This week, attorneys for ten former National Hockey League players filed a class-action suit in federal court in Washington, D.C. against the NHL alleging that they have suffered long-term brain injuries attributable to fraud and negligence on the part of the league. This comes months after the announcement of a $765 million settlement in similar concussion litigation against the NFL.
The players, who include former Toronto Maple Leafs 50-goal scorers Rick Vaive and Gary Leeman, allege that the NHL ignored the risks posed by the repeated blows to the head suffered by its players. The suit alleges that the NHL failed to act in delaying the mandate of helmets and the introduction of concussion tests, and by failing to implement rule changes to protect players, such as banning fighting and checking.
Like football, hockey is a contact sport that inherently involves violent collisions between players at high speed. Also, North American professional hockey is unique among both professional and amateur sports in that fighting between players, while penalized, is not grounds for the ejection of a player and is an accepted part of the game.
Most of the plaintiffs in the suit played in during the ’70s, when many NHL players played without helmets. While hockey helmets were first introduced in the 1920s, NHL players rarely wore them until the death of Bill Masterton in 1968 from brain trauma suffered while being checked and hitting his head on the ice.
The league did not begin mandating helmets until 1979. This move was resisted for years by the NHL players’ union, the NHLPA, despite the fact that about 70% of players were wearing helmets voluntarily by then. Players who were still not wearing helmets were “grandfathered” and permitted to continue going helmetless for the rest of their careers. Craig MacTavish, the last helmetless player, retired in 1997.
The lawsuit, which is filed on behalf of all current and former NHL players similarly situated with the ten named plaintiffs, urges the NHL to ban fighting and body checking to promote player safety. This call is unlikely to find much support among NHL players, however, as it is often the players and the players union who are most strongly opposed to changes in rules and equipment. For example, recent polls of NHL players show that 98% oppose a fighting ban, and nearly half are in favor of loosening rules on fighting by abolishing the instigator rule. Also, as was the case with the helmet mandate, the league’s recent mandate of visors following high-profile injuries to NHL players like Chris Pronger of the Philadelphia Flyers(who has recently effectively retired due to repeated head injuries) and Marc Staal of the New York Rangers was also resisted by the NHLPA.
However, concussions are a major issue in the NHL, with a number of star players missing seasons or having their careers shortened by head injuries in recent years despite a league crackdown on head hits. Sidney Crosby, the game’s biggest star of the last decade, missed the better part of two seasons in 2011 and 2012 in what should have been the prime of his career. In addition, 2011 saw the drug-related death Derek Boogard and the suicide of Rick Rypien-both players were known as “enforcers” on the ice, and both players’ deaths have been blamed on brain injury.
Contact sports like football and hockey are inherently dangerous, but they are also an important part of our culture. Indeed, the pain and danger of these sports is a major part of their attraction, both for participants and spectators, and are part of what makes a sport more than just a game. However, when the game is over and the fans go home, it is the players and their families who have to live with the price. Whether the price is too high will be a question the NHL, the players, and our society will probably be confronting soon.
If you or someone you know suffers from an accidental or sports-related brain injury, contact the attorneys at Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Agosto, Aziz & Stogner by calling (713) 222-7211 or 713-222-7211.