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Fighting Back: Former Players Battle NHL

April 20, 2017 10:17 PM

The National Hockey League has refused to ban fighting despite private fears by its executives that a player may die as a result of a fight on the ice, according to documents contained in a federal lawsuit filed in St. Paul against the league.

The NHL is accused of promoting fighting and violence for decades while downplaying the health risks of concussions.

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At least 17 former NHL players from Minnesota have joined the suit, which is expected to go to trial later this year.

5 EYEWITNESS NEWS traveled across the U.S. and Canada to interview former players, medical experts and league officials. Our reporting includes an examination of thousands of pages of documents made public as part of the players' suit.

This story is the first part of our continuing coverage of the landmark concussion lawsuit being argued here, in The State of Hockey.

The NHL twice declined to comment on the case for this story.

The Players

More than 150 players have joined the lawsuit, including former North Stars' winger Jack Carlson. Carlson, who spent his youth skating on the rinks dotting Minnesota's Iron Range, played six seasons during the 1970s and 1980s — considered to be the NHL's golden era of fighting.

"I knew my role with the North Stars back in the day," Carlson said in an interview describing his fighting days with 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS. "It was my job. It was what I was paid to do."

Carlson says he joined the lawsuit because players who suffered repeated blows to the head during their careers need to be medically monitored for long-term health effects such as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) – the degenerative brain disease found in several deceased NHL players, including Derek Boogaard, 28, a former player whose role was to be an enforcer for the Minnesota Wild. He died in 2009 from an accidental drug overdose.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, has previously stated the players' lawsuit "has no merit whatsoever" and has continuously defended the role of fighting since he assumed leadership of the league in 1993.

"Relatively few concussions result from fights, and the players themselves support some degree of 'self-policing' on the ice to minimize other forms of dangerous play," Bettman wrote in a letter last year to U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT).

The senator had demanded Bettman address concerns about the league's stance on fighting, given the growing medical research about concussions and CTE.

Bettman's reluctance to ban fighting has not waivered despite an acknowledgment by his deputy commissioner that fights result in concussions suffered by players.

"Fighting raises the incidence of head injuries/concussions, which raises the incidence of depression onset, which raises the incidence of personal tragedies," Bill Daly, NHL deputy commissioner and general counsel, wrote to Bettman in a 2011 email.

Daly's statement appears to be inconsistent with the public stance by Bettman and the league that fighting actually makes the game safer by serving as a release-valve for players.

During a March celebration of the Stanley Cup in Ottawa, Ontario, Daly told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS he stands by his email, but added, "I think there are a lot of people who continue to support some level of fighting in the game for safety reasons."

The NHL Players' Association declined to comment. 

'We Sell Violence'

Privately, league executives have admitted "we sell violence," and "we sell and promote hate," according to the NHL's internal emails reviewed by 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS. Other internal documents show teams market the role of fighting to generate crowd noise and enthusiasm, sometimes by ringing "boxing bells" before the first punch is thrown or playing "Eye of the Tiger," the theme song from the boxing movie, "Rocky."

Jack Carlson, the former North Stars player, says the team would play music from the movie, "Jaws" before his fights.

"They were looking for something to happen and a lot of times it did," he said.

"It was like the Roman Coliseum at times," said Reed Larson, a Minnesota native and University of Minnesota alum who played 17 seasons in the NHL. He is one of four named plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Dan LaCouture, a former NHL winger in the late 1990s and early 2000s, says he was marketed as a fighter on buses and billboards.

In his home in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, LaCouture still keeps an advertisement from the Pittsburg Penguins titled, "Road Rage," which shows him throwing a punch over a phone number promoting ticket sales.

"It was really troubling to me – now you are being pigeon-holed," said LaCouture, who earlier in his career shared lines with Hall of Famers like Mario Lemeuix and Mark Messier.

"I didn't like it being my role though. … That's not my role. I'm a goddamn hockey player," he said.

LaCouture, who joined the lawsuit, says he suffered 20 concussions during his 11-year career and now suffers from headaches, irritability and depression.

LaCouture's career started to unravel in 2004 when, as a New York Rangers player, his head slammed into the ice during a fight in Madison Square Garden. He barely moved for several minutes before taken off ice. LaCouture says he was not taken to a hospital.

"I remember I got looked at in the trainer's room. The team doctor stitched up my head, the back of my skull… no CAT scan, MRI or nothing," he recalled.

NHL: 'Real Concern' of Death

Players who lose their helmets during fights and hit their heads on the ice – like LaCouture did – have raised concerns inside the league for several years.

In January 2009, NHL executives considered a ban on fighting after the death of Don Sanderson, who played in the Ontario Hockey League. The 21-year old hit his head on the ice during a fight and fell into a coma for three weeks before he died.

A day after Sanderson's death, Commissioner Bettman cautioned there should be "no knee jerk reaction" to change the rules on fighting, according to internal emails.

Two years later, a league presentation to general managers included a blunt assessment of the risks associated with fighting: "... there is a real concern about the possibility of a severe injury or death as a result of a player striking his head on the ice or boards during a fight."

Such health concerns prompted an unnamed league executive to pledge support for an outright ban on fighting at the beginning of the 2013-2014 season, according to meeting notes released earlier this month as part of the lawsuit.

"We can't maintain that we are all about eliminating head injuries, concussions and yet allow players to pound each other's heads," the executive stated.

Fighting 'Should be Eliminated from the Sport'

While league executives have refused to ban fighting, top medical experts from around the world have called for its elimination from the NHL – the only major professional league in which fighting does not lead to an automatic ejection.

"The swiftest way to get (fighting) out of hockey is to make it a game ejection for anybody who drops their gloves," Dr. Michael Stuart, co-director of the Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center in Rochester said in a March interview.

Stuart provides second medical opinions to NHL players, and his three sons have played in the league.

In 2013, he helped organize Mayo's Ice Hockey Summit, which concluded that fighting should be banned at all levels of the game.

"There is no doubt in our mind that fighting increases the risk of concussion — therefore should be eliminated from the sport," Stuart said.

League executives have shown disdain for medical professionals who have suggested the NHL take a more aggressive stance on fighting and violence.

The league's vice president of officiating had previously stated in an email that he loved fighting "much to the dismay of tree hugging, never played sport leftist doctors."

And, after the Canadian Medical Association condemned the league in 2014 for not doing enough to "reduce the carnage," the NHL's vice president of communications dismissed those concerns as "imbecilic rants from dumbass doctors."

As for Bettman, he continues to resist changes to the game, stating in a rules meeting during the 2013-2014 season, "right now the consensus is status quo."

Further, he directed his staff not to publicly comment on fighting.

"... if media asks about this, deflect the question," Bettman ordered.

The commissioner and the NHL declined multiple requests from 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS for an interview during the league's celebration of the Stanley Cup in Ottawa.

Members of the Hubbard Family, who own KSTP-TV, also own less than 1 percent of the Minnesota Wild and have no control over team operations.

Contact Investigative Producer Joe Augustine at jaugustine@kstp.com

Contact Investigative Reporter Eric Chaloux at echaloux@kstp.com

FOLLOW this 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS investigation here.


Credits

Joe Augustine & Eric Chaloux

Copyright 2017 - KAAL-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company

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