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NHL faces concussion lawsuit, as 10 former players allege failure on head injuries

Greg Wyshynski
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It was just a matter of time.

The National Football League was the first domino to fall on pro sports concussion lawsuits, having agreed to pay $765 million to former players after 4,500 athletes sued the League. Now, the National Hockey League faces its first lawsuit over head injuries, as 10 former players filed a class action lawsuit on Monday alleging that the NHL didn’t do enough to protect them from brain trauma during their careers.

According to Pierre LeBrun of ESPN, the players are Gary Leeman (667 games, 1982-97), Brad Aitken (14 games, 1990-91), Darren Banks (20 NHL games, 1992-94), Curt Bennett (580 NHL games, 1970-80), Richard Dunn, Warren Holmes, Bob Manno (371 games, 1976-85), Blair Stewart (229 games, 1973-80), Morris Titanic (19 games, 1974-76) and Rick Vaive (876 games, 1979-92)

A CBC report that Eric Lindros was part of the filing was found to be erroneous.

Here’s the release from the law firm representing the former players:

Laguna Hills, California- In a cross-country collaboration, the Laguna Hills, California based law firm of Namanny, Byrne, and Owens is filing a class action lawsuit in conjunction with Silverman, Thompson, Slutkin, and White of Baltimore, Maryland. The class action lawsuit, which is being leveled against the National Hockey League (“NHL”) on behalf of former players, alleges that the NHL has failed to effectively respond to the head injuries sustained by players. The lawsuit contends that the NHL has behaved negligently and fraudulently in regards to the player sustained head trauma over the past decades.

In 2004 the NHL introduced a series of updates to the rule-set to encourage a faster, more exciting, and ultimately more marketable product. As a result, the number of violent in-game collisions and occurrence of head trauma have increased. When coupled with the NHL’s refusal to protect players by banning full-body checking or penalizing on-ice fist fights, the league has created a dangerous atmosphere for players. The complaint alleges that the NHL either ignores or consistently lags behind other hockey leagues in adopting protections for players in accordance with current medical knowledge of concussions. Instead, the NHL continues to glorify and empower players known as “enforcers”- players with the singular intention of injuring the opposing team.

There are a number of current and former players who recognize the violent culture that the NHL has been fostering. Rick Vaive, one of the former players and plaintiff in the lawsuit states, “many of the former NHL players are suffering from debilitating head injuries from their time in the league. Hopefully this lawsuit will shine a light on the problem and the players can get the help they deserve.”

Mel Owens, of Namanny, Byrne and Owens, is a former professional athlete, having competed in the National Football League (“NFL”) for 10 years. Owens is currently a disability attorney and one of the attorneys fighting on behalf of the former NHL players. “As a former professional athlete I can relate to the extreme physical duress that these players undergo. The least these NHL players deserve is a league willing to protect them and allow them to live without head trauma induced debilitations once their playing days are over.”

The lawsuit seeks to correct the violent course the NHL has embarked upon, while seeking compensation for players affected by years of negligent decision making.

Here’s the court filing:

One specific passage, on their reasons for suing:

"The NHL caused or contributed to the injuries and increased risks to Plaintiffs through its acts and omissions by, among other things: (a) historically ignoring the true risks of concussive events, sub-concussive events and/or brain injuries suffered by NHL hockey players; (b) failing to disclose the true risks of repetitive brain injuries to NHL players; (c) refusing to address the issue of brain injuries despite a growing body of medical opinion establishing such a linkage and their own study of the issue; and (d) refusing to amend its rules and procedures and equipment requirements effectively to protect its players, including Plaintiffs."

The NHLPA issued Yahoo Sports a no comment when asked about the suit.

Eric Macramalla interviewed NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly back in May, and asked about the possibility of this kind of lawsuit:

MACRAMALLA: Let's shift our attention to the NFL concussion lawsuits. A third of living retired NFL players are suing the NFL for, in part, actively concealing the long-term neurological impact of head shots. Over 220 lawsuits and 4200 plaintiffs are involved. Hockey and football are both collision sports. Is the NHL keeping an eye on the NFL concussion lawsuits?

DALY: Certainly, we're aware of them, and aware of the industry in which we operate. You have to be cognizant of what's going on around you. I'm a lawyer by training, so I follow legal developments and certainly that's a legal development. It's a fact of life. Having said that, I don't think litigation per se can direct your business strategy. I think it's similar to what we were talking about before. You have to do what is right. Obviously, we feel there is an obligation on the part of the league office to make the game as safe as it can be without changing the culture of the game. Part of the attractiveness of our sport as an entertainment product is the contact nature of our sport. You don't want to take contact out. At the same time, if you can minimize injuries and make it safer for the players, you try to do that.

The plaintiffs span the decades for the NHL where concussion awareness was in its infancy but before any pro sports league was taking significant steps to curtail or treat them. In fact, some of these players, like Blair Stewart of the Washington Capitals, played without a helmet. The League mandated helmets in 1979, but allowed players who weren't wearing them to continue to do so.

Vaive, a former Toronto Maple Leafs captain, is the biggest name attached to the suit, and he’s been a player whose views on physical play in the NHL have changed over the years – especially on fighting.

"What's it going to take?" Vaive said in 2009. "A senior hockey player passes away. Another player convulses on the ice in the American league. Is it going to take a death in the NHL before anything is done about it? That's the question. Don't be reactive, be proactive."

Clearly, he doesn’t believe the NHL was proactive enough on head injuries. And now he and a group of former players are looking to make them pay.

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