Emails reveal Bettman, NHL execs discussed how concussions affect hockey players
Bobby Dollas took a lot of hits on the ice when he played for the Pittsburgh Penguins and Anaheim Ducks. Nowadays, he said his attention span and short-term memory aren’t very good.
He’s one of the dozens of former pro hockey players involved in a proposed class-action lawsuit against the National Hockey League (NHL), claiming the league failed to warn its players of the risks of repeated concussions and blows to the head.
The 51-year-old said he’s living proof of what happens to players who suffer head trauma in the game.
“It’s time to take care of the guys who need help,” he said.
But, as it turns out, the NHL’s top brass acknowledged the risk of concussions the league’s players faced from being pummeled in fights on the ice, but kept it among themselves.
That was revealed in a series of emails a U.S. federal court recently unsealed.
The private exchanges were included as exhibits in the proposed class-action lawsuit, on behalf of former NHL players who claim the league “failed to warn its players of the short- and long-term effects of repeated concussions and head trauma.”
“Fighting raises the incidence of head injuries/concussions, which raises the incidence of depression onset, which raises the incidence of personal tragedies,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly wrote in a 2011 email to league commissioner Gary Bettman.
WATCH: More coverage of concussions and concussion research
The emails from 2011 reveal Daly, Bettman and then-NHL senior vice president for safety and hockey operations Brendan Shanahan discussed the possibility of cutting the fights — and the fighters — in hockey.
The discussion followed the deaths of three NHL enforcers: former New York Rangers enforcer Derek Boogaard, who died May 13, 2011 after an accidental overdose of painkillers and alcohol at the age of 28; 27-year-old Winnipeg Jets forward Rick Rypien took his own life on Aug. 15, 2011; and former Nashville Predators right-winger Wade Belak died by suicide 16 days later at the age of 35.
READ MORE: The sad rise and fall of Derek Boogaard
Just four days after Belak’s death, Bettman wrote:
“I believe the fighting an possible concussion could aggravate a condition, bit if you think about the tragedies there were probably certain predispositions,” Bettman wrote the morning of Sept. 3, 2011.
“Again, though, the bigger issue is whether the pa (the NHL Players’ Association) 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.'”
Shanahan weighed in that the NHLPA’s “current position on illegal checks to the head is that it should encompass ALL contact.” He questioned how the players’ union could dispute the issues if “we keep this simply about concussions and brain injuries.”
He said the role of fighters in hockey was not the same as it was in the 1980s and 90s.
“Fighters used to aspire to become regular players. Train and practice to move from 4th line to 3rd. Now they train and practice to become more fearsome fighters,” he wrote. “They used to take alcohol and cocaine to cope… Now they take pills. Pills to sleep. Pills to wake up. Pills to ease pain. Pills to amp up. Getting them online.”
Bettman agreed with Shanahan.
“[B]ut remember you are about to try to take a certain type of player (or aspiring player) and tell him his ability to earn more money than he could probably make doing anything else is over!” Bettman responded.
He went on to say NHLPA executive director Don Fehr “spent a decade in baseball protecting steroid users over what was best for the vast majority of his players in the game.”
The emails were unsealed last week. CTV, which had intervenor status in the case, received the emails Friday and published details from the exchanges Monday night.
Charles Zimmerman, the lawyer for the players in the class action suit, provided the emails to Global News Tuesday.
“The documents speak for themselves,” Zimmerman told the New York Times in an email.
“We do believe the NHL should lead on player safety and health issues. Fighting and concussions and head hits, we all know, cause cumulative and progressive cognitive harm. We want these risks and tragedies to be minimized and cared for by the NHL when and if they harm the players who made the sport great.”
The league, it turns out, wasn’t just aware of the physical impacts of head trauma, but also potential commercial impacts.
The league contracted a marketing research firm to assess the public’s view of violence in the sport.
The email files also included a 2014 chain of messages between NHL senior vice president of communications Gary Meagher and Mike Berland, CEO of market-research company Edelman Berland.
Berland’s company, according to TSN, was contracted to look into ” fan perception of violence in the NHL” compared to professional football.
“NFL is in the business of selling that they are making the game of football safer at all levels — it’s smoke and mirrors but they are masters of smoke and mirrors,” Meagher wrote to Berland in response.
Meagher said the response wasn’t “cynical” and pointed out the NHL does not spend the “hundreds of thousands of dollars” annually on public relations campaign, as the NFL does, to demonstrate the league is dealing with violence in the sport.
With files from Robin Gill
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