A U.S. federal court judge on Tuesday unsealed more documents in the long-running lawsuit over the NHL’s handling of concussions. The NHL had fought the release of these documents, and TSN’s Rick Westhead has the high points.
One document contains notes from a GM meeting held during the 2013-14 season, in which commissioner Gary Bettman addressed the room about what was then a very loud public discussion over the role of fighting in hockey, and its relationship with brain trauma and the long-term physical and mental health of players. Bettman instructed those present to “push back” against the media narrative (that fighting leads to concussions?) and to “deflect” when reporters bring up fighting.
“The media is at a hysterical period on this subject,” Bettman is quoted as saying. “It’s a combination of concussions, the NFL news, the Parros situation and the Emery situation. We need to push back a bit on what is being written on it. We should not have this debate publicly whether you support it or not. You can do what you want but it is being made more important than it is. Ken Dryden’s book and Bobby Orr’s books come out with conflicting views. Having this public debate is not good. Please don’t speak to the media about it. Helping the media with the controversy of the issue doesn’t help things.”
Later in the meeting, San Jose Sharks GM Doug Wilson asks for guidance if media ask about fighting.
“The consensus right now is status quo,” Bettman is quoted as answering. “If media asks about this, deflect the question. Tell them we are having a great season and we will continue to look into issues that come up in the future.”
Fighting—or at least its worst excesses—does appear to be on its way out at the highest levels of hockey, but via natural evolution of the sport rather than any concerted efforts to discourage it. Teams have gotten smart enough to realize that a roster spot is better spent on a skilled player rather than one who has nothing to bring to the table besides physicality. Most of the former enforcers who died in a rash of overdoses and suicides in recent years would not make it to the NHL today.
But the concussion lawsuit isn’t about today; it’s about what the NHL knew about brain trauma and when, and what steps it took to inform and protect its players. (A good window on that: A 2009 email from the league’s director of officiating, who, when asked about fighting, responded, “Ya love it, much to the dismay of the tree huggin, never played sport, leftist doctors… that soon won’t let us climb stairs for fear of concussion.”)
The newly unsealed document most damaging to the league on that front is a 2009 email chain among league and league-affiliated doctors discussing Blackhawks winger Martin Havlat, who was knocked clean unconscious in a playoff game and then returned to play two days later, before leaving that game after another headshot.
“I am once again disappointed in my colleagues in the [National Hockey League Team Physicians Society],” the unnamed team doctor wrote in an email to Dr. Willem Meeuwisse, a Calgary-based member of the NHL’s Concussion Working Group. “We all sit around and talk and talk about concussion management. Then it’s the playoffs, someone suffers an obvious loss of consciousness and is back playing in less than 48 hours.
“This same Chicago player was hit hard again today and was unable to continue in the game. Another example of situational ethics. Our only job is to protect the players from harm including when the player is ‘clearing’ himself to play. We must be their advocate regardless of what the coach or general manager thinks.”
That email was forwarded, with comments, by Meeuwisse to the co-chair of the Concussion Working Group and to an NHL lawyer, who in turn forwarded it on to deputy commissioner Bill Daly. There is no record of Daly’s response, but this is proof that doctors were unhappy about the league’s treatment of its players, and warned the league in no uncertain terms. The NHL has no claim that its medical experts were unaware of the danger or silent on it; the league’s only potential defense is that it took sufficient action.