On Monday, a class-action lawsuit naming 10 former players, including former Toronto Maple Leafs captain Rick Vaive, as plaintiffs was filed against the NHL. The suit, unsurprisingly, claims that the NHL has committed a wide range of sins but repeatedly and specifically targets three parts of the professional game: designated enforcers, fighting and even body checking.
The lawsuit—the text of which is available at the website of lawyer and ex-NFL linebacker Mel Owens—outlines what it claims is a pattern of the NHL “causing or contributing to the injuries and increased risks” to its players in its introduction. It further argues that current rules allowing fighting and body checking are part of that pattern.
The last two paragraphs of the introduction make it clear that the players involved want to see a dramatic overhaul of the game:
17. The NHL persists in this conduct to date by, among other things, refusing to ban fighting and body checking and by continuing to employ hockey players whose main function is to fight or violently body check players on the other team (“Enforcers”).
18. The time has come for the NHL to elevate long-term player safety over profit and tradition.
Enforcers and fighting are unsurprising targets of the lawsuit. Both have been increasingly debated by high-powered hockey executives in recent years.
TSN’s Darren Dreger caused a stir at the start of the year when he reported that Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman was in favour of radical rule changes to help eliminate fighting, and that he was supported by GMs like the Carolina Hurricanes' Jim Rutherford and Ray Shero of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The NHL adjusted its rules this summer, making visors mandatory and penalizing the removal of helmets to fight. Both of these changes carried heavier consequences for fighters. Additionally, Dreger reported in October that the league wanted its linesmen to be as proactive as possible in stopping fights when players took off their helmets.
The lawsuit further quotes NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly as saying that he expects “[r]ule changes that impact and reduce the role of fighting in the game” to continue to be made over time.
In short: The role of fighting in hockey is very much a subject of debate, not just for fans, but also at the highest levels of power in the league.
Body checking, however, has been decidedly less controversial, likely because it’s a far more integral part of professional hockey than fighting. While fighting can be dismissed as a sideshow all but unrelated to the course of play, body checking is used to separate an attacking player from the puck, allowing for a change in possession.
Why does the lawsuit target body checking? To start with, because most concussions are the result of legal checks. The lawsuit cites a 2013 University of Toronto study that found 64.2 percent of concussions in the years covered were suffered on plays that were not penalized.
That’s a problem, and it both includes and transcends this specific legal action.
As more information becomes available on the long-term effects of both concussion and sub-concussive impacts (a term used 52 times in the lawsuit) and more stories of the suffering of retired players emerge, the pressure on the league will only grow.
It only seems logical to assume that the pressure will ultimately shape the NHL rulebook in ways that nobody can fully predict at this point. Those ways may well include the elimination of fighting and more rigid policing of what are now routine body checks.