Emails Reveal NHL Thinks Brain Trauma Is A Joke
It turns out the NHL doesn't care about player safety, at all
A U.S. Federal judge unsealed yet another batch of emailed communications between NHL officials and team doctors as part of the ongoing class action concussion lawsuit brought by 121 former players. The emails show why the NHL has been fighting tooth and nail to keep them out of the public sphere.
As first reported by The Sports Network, the NHL mused about docking a former referee’s pat to keep him quiet, called attempts to curb fighting the bailiwick of “tree huggin, never played sport, leftist doctors,” [sic] shrugged at the request for further study of the link between brain trauma and hockey, and downplayed the concerns of medical professionals.
One series of emails shows how the league responded (or rather, didn’t respond) after the Chicago Blackhawks’ Martin Havlat was knocked unconscious during game 3 of the 2009 Western Conference Finals and still played 48 hours later in Game 4, a decision that shocked a neuropsychology consultant to Canada’s minor leagues. One unnamed NHL doctor went so far as to say that all the talk about player safety was meaningless unless those standards were maintained during the playoffs.
“I am once again disappointed in my colleagues in the [National Hockey League Team Physicians Society],” the doctor wrote in an email to Dr. Willem Meeuwisse, a Calgary-based member of the NHL’s Concussion Working Group. “We all sit around and talk and talk about concussion management. Then it’s the playoffs, someone suffers an obvious loss of consciousness and is back playing in less than 48 hours.
“This same Chicago player was hit hard again today and was unable to continue in the game. Another example of situational ethics. Our only job is to protect the players from harm including when the player is ‘clearing’ himself to play. We must be their advocate regardless of what the coach or general manager thinks.”
That email was passed forward to Dr. Ruben Echemendia, the co-chair of the Concussion Working Group, then to an NHL attorney and another team doctor, and finally to NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly. Though the NHL submitted 2.5 million pages’ worth of internal documents as part of the lawsuit, any concerns about why Havlat was allowed to play appears to have ended with Daly, who said nothing.
In 2011, Derek Stepan of the New York Rangers was fined for delivering a brutal shot to the head of then-Washington Capitals defenseman Mike Green, who was later diagnosed with a concussion. Former NHL referee Kerry Fraser contacted the NHL to complain that Stepan should have been suspended.
Fraser sent an email to a group of 39 medical researchers on March 1, 2011, including Dr. Echemendia. Fraser included a link to a video of the incident on TSN’s website.
“You will see the hit and then you can judge as to whether a ‘fine’ was warranted? You make the call,” Fraser wrote.
Once, again, Fraser’s email was passed up the food chain until it reached Commissioner Gary Bettman, who went back and forth with Daly to see if it was possible to harm Fraser financially to get him to back off.
“It wouldn’t be nice but maybe he should understand it’s not nice to bite the hand that feeds you,” Bettman wrote. “Please have someone check to see if there are any grounds to withhold [his severance pay]. Don’t want to hurt him – maybe just get his attention. This campaign, his book – somewhat delusional.”
Another exchange from 2009 details a conversation about NHL rules after a senior league player died after his head struck the ice during a fight. A member of the NHL’s officiating department contacted Stephen Walkom, a former referee who now serves as vice president and director of officiating. Walkom suggested that perhaps the NHL could levy penalties for removing helmets during a fight, a measure that eventually passed in 2013, but he also wrote this:
“Ya love it, much to the dismay of the tree huggin, never played sport, leftist doctors… that soon won’t let us climb stairs for fear of concussion…” Walkom responded.
“Well ultimately you can never get rid of fighting… No matter what the injury risk ;)” Kytola wrote.
There’s more, including some panicked words from Bettman telling NHL officials not to respond to the media’s coverage of fighting and concussions, all of which aligns with previously released documents in which he called the plaintiffs “mere puppets” who’d been duped by greedy lawyers and what he called in one 2014 email “hysterical,” over-hyped reporting.
How Bettman’s lawyers can argue that NHL players should have “put two and two together,” as the NHL wrote in its filed response, and known the dangers of playing hockey at the same time as the NHL was working behind the scenes to shut down conversation, bury the science, and potentially threaten those expressing concern, has not been addressed.
Perhaps we’ll learn the answer when more NHL emails are made public.