Top Shelf: Concussion suit faces uphill battle against NHL

1:45 PM, Nov 26, 2013   |    comments
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Philadelphia, PA ( - On Tuesday morning the NHL's official website prominently displayed a story about the league's new multi-billion dollar broadcast deal with Rogers Communications.

Buried near the bottom of the "Top Headlines" section, however, was a link bearing the headline: "League issues statement on concussion lawsuit."

Like it or not, this is the modern NHL. Big-money TV deals are something the league likes to shout from the mountain-top, while the ugly side of the game -- the part of hockey that affects the lives of the actual individuals who play the sport -- gets glossed over.

Ten ex-NHL players filed a lawsuit Monday against the league over its handling of concussions. The news was hardly shocking, as it comes less than three months after the NFL reached a $765 million settlement over concussion suits filed by former players.

They say the NFL is a copycat league, but this time it's former hockey players who are mimicking their counterparts from the world of football. Violent collisions that result in repeated blows to the head are common to both sports. And just like the ex-NFL players did in their lawsuit, the litigants in the NHL suit are claiming the league was negligent when it came to warning players about the long-term dangers related to head injuries.

The suit says the players were unaware scientific evidence has long linked brain injuries to long-term neurological problems and that the NHL hid how dangerous repeated brain trauma really is.

Now, most people fall into two camps on this issue. There is the crowd that will always see a move like this as a money grab by players who should've known the risks that come with playing a sport where heavy contact, and high salaries, are the norm. Others feel the NHL is hypocritical for marketing the sport's violent nature to fill their coffers, only to abandon the men who put their bodies on the line for the sake of our entertainment.

Like with most issues, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Is this about money? Of course it is. But it's not all about dollars and cents. I'm sure every one of the players behind this lawsuit would rather have their old health back instead of money, but that's not possible. If you've ever served as a jury member for a civil trial, you'd know the hardest part is trying to correlate pain, suffering and other intangibles into dollar amounts. It's far from an ideal system, but it's the best we've got at the moment.

It's not fair to say the 10 players in this lawsuit are purely motivated by greed, but it'd also be unfair to characterize the NHL as heartless corporate monsters who care nothing about the safety of their players. Through the years, the league has taken steps to minimize head hits that lead to serious concussions. That doesn't mean the NHL doesn't still have a long way to go when it comes to cleaning up the sport, but it's going to be difficult to prove the league was negligent in a legal sense.

Of the 10 men named as plaintiffs in the class action suit, there is not a single star player among them. Gary Leeman and Rick Vaive, who were both 50- goal scorers for the Toronto Maple Leafs, are the biggest names of the bunch. Four of the other players -- Brad Aitken, Darren Banks, Warren Holmes and Morris Titanic -- played a combined 98 NHL games.

When guys are complaining about serious issues like the "pathological and debilitating effects of brain injuries" as they do in this lawsuit, it shouldn't matter if they were "stars" or not. Then again, it'd be foolish to think that adding a name like Eric Lindros or Pat LaFontaine to this lawsuit wouldn't shine a brighter light on this issue.

And maybe someday players like Lindros, or younger guys like Chris Pronger and Marc Savard, will join the legal fight and help bring greater attention to the subject. This lawsuit is only the first step in this process and could wind up being the first of many legal arguments brought against the NHL. After all, few people believe the recent NFL's settling of their lawsuit a few months back is the end to that battle.

In all likelihood, the lawsuit brought forth on Monday will end in a settlement. You better believe the NHL and its lawyers have been watching the NFL situation closely and if they can't get the lawsuit thrown out completely, then they'll try to settle.

When it comes down to it, the cards are all in the league's favor. The NHL will argue that the safety of its players is collectively-bargained between the league and the NHL Players' Association, and therefore the players have a representative in the process and aren't simply subject to the whims of the league. It's telling that NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly found time to mention the NHLPA in a brief one-paragraph statement in response to the lawsuit Monday, while Leeman and Co. never mentioned the players' union at all during a complaint of nearly 14,000 words.

Barring evidence that explicitly shows the NHL covered up or withheld information regarding head injuries, it is going to be an uphill battle for the players to win this suit. After all, the NFL lawsuit had evidence that some folks felt approached "smoking gun" status and the players still wound up settling rather than face the prospect of losing the legal battle outright.

However, it's also only the first shot fired in a war that could be waged in the courts for decades. The NHL is well-equipped to fight these allegations and they'll need to be.

This is only the beginning.

The Sports Network

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