NHL Concussion Lawsuit: Damaging Emails Unsealed

A federal court in Minnesota has unsealed documents this week that include a number of emails sent between high ranking National Hockey League (NHL) executives. A Minneapolis judge overseeing the NHL concussion lawsuit unsealed court documents Monday, which include an email exchange where NHL deputy commissioner, Bill Daly, links hockey fights to concussions. Other emails confirm that hockey fights can lead to depression and other health problems.

The emails, many of which are between commissioner Gary Bettman and other top league officials in 2011, contradict much of what the league has said publicly defending itself against former players in the NHL concussion lawsuit. Filed on behalf of over 100 former players, the NHL concussion lawsuit claims that the league knew about the link between hockey and concussions, but failed to inform players about the dangers and long term health risks associated with sustaining a traumatic brain injury.

For its part, the NHL has argued that players should have been able to “put two and two together” about the dangers of concussions. The players obviously disagree with this assessment, claiming the league put profit over safety by glamorizing the sport’s violence while downplaying the health issues associated with TBI.

What Was Discussed in the NHL Concussion Emails?

First, a bit of context on the state of the league when these emails were sent. Between May and August of 2011, three NHL players died either by accident or by suicide. These players—Derek Boogaard, Wade Belak, and Rick Rypien—were “enforcers.”

In hockey, an enforcer is an unofficial role for a player otherwise designated as a fighter, a goon, or simply, a tough guy. Their job on the ice is pretty straightforward—they are out there to either deter or put an end to another team’s dirty or violent play, especially when directed toward their team’s star players or goaltender. If such play is suspected, the enforcer’s role is to respond in kind with aggressiveness toward the other team’s offending player. This response could be a hard check into the boards or challenging them to a fight.

After the deaths of these three men, the media issued reports on enforcers dealing with lingering health issues, presumably from a career spent hitting and being hit by other players. Some admitted to the frequent use of pills to “ease the pain.”

In response to these media reports on NHL concussion issues, high ranking league officials sent emails discussing the idea of getting rid of fights during games. Brendan Shanahan, then the NHL’s senior vice president for player safety and hockey operations, started an email chain that included a news story called ‘Getting Rid of Hockey’s Goons.’ In response to the article, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly had this to say in an email: “Fighting raises the incidence of head injuries/concussions, which raises the incidence of depression onset, which raises the incidence of personal tragedies.” NHL commissioner Gary Bettmann then chimed in to say that he believed “fighting and possible concussions could aggravate a condition. But if you think about the tragedies there were probably certain predispositions.”

In another email, NHL vice president for communications discussed the league’s differing approach to handling concussions compared to the National Football League (NFL), which is also the target of litigation by former players who claim to not have been informed about the dangers of sustaining a traumatic brain injury. Meagher wrote that the NFL is in the business of selling the notion that it is making football safer at all levels. He referred to this business as “smoke and mirrors.” The NHL, on the other hand, has never tried to make the game safer, nor has it tried to sell itself as trying to do so, Meagher wrote.

As part of their defense in the NHL concussion lawsuit, the league has long argued that there is no connection between hockey and brain damage. This, perhaps, is why the league’s attorneys fought tooth and nail to keep these emails from public records. Contrary to the league’s denials, the emails confirm that league officials understood the link between head injuries, depression, and personal tragedies.

Perhaps the most damaging email exchange is about the difference between modern-day enforcers and enforcers from years ago. Shanahan writes that enforcers used to train hard to make themselves more skilled, now they instead train to become more fearsome fighters. “They used to take alcohol and cocaine to cope. (Kordic) Now they take pills. Pills to sleep. Pills to wake up. Pills to ease the pain. Pills to amp up. Getting them online.”

Countless studies have found that fighting and concussions can cause cumulative and degenerative harm, such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease. A number of deceased former players, including Derek Boogaard, were found to have CTE after they passed away.

Even now that the NHL concussion lawsuit has begun, the National Hockey League has taken no action on fights—they are still a part of the game. Enforcers are still on the ice with the unspoken directive to maintain order through violence. This is at the heart of the NHL litigation: the league benefited from allowing the more violent aspects of the game to remain unchanged, and they simply failed to inform players about the long and short term health effects of this violence.

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