedies there were probably certain predispositions.”
The so—called “tragedies” Commissioner Bettman was referring to were the deaths of enforcers Derek Boogaard, Wade Belak, and Rick Rypien. Boogaard, then with the New York Rangers, died from an accidental overdose of both prescription painkillers and alcohol at the age of 28. Both Belak, 35, and Rypien, 27 were recently retired, reportedly committed suicide. A lot of these guys did so much not just for the league but for the game and they were left alone, left aside, cast aside.
The Canadian sports network TSN was the first to report the unsealing of the emails and their substance. In the emails, Bettman questioned whether the NHL Players Association would consent to in effect eliminate a “certain type of role player” as the bigger issue and not concussions. Hinting at that if the NHLPA did not agree to it, they might try to do it anyway and take the ‘fight.’
The NHL did not, and will not, take action on eliminating fighting from the game of hockey, but the number of fights has undoubtedly decreased in recent years. In fact, according to Hockeyfights.com, that tracks fighting not only in the NHL but various other hockey leagues, there have been 317 fights in the NHL, compared to 714 in 2009-2010, and 645 in 2010-2011. Fights have steadily declined more and more every year. It’s sad to see such an important role position dying out. Hockey has a long history that dates back more than 100 years of permitting players to stop a game to fight, usually just costing the players a few minutes in the penalty box. Not only do players want to keep it in the game because it allows teams to protect their stars but its ability to swing the momentum of a game is like none other in any other sport. Fighting does more than entertain the crowd in a way that only hockey players can truly understand.
The class-action lawsuit that the NHL continues to fight, brought by former players, is very similar to the NFL’s in 2013. The plaintiffs, the players, argue that the league failed to warn them of the effects of concussions, both short and long-term. Meanwhile, the league continues to argue that there is no link between the game of hockey and brain damage, that includes the now well-known degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, better known as CTE, which has been discovered in multiple dead players, including Boogaard. Nonetheless, in addition to the NHLs argument they believe players should have been able to “put two and two together” concerning the consequences of repeated head trauma. The players believe they underplayed the dangers to put the leagues own profits ahead of player safety.
“The documents speak for themselves,” lead lawyer for the players Charles Zimmerman boasts. The league itself should lead player safety and health issues, including research. Fighting, concussions, and head hits have long been linked to cause cumulative and progressive harm. The plaintiffs just want the risks and tragedies to be minimized and to be cared for by the NHL when and if they’re responsible for harm to the players who make the sport of hockey so great.
Included in the unsealed emails were those from 2014 in which Gary Meagher, Vice President for Communications for the National Hockey League, acknowledged the leagues approach to safety. Meagher wrote the league had taken a different approach, compared to the NFL, which “is in the business of selling that they are making the game of football safer at all levels – it is smoke and mirrors but they are masters of smoke and mirrors.” Rather he believed that National hockey league has never been in the business of trying to make the game safe at all levels, still they have also never tried to sell themselves off as that is who they are.
In the end, the most provocative string of emails in the most recently unsealed messages came from between Bettman, Daly, and Shanahan, who wrote that enforcers today were not the same enforcers from a decade ago. “Fighters used to aspire to become regular players scoring goals and killing penalties. Train and practice with hope of moving from the 4th line to the 3rd.” Shanahan wrote. Today, enforcers try to become the most feared fighters. Often falling victim to alcohol and cocaine to cope. Now pills. What’s next? The NHL has long fought a battle that the NFL has just recently lost; they cannot deny the facts about concussions any longer because if they do they’re going to lose the important fight in court.