Top NHL Officials Long Suspected Major Concussion Risks

CREDIT: Carlos Osorio, AP

Detroit Red Wings left wing Brad May (24) fights with Vancouver Canucks center Rick Rypien (37) during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Detroit, Thursday, Nov. 12, 2009.

The National Hockey League (NHL) continues to publicly deny the link between hockey and brain damage, but emails released by the New York Times on Monday show top league officials privately acknowledging that fighting in hockey can lead to concussions and long-term health problems, and that players frequently use painkillers to manage their symptoms.

Judge Susan Richard Nelson unsealed the emails as part of the ongoing litigation between former players and the NHL in a class-action lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Minneapolis. The players argue that the NHL did not warn them about the effects of concussions, either short-term or long-term.

The most notable exchange occurred in 2011, after the tragic deaths of three young “enforcers” — players who are expected to respond to dirty play by fighting their opponents — rocked the hockey community. In May, New York Ranger Derek Boogard, 28, died after an accidental drug and alcohol overdose while recovering from a concussion. He was later found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain disease that can lead to depression, mood swings, and dementia. In August, 27-year-old former Vancouver Canuck Rick Rypien committed suicide; just weeks later, 35-year-old Wade Belak, who had recently retired from the Nashville Predators, committed suicide as well.

That September, Brendan Shanahan — then the NHL’s senior vice president for player safety and hockey operations, now the president of the Toronto Maple Leafs — started off the email chain between top NHL officials by linking to an article called “Getting Rid of Hockey’s Goons” in The Globe and Mail of Toronto.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman

CREDIT: Mark Humphrey, AP

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman responded by saying, “An interesting question is whether being an NHL fighter does this to you (I don’t believe so) or whether a certain type of person (who wouldn’t otherwise be skilled enough to be an NHL player) gravitates to this job (I believe more likely).”

“I tend to think its a little bit of both,” Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly responded. “Fighting raises the incidence of head injuries/concussions, which raises the incidence of depression onset, which raises the incidence of personal tragedies.”

“I believe the fighting and possible concussions could aggravate a condition,” Bettman replied minutes later. “But if you think about the tragedies there were probably certain predispositions.”

The men questioned whether or not the NHL Player’s Association, the sport’s union, would permit the role of enforcer to be eliminated, before acknowledging how the position had evolved.

“This is not the same role as it was in the 80’s and 90’s,” Shanahan wrote. “Fighters used to aspire to become regular players. Train and practice to move from 4th line to 3rd. Now they train and practice becoming more fearsome fighters. They used to take alcohol and cocaine to cope. (Kordic) Now they take pills. Pills to sleep. Pills to wake up. Pills to ease the pain. Pills to amp up. Getting them online.”

In a 2014 email chain that was also unsealed on Monday, Gary Meagher, the NHL’s vice president for communications, said that the NHL differs from the NFL because the NHL isn’t engaging in a huge public relations campaign to make people think that hockey is becoming a safer sport.

“The NHL has never been in the business of trying to make the game safer at all levels and we have never tried to sell the fact that this is who we are,” Meagher wrote.

While the NHL’s concussion problems haven’t been as well-documented as the NFL’s, there are stark similarities between the way the two leagues have handled this pressing health issue. Many players have complained that NHL doctors have rushed them back on the ice before a previous concussion properly healed, while there have also been reports of players failing to report their own concussions because of a desire to quickly get back into the game. The NHL is constantly updating its concussion protocols, but fights and hard hits are an asset to the league, and a big reason that fans tune in to watch, making it difficult to determine when (or if) the concern for player safety outweighs the dedication to the bottom line.

While these documents do not prove that the NHL is directly denying science or withholding concussion data the way the NFL has in the past, it’s clear the league does understand more about the correlation between hockey, concussions, brain damage, depression, and substance abuse than it has previously let on.

“The documents speak for themselves,” Charles Zimmerman, a lead lawyer for the players, told the 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.”