Eric Desjardins of Philadelphia Flyers, 2005
Former NHL player Keith Jones made an interesting point Tuesday night on NBC Sports Network about the recently filed lawsuit that has swelled to more than 200 players, charging negligence with regard to preventing and treating head injuries.
Jones essentially said that he went against doctors’ wishes to play at times, when they advised him it might be better to take a game or two off because of “headaches.”
“I knew the risks,” Jones said.
In an interview with the Associated Press on Tuesday, fellow NBC analyst Jeremy Roenick blasted the lawsuit, saying:
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.
Granted, Jones and Roenick are paid by Comcast, which has a partnership with the NHL over television rights, so they may be a bit biased.
But these are going to be just two of the many obstacles that the plaintiffs in this case will face in trying to win either a judgment from a court and/or a big settlement from the league. While lawyers for the plaintiffs say there are many more than the 10 players already named who are part of the suit and that many more will soon be joining them, there seems to be many more current—and former—players who think this is a bogus lawsuit.
I’ve already canvassed about a half-dozen players, who prefer not to be named, and they don’t like the lawsuit. One said it “seems like a bunch of no-name guys who want to try and cash in.”
Two of the players involved in the lawsuit, Gary Leeman and Rick Vaive, weren’t exactly no-names during their careers. However, a lot of people, including myself, asked “Who?” when looking at the majority of the names listed.
That was one of the clumsy PR aspects to the lawsuit. Another was this sentence in the filing: "When coupled with the NHL’s refusal to protect players by banning full-body checking or penalizing on-ice fistfights, the league has created a dangerous atmosphere for players."
The NHL should have banned full body-checking? Like, you can’t hit anyone? Might as well just shut down the whole sport then.
The NHL hasn’t penalized on-ice fights, too? Well the league hasn't done so other than implementing the instigator rule in 1992 that made fights harder to start, banning fights in the final five minutes of games, handing out severe penalties for leaving the bench in a fight...you get the point. The NHL has done a lot to try and curb fighting in recent years, including the new rule that everyone joining the league must now wear a visor and keep their helmet on in a fight.
This suit states there was negligence in the past, not the present, so that’s where the battle will be won or lost.
But the NHL has a nice trump card to play. It was the first of the major North American pro leagues to establish baseline testing of the brain, in 1997. The plaintiffs counter with saying while that’s true, teams did little to inform players what those baseline tests revealed and what the risks were going forward.
But there are a lot of ex-players, such as Jones and Roenick, who say that’s not the case. Here is a 1998 video of one of the pioneers of the new baseline test, Dr. James Kelly, consulting with Pat LaFontaine:
Look, there is no doubt that many hockey players are hurting out there. We know many of these same players may lack the financial resources to get proper care. That may be more a problem of society than one of negligence by a sports league, however. The same can be said for millions of people who never played any sport.
The NFL suit was different in that there seemed to be mounting proof that teams and the league were akin to those tobacco companies that said smoking was good for you and that nicotine wasn’t addictive. There was evidence that the NFL purposely tried to hide the medical evidence related to head injuries.
The NHL has actually been seen as the most proactive of the major sports in trying to deal with player safety. That 1997 baseline test program is going to be touted a lot by the league in the coming months. You can believe that.
Was the NHL clouded in some of the ignorance, denial and chicanery that pervaded player safety back in the day? Of course, but we all were. The major advances in diagnosis and treatment of brain injuries haven't been made until recently, and many argue they still haven't been made sufficiently to establish a final determination of the dangers.
It’s tough to reconcile the logic of a suit whereby players who knowingly put skates on and tried to pound the stuffing out of each other didn’t know they might get some serious injuries, including some that might linger the rest of their lives.
That's beside the point, says Washington-based attorney Joe Cammarata, who once was the attorney for Paula Jones against President Bill Clinton, but today specializes in traumatic brain injuries and sports injuries.
"They understood that they could get hurt, but they didn't know about the repetitive effects. This case will come down to a 'What did they know and when did they know it?'" Cammarata told Bleacher Report. "Team doctors are supposed to not trust what their (player) answer is when you ask them if they are hurt and can play.They always want to play. They're in a position to keep them out of the game and they have a greater duty to protect them from themselves. These guys are warriors. That's what they do. Player says "I'm good.' Well, let me you something: 'Sit down. It's for your own good.' "
To tell a player it's for his own good not to play? They don't want to hear that, but maybe they should have heard it more often. With hockey players, however, pride figures to be a significant factor as to why many won't come forward.
I mean, do I have to cue up the tape of Bobby Baun, playing on a broken leg and scoring the game-winner to capture the 1964 Stanley Cup for the Leafs? Do I need to show the pictures of Roenick playing with a gruesome face from one of the many hard hits he took on the ice?
In hockey, everything is supposed to be settled on the ice, not in the courts.
Adrian Dater has covered the NHL for the Denver Post since 1995. Follow him on Twitter @adater