Concussion injury lawsuits against the NHL are unrealistic

by | Dec 6, 2013 | Opinion


Cameron De Silva, Biz/Tech Editor

In an attempt to cash in on their unsuccessful careers, a group of retired NHL players has filed a lawsuit seeking damages for health problems relating to concussions. What started off as a 10-player lawsuit against the NHL has now grown to over 200 former players who say that the league didn’t inform them of the dangers of repetitive brain injuries—or worse, that they suppressed scientific evidence of its dangers.

In a violent sport like hockey, where body-checking and fighting are both allowed, it’s hard to determine the specific cause for long-term effects a player may suffer from. The effects themselves can be even harder to prove.

These players were being paid to play a game that they grew up loving and with a physical sport like hockey, they must have been well aware of the dangers that came with playing the game. There hasn’t been any compelling evidence presented so far to support their claims, and unless there is a secret document indicating that the NHL withheld information on head-related injuries, the lawsuit won’t have much merit in a league that has shown it is willing to take steps to prevent its players from suffering even worse injuries. Only the names of the first 10 plaintiffs have been released so far. The names are largely of unknowns who had played as far back as the 70’s. The problem in considering these aging players is that there hasn’t been any way in determining the severity of their head injuries, as research into concussions sustained in professional sports is still relatively new.

The suit could have been a bigger news story if a former NHL star who hadn’t been informed of the dangers took part, like Eric Lindros or Paul Kariya.

The worse case scenario for the NHL is a multi-figure damage award or a sizable settlement, similar to the outcome of recent NFL concussion lawsuits. The National Football League has recently agreed to pay 4,500 former players an amount totaling US$765 million dollars, settling a claim that they had concealed information on the dangers of concussions. Although the NHL has just agreed to a $5.2 billion broadcasting deal with Rogers, it doesn’t have anywhere near the same amount of money as the NFL.

While the game of hockey does take a toll on the body, it’s hard to prove when the injury took place. The players involved in the lawsuit had also played hockey at the junior level, where body-checks and fighting are allowed. How do we determine if the player’s time in the NHL was directly responsible for their problems? Playing in a league with a demanding 82-game schedule couldn’t have helped, but their injuries could have been sustained when playing for the junior league, and may have been exacerbated throughout their time at the NHL.

One of the plaintiffs, Warren Holmes, managed to play only 45 NHL games and more than 700 in the minors or various other leagues. How can we be sure his injuries took place during this time at the NHL?

The NHL has shown that it’s willing to adopt new policies and implement new rules to make the game safer. The league has since increased the severity of penalties for blows to the head. They’ve also made visors on helmets mandatory for all players entering the NHL this season, and have established a concussion treatment protocol that includes a “quiet room” for injured players. Instead of assessing the player on the bench, they’re brought to the locker room and examined by the team’s physician to prove whether or not their injury is serious.

In an attempt to make the game safer, the players who have filed the lawsuit say that the NHL should have banned fighting and body-checking. Nevertheless, many players have been surveyed saying they are in favor of keeping fighting in the game.