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NHL’s $19 million concussion settlement exposes fallacy of hockey ‘brotherhood’

"I hope hockey players and hockey families are paying attention." 

Manager of the Detroit Red Wings ice hockey team Jacques Demers (left), poses with his team's first round, first place pick, Canadian player Joe Murphy, (second left), team vice president Jim Devellano (second right), and team scout Neil Smith in the NHL Entry Draft at the Montreal Forum, Montreal, Quebec, June 21, 1986. (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images)
Manager of the Detroit Red Wings ice hockey team Jacques Demers (left), poses with his team's first round, first place pick, Canadian player Joe Murphy, (second left), team vice president Jim Devellano (second right), and team scout Neil Smith in the NHL Entry Draft at the Montreal Forum, Montreal, Quebec, June 21, 1986. (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images)

Two weeks ago, with little fanfare, the National Hockey League (NHL) reached a tentative settlement with 318 former players who were suing the league for its negligence with regards to concussions and head injuries. In full, the settlement is worth $18.9 million. Each player who opts in will receive just $22,000, with the maximum any single player is eligible to receive through the deal is limited to $75,000.

The NHL, which has long refused to admit that there is a link between brain injury and hockey, did not have to admit any liability in the settlement.

It is, in a word, a travesty. It was not, however, a shock.

“I was not at all surprised by the settlement terms,” Krystal Murphy, the daughter of former Detroit Red Wings first-overall draft pick Joe Murphy, told ThinkProgress in an email last week.

Joe and Krystal Murphy. CREDIT: Krystal Murphy.
Joe and Krystal Murphy. CREDIT: Krystal Murphy.

Top NHL officials have vehemently fought the lawsuit from the beginning, even though it led to an ugly discovery process that brought emails into the public eye in which NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and other top league officials blamed players’ personalities and dispositions, rather than head injuries, for struggles with alcohol, depression, and memory loss after retirement. Nevertheless, their decision to fight paid off. Unlike the NFL concussion lawsuit — which was granted class-action status, resulted in a $1 billion settlement, and inspired a Hollywood movie — the NHL lawsuit has remained under-the-radar.

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For the most part, current and former players have assisted the owners in keeping the matter under wraps by remaining silent about the issue. Retirees like two-time Stanley Cup champion Daniel Carcillo —  who told the New York Times that “the NHL is killing human beings” and has already announced his decision to opt out of the settlement — are the exception, not the rule.

“Players just didn’t publicly support retired players who were seeking justice and a remedy for their suffering through the courts,” Murphy said. “There isn’t a public showing of unity or brotherhood from NHL players on the brain injury issue.”

Murphy’s father, Joe, is one of those former players that certainly could use a bit more support from his brethren.

The No. 1 pick in the 1986 draft, Joe Murphy played for 15 seasons in the NHL and earned $13 million in his career, along the way winning the Stanley Cup in 1990 as a member of the Edmonton Oilers. Now, he’s homeless. He sleeps underneath a gas sign in Ontario, or at least he did earlier this year when the Detroit Free Press caught up with him.

Murphy has displayed many of the symptoms associated with the chronic brain trauma over the years, including depression, memory loss, emotional volatility, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts. He wasn’t always this way. Growing up, Murphy remembers her father as a competitive, funny, smart, and athletic person who always wanted to make those around him laugh. But, as the years went on in the NHL, his personality began to change drastically.

“Who he is today is a result of the brain trauma he sustained as a hockey player,” his daughter says.

BOSTON, MA - MAY 24: Mark Messier #11 of the Edmonton Oilers helps out teammate Joe Murphy drink from the Stanley Cup in the locker room as they celebrate after Game 5 of the 1990 Stanley Cup Finals against the Boston Bruins on May 24, 1990 at the Boston Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. The Oilers defeated the Bruins 4-1 and won the Series 4 games to 1.  (Photo by B Bennett/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - MAY 24: Mark Messier #11 of the Edmonton Oilers helps out teammate Joe Murphy drink from the Stanley Cup in the locker room as they celebrate after Game 5 of the 1990 Stanley Cup Finals against the Boston Bruins on May 24, 1990 at the Boston Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. The Oilers defeated the Bruins 4-1 and won the Series 4 games to 1. (Photo by B Bennett/Getty Images)

 

Murphy told the Free Press that his first “serious” concussion in the NHL happened in 1991 with the Oilers, when he slammed “full tilt” and head first into the rinkside panels. On that occasion, he had to be helped off the ice and taken to the locker room, where he remembered spewing blood and not being sure where he was.

“It was debilitating,” Murphy said. “I fractured my skull, everything. I couldn’t believe I made it off the ice.”

However, he returned to the bench, and eventually, the coach put him back in the same game.

Murphy re-entered the game in the second period and remembers going on a breakaway. His vision was messed up.

“I saw like 25 goalies,” he said. “I fired it into the glass. Everybody is waving the flags, get the (expletive) off. They got me off the ice and rolled me into the dressing room. Done. I was in bad shape, man. I was in bad shape the whole season. I felt lazy, lethargic, I got a little sick. I just didn’t feel good. My energy was gone.

“I didn’t know what was wrong.”

Joe now has many symptoms of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease caused by repetitive blows to the head that can only be diagnosed posthumously.

He filed a lawsuit against the league in 2014, and was part of the NHL lawsuit that attempted to get class-action status this summer. His suit said that he “suffered multiple head traumas during his NHL career that were improperly diagnosed and treated by the NHL” and was “never was warned by the NHL of the negative health effects of head trauma.”

“There isn’t a public showing of unity or brotherhood from NHL players on the brain injury issue.”

Though the class-action status was denied — a huge victory for NHL owners — Joe’s lawsuit will still try to go forward individually. While the fight for justice rages on, Krystal Murphy hopes that other NHL families take notice of what has happened to her father, and understand that it could happen to their loved ones, too.

“When a family endures a tragedy like this, it is always the hope that others will learn from the tragedy. I hope hockey players and hockey families are paying attention,” she says.

Justice is not going to come easy. The NHL has already demonstrated that it is willing to spend exorbitant amount of money, not to help the players who have been injured playing their sport, but to battle against and belittle them at every turn. And, as Carcillo has found out, players who do speak out against the league and its still-subpar concussion protocols find themselves ostracized from the tight-knit hockey community.

Hockey is supposed to be a family. But right now, it doesn’t feel that way to those who want the league to be held responsible for the damage that it has done.

Still, Krystal Murphy remains hopeful.

“The NHL won for now but should understand that all it will take is one case able to clear the procedural hurdles to get in front of a jury. When someone can get the NHL to trial and force them to try and rebut expert scientific testimony on CTE and brain injuries, the NHL will lose,” she says.

“When that day comes, that plaintiff’s win will be a symbolic victory for everyone involved in this.”