Former Kelowna Rocket launches head trauma lawsuit against hockey leagues

A notice of civil claim against the WHL, CHL and Hockey Canada was filed in B.C. Supreme Court on Wednesday. Getty Images

Kelowna hockey fans might remember James McEwan as the Kelowna Rockets’ former captain and assistant captain.

However, more than a decade after his Western Hockey League career ended with the 2007-08 season, the former WHL player alleges he is suffering from a host of symptoms connected to hits to the head, including anxiety, severe mood swings, anger and suicidal thoughts.

The allegations are contained in a notice of civil claim filed in B.C. Supreme Court on Wednesday.

McEwan is the proposed representative plaintiff in a potential class-action lawsuit by Canadian Hockey League players against the CHL, the WHL and Hockey Canada.

The suit alleges the hockey organizations didn’t do enough to protect McEwan from head trauma.

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The lawsuit said McEwan was involved in more than 70 fights during his four-season WHL career, including two seasons with the Kelowna Rockets.

“These fights lead to numerous surgeries and broken bones as well as severe and escalating trauma to his head,” said the notice of civil claim.

The lawsuit said McEwan continues to suffer from symptoms of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) such as suicidal thoughts, anxiety, anger and severe mood swings.

In the court documents, the plaintiff’s lawyer said that “multiple blows to the head can lead to long-term brain injury” and CTE, among other problems.

“During practice and games, a CHL player can sustain close to 1,000 or more hits to the head in one season without any documented incapacitating concussion,” the notice of civil claim said.

“Such repeated blows to the head can result in permanently impaired brain function.”

The notice of civil claim also paints a dark picture of McEwan’s off-ice life as a young WHL player, alleging the 25 fights he took part in during the 2006-07 season with the Kelowna Rockets caused head trauma.

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“The side effects of his continuous head trauma began to have a noticeable impact in his day-to-day life,” said the court documents.

“He was beginning to experience severe anxiety, mood swings, personality changes and angry outbursts. Mr. McEwan began to consume copious amounts of alcohol in an effort to cope with the physical pain and mental distress.”

Following his WHL career, McEwan played in the ECHL.

The case is seeking unspecified damages for McEwan and other CHL players who never played in the NHL.

To proceed as a class-action lawsuit, the case would need to be certified as a class-action by the court.

None of the allegations have been proven in court.

The notice of civil claim also includes statistics showing that fighting in the WHL decreased for six seasons in a row starting in the 2011-12 season.

The legal document also said that in 2011, the WHL came up with a plan to cut down on hits to the head, and concussion rates dropped 20 per cent between 2012 and 2013.

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However, the lawsuit argues the drop off in fights, at least in later years, can be attributed to “the general public’s increasing concern regarding concussions in junior hockey” rather than steps taken by the leagues.

The WHL, CHL and Hockey Canada have yet to file a response to the notice of civil claim with the B.C. Supreme Court.

In response to a request for comment, which included a copy of the notice of civil claim, the WHL commissioner said the league had not yet been served with a statement of claim in connection with the case.

“At such time as we receive one, we will thoroughly review it and, if appropriate, we will provide further comment,” WHL commissioner Ron Robison said in a written statement.

The Kelowna Rockets said the team would not comment on the case.

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