Three months after the NFL agreed on a $765 million settlement with thousands of ex-players for concussion-related health problems, a group of their NHL peers is going to court, too.
Hockey has proven to be an equally dangerous sport as football, but that doesn’t mean the link between collisions on the ice and post-career trouble will lead to a similar outcome. The legal and cultural surroundings of the NFL and NHL concussion lawsuits are more distinct than alike.
Start with the nature of the players themselves.
Former NFL players haven’t just taken the league to task for their concussion-related concerns; they’ve sued over all kinds of alleged misconduct, including their rights to memorabilia and highlight film revenue.
In the NHL, there’s more blatant loyalty expressed by the guys who used to don the uniforms. Hockey players have a penchant for closing ranks when controversy arises, and this is no different.
Two prominent former players, Ken Daneyko and Keith Primeau, expressed disinterest in pursuing concussion claims against the league when interviewed prior to the introduction of the lawsuit despite their lingering physical side effects from years of playing the game.
Jeremy Roenick, in an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday, was even more outspoken about his disregard for the lawsuit that was filed Monday in federal court in Washington.
“I’m not going to tell people what to do and say they’re all trying to cap on the system right now. That’s their prerogative,” said Roenick, a 20-year veteran of five NHL teams. “They can put themselves in public. They can go after the league that they craved to be in since they were little kids and paid their salary. ... I’ve always lived in the fact that I played the game of hockey knowing there was a lot of risk to be taken. I went on the ice knowing that my health and my life could be altered in a split second, and I did it because I loved the game.”
Roenick said he had 13 concussions during his career.
“I can tell you that the teams I was with handled it very well and professionally throughout the whole ordeal,” Roenick said.
Ten former players, including All-Star forward Gary Leeman, are named as plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit. It alleges the NHL hasn’t done enough to protect players from concussions and seeks court-approved, NHL-sponsored medical monitoring for the players’ injuries as well as monetary damages. Attorney Steve Silverman said a total of about 200 former players have signed up to be included in the action.
“What the NFL concussion lawsuit did, not in the minds of the lawyers but in the minds of the former players, was give them confidence and hope that, yes, David can slay Goliath,” Silverman said on Tuesday.
Among the allegations:
— The NHL knew or should have known about scientific evidence that players who sustain repeated head injuries are at greater risk for illnesses and disabilities both during their hockey careers and later in life.
— Even after the NHL created a concussion program to study brain injuries affecting NHL players in 1997, the league took no action to reduce the number and severity of concussions during a study period from 1997 to 2004.
— The league didn’t do anything to protect players from unnecessary harm until 2010, when it made it a penalty to target a player’s head.
NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said on Monday the league is “completely satisfied with the responsible manner in which the league and the players’ association have managed player safety over time” and that it intends to defend the case “vigorously.”
Leeman, who played for the Toronto, Calgary, Montreal, Vancouver and St. Louis from 1983-1996, suffered multiple concussions and sub-concussive impacts during his career, according to the lawsuit. Since his retirement, he’s suffered from post-traumatic head syndrome, headaches, memory loss and dizziness.
Michael McCann, a sports law professor at the University of New Hampshire, expected this lawsuit to come like most observers of the NHL and the sports world in general. But he questioned whether the case is as strong as that of the former NFL players.
“I don’t know if I saw in this complaint as much as we saw in the complaint against the NFL, in terms of allegations of misconduct. Much of this complaint focused on how the NHL could’ve made the game safer at various points of time and how the league knew of information and didn’t allegedly share it,” McCann said. “In the NFL, there was the allegation that the league went out of its way to cloud the science. I didn’t see any of that in this complaint. I saw the NHL could’ve done more and was interested in making money. Maybe there are ethical issues, but I don’t see how that’s necessarily a strong legal argument.”
The complaint accused the NHL of being aware of studies dating to the 1920s of the danger the sport can cause to the head.
“Those studies are publicly available. So it’s hard to call that any kind of fraud,” McCann said. “It seems as if players and their own union could’ve availed themselves of that information.”