An NFL official acknowledged the link between degenerative brain disease and concussions caused by football two weeks ago, and the natural public reaction was to question how the NHL would respond to such a revelation, particularly in light of the concussion lawsuit against the league. Ultimately, there was still no way to prove the NHL had knowledge of long-term danger caused by concussions before NFL vice-president of health and safety Jeff Miller's comments. The players' co-lead cousel in the suit felt differently, however. They submitted this statement to THN when asked to comment:
“The time has come for the NHL to do the right thing for its former players and finally admit and warn about the link between repeated head trauma and long-term neuro-degenerative disorders. While the NFL, after intense public pressure, has finally admitted publicly that there is ‘certainly’ a link, the NHL, to this day, continues to deny that there is any long-term danger associated with suffering repeated concussions and sub-concussive blows, even in the face of compelling medical evidence. The NHL has a duty to protect its players and hockey players of all ages and provide them with factual and accurate information about the long-term consequences of repetitive head injuries. We hope that the NFL’s statements and public acknowledgment of this public health crisis will compel the NHL to follow suit.”
For the plaintiffs to gain any ground in the suit, however, they need proof the NHL withheld prior knowledge about the long-term dangers caused by concussions. A new development may give them some traction. As TSN's Rick Westhead reports, a federal court in Minneapolis, Minn., unsealed emails showing exchanges between NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, deputy commissioner Bill Daly and then-vice-president of player safety Brendan Shanahan in 2011.
Westhead provides an in-depth report of the emails' contents here. Among the exchanges that stand out most are one between Bettman, Shanahan and Daly in 2011, discussing a Globe and Mail story detailing the deaths of enforcers Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak, which occurred within four months. Writes Westhead:
“Do you remember what happened when we tried to eliminate the staged fights?” Bettman wrote in a Sept. 3, 2011, email to Shanahan and Daly. “The ‘fighters’ objected and so did the pa [NHLPA]. Eliminating fighting would mean eliminating the jobs of the ‘fighters’, meaning that these guys would not have NHL careers. An interesting question is whether being an NHL fighter does this to you (I don’t believe so) or whether a certain type of person (who wouldn’t otherwise be skilled enough to be an NHL player) gravitates to this job (I believe more likely)."
Daly replied: “I tend to think it's a little bit of both. Fighting raises the incidence of head injuries/concussions, which raises the incidence of depression onset, which raises the incidence of personal tragedies."
"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. Again, though, the bigger issue is whether the [NHLPA] would consent to in effect eliminate a certain type of ‘role’ and player. And, if they don’t, we might try to do it anyway and take the ‘fight’ (pun intended)."
The emails also discuss players' reliance on pain medications and whether the league could or should eliminate fighting altogether. Of particular importance relative to the concussion suit, though, is Daly's statement about "personal tragedies." More from Westhead:
Lawyers for the former players say Daly’s email, which the NHL battled to keep secret, appears to contradict the league’s public stance on the alleged link between hockey, and long-term brain injuries. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman for years has steadfastly denied that such a link exists.
“While the NFL has recently admitted the link between repetitive trauma in sport and long-term brain disease, the NHL continues to deny the link, insisting that hockey is not football,” Michael Cashman, a lawyer for the former players, said in an interview. “Contrary to those public denials, this internal email from senior NHL executive Bill Daly to commissioner Bettman acknowledges the link between head injuries, depression and personal tragedies.”
Also among the unsealed documents: emails from NHL senior vice-president of communications Gary Meagher in which he expresses the NFL "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. The NHL has never been in the business of trying to make the game safer at all levels and we have never tried to sell the fact that this is who we are."
The former players have a long way to go in their lawsuit, but the unsealed emails have to qualify as a victory for them and a blow to the league, as they make it much tougher for the league to deny knowledge of the link between concussions and long-term degenerative brain diseases such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin