Ten former players filed a lawsuit against the National Hockey League on Monday, alleging negligence and fraud in how the league handled concussions during their careers and arguing that the league should have done more to address the dangers of the sport.
The lawsuit’s central claims echo those made in the lawsuits brought by more than 4,500 former National Football League players. The NFL and the former players reached a preliminary settlement worth $765 million in September. The NHL players made similar complaints to the NFL players, saying they had suffered from memory loss and other effects of concussions and sustained hits to the head, and like the NFL players, the hockey players say the league knew the dangers of concussions but ignored them in a quest for profits and entertainment.
The case makes the NHL the third major sporting league to face legal scrutiny over how it has handled concussions. In addition to the NFL suit, former college athletes have filed multiple lawsuits against the NCAA alleging mismanagement of concussions.
While concussions are a major issue in hockey, the sport has not faced the scrutiny that hit the NFL from researchers, newspaper reporters, and in major projects like League of Denial, the book and documentary that chronicled the league’s widespread denial of its concussion problem. But the players allege that many of the same problems that plagued the NFL’s handling of concussions were also prevalent in the NHL. The New York Times did, however, produce a series on safety issues in the sport earlier this year.
As in the NFL suit, the players allege that the NHL, which created a committee to study concussions in 1997, did not do enough to protect them before that. “While every blow to the head is dangerous,” the lawsuit says, players “did not know, and were not told by the NHL, how dangerous this repeated brain trauma is.” The players will have to prove that the league knowingly and willingly covered up those dangers. That argument was strong against the NFL because the league’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee had produced its own research purporting to show that concussions were not a major risk for football players. The league also denied a link between concussions and long-term brain damage even as independent research showed otherwise.
The NHL players argue that their league “knew or should have been aware” of the dangers of concussions long before it created its concussion committee in 1997. And while it “voluntarily inserted itself into the scientific research and discussion concerning the link between brain injuries sustained by NHL players,” it “took no action to reduce the number and severity of concussions among its players.”
Hockey players, the complaint says, “relied on the NHL’s silence to their detriment.”
At the same time, NHL players could focus in part on a specific aspect of hockey that doesn’t exist in other sports: its sanction of on-ice fighting, the prevalence of which has raised questions about whether it is a necessary aspect of the game. International hockey has long banned fighting, but the NHL has resisted efforts to do the same even as researchers have pushed for bans across all levels of the sport. The lawsuit specifically mentions that refusal to bolster the argument that the NHL valued entertainment — fighting is still popular among the leagues fans — over player safety. NHL players, though, have also argued that banning fighting wouldn’t make them safer.
The NHL will argue, as the NFL argued, that the case does not belong in a federal courtroom because it is preempted under federal labor law because of the league’s collective bargaining structure. That argument, many legal analysts said, encouraged a settlement in the NFL case because it would have made it difficult for players to prove that their case shouldn’t have been handled in arbitration or that the union shouldn’t have done a better job protecting players in the bargaining process.
The players who filed the suit range from former stars to role players and played in decades spanning the 1960s to 1990s. It is a class action suit, so it could represent any NHL player who feels the sport contributed to long-term brain trauma.
“While the subject matter is very serious, we are completely satisfied with the responsible manner in which the League and the Players’ Association have managed Player safety over time, including with respect to head injuries and concussions,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in a statement.