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Fighting Back: Former Players Say NHL Downplayed Concussions, Ignores Science

April 28, 2017 07:09 AM

The National Hockey League has expressed disdain for doctors and a readiness to retaliate against those who criticize how the league handles concussions, according to internal emails made public as part of a federal lawsuit filed in St. Paul.

The suit, brought by more than 150 former players, accuses the NHL of failing to warn players about the health risks associated with brain injuries.

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The players say they were “left in the dark” for decades and are now demanding the league pay to monitor their health conditions.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman says the lawsuit, which includes 17 former players from Minnesota, has “no merit whatsoever.”

Over the last several months, 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS traveled across the country and into Canada to interview former players, medical experts and league executives as part of our continuing coverage of concussion issues raised in the suit, which is expected to go to trial here in the State of Hockey later this year.

The first story in our series, "Fighting Back," detailed the league’s refusal to ban fighting from the sport despite acknowledgements from NHL executives that fighting raises the incidence of concussions, causes long-term health consequences and could lead to a player dying on the ice.

FOLLOW this 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS investigation here.

Now, 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS explains why former players feel the league downplayed the risks of concussions and challenged peer-reviewed medical research related to brain injuries.

'My Head Went Oblong'

Jeff Parker says the constant ringing in his ears drives him “batty.” Hearing is a challenge. Lights trigger headaches. Food has no taste.

Parker says these are the consequences he lives with after suffering concussions in the NHL.

"I wouldn't wish that on anybody to get a concussion like the one I had,” Parker said. “It's awful."

Parker, who grew up skating on rinks in White Bear Lake, played parts of four seasons with the Buffalo Sabres and Hartford Whalers in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Today, he tends bar at Lonetti’s Lounge, a dark, quiet Rice Street tavern on St. Paul’s east side. He says he still reels from the consequences of a particular concussion suffered during a game more than 25 years ago.

“My head got caught in the glass, and when I came to, I thought I was playing for a different team,” he said about his hit into the boards in 1991 that ended his career.

“My head went oblong,” he added.

Parker, who joined the lawsuit, says players were under pressure to suit up regardless of suffering concussions.

“If you got a little bell ringer or you got hit or something – they’re looking for you to get back in the line-up,” he said. “They’re looking for ... how soon you can play? ... They’re looking to get you back on the ice.”

Medical Monitoring

Reed Larson says he was told “nothing” about concussions during the 17 years he played in the league.

He echoed Parker’s claim that concussed players were pressured to return to the ice.

“If you knew where you were, and you were ready to go; you’d go out the next shift or the next day or the next period,” Larson said. “People want to point us out at as troublemakers or looking for a pot of gold. This is a serious issue, and it's rampant.”

The former Minnesota Gopher and NHL star says he joined the lawsuit because he believes players need to be medically monitored for long-term health effects like chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain disease found in five former NHL players, including former Wild player Derek Boogaard.

Boogaard died in 2009 from an accidental drug overdose. His family donated his brain for research and it has been studied by neurologists at Boston University (BU).

“Derek Boogaard was a sad case,” said Chris Nowinski, Ph.D., co-founder of the CTE Center at BU.

Nowinski has helped collect more than 400 brains of former athletes to be studied for long-term health effects following repeated blows to the head.

During a March interview in Boston, Nowinski explained the research, which led to the National Football League’s billion-dollar settlement with former players, and the league’s admission last year that football-related head trauma is linked to CTE.

Nowinski says research shows the issue extends from the field to the rink.

“Concussions in hockey can be the worst concussions of all because you can’t change the fact that you are playing on ice,” he said.

NHL players are five times more likely to suffer a concussion than NFL players, according to reports cited in the lawsuit.

“Ice hockey has a concussion problem, and the reality is, it has a CTE problem," Nowinski said.

Warning Players is 'Premature'

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman denies any link between CTE and hockey.

In a letter he wrote last year to U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Bettman dismissed criticism that the league has not done enough to warn players about long-term risks like CTE.

“The medical consensus is that no causal link between concussions and CTE has been scientifically established," Bettman wrote. He cited other medical research that suggests the research on CTE is “inconclusive.”


BETTMAN'S LETTER TO SEN. BLUMENTHAL

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The Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minnesota, calls CTE a “controversial condition” that is still not well understood, but also says it is likely caused by repeated head trauma.

Last year, Bettman said it is “at best, premature” to warn players about the risks of CTE – a stance the lead CTE researchers at BU called “ridiculous.”

“There’s no question that repetitive brain trauma exposure is leading to a distinct type of degenerative disease that causes your brain to rot,” Nowinski said.

Bettman declined requests for an interview. In February, NHL attorneys challenged the peer-reviewed research on CTE conducted at BU, and asked U.S. District Judge Susan Nelson to order the university to turn over all of its findings. Earlier this week, the judge denied the league’s motion.

'Absolute Freaking Idiot'

NHL executives have blasted medical experts who criticize the league’s handling of concussions and brain injuries.

In a 2013 email, Colin Campbell, the NHL’s Director of Hockey Operations, called the team trainer for the Ottawa Senators “an absolute freaking idiot” after the trainer relayed concerns that the league does “not take (the concussion issue) seriously.”

A year later, Frank Brown, the league’s Vice President of Communications characterized concerns from the Canadian Medical Association as “imbecilic rants from dumbass doctors.”

Bettman has defended the league’s response to concussion issues and has touted that it was the first professional league to establish a concussion safety program which included neuropsychological testing for all NHL players.

In addition, Bettman says, players have received “numerous warnings... regarding the seriousness of head injuries and concussions.”

Yet in 2009, a team doctor for the Chicago Blackhawks accused the league of having “situational ethics” when a player was allowed to return to the ice less than 48 hours after being knocked unconscious during a playoff game.


DISDAIN FOR DOCTORS

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When a former referee accused the league of failing to protect players from head injuries in 2011, Bettman showed a readiness to retaliate.

“Are we still paying him anything?” Bettman asked in an email exchange with Bill Daly, the league’s general counsel.

“yes (sic), his severance. but i'm not sure we can stop paying him for expressing views critical of the league,” Daly responded.

Undaunted, Bettman asked whether there were any grounds to withhold payments because “maybe he should understand its (sic) not nice to bite the hand that feeds you... Don't want to hurt him - maybe just get his attention."


"...NOT NICE TO BITE THE HAND THAT FEEDS YOU"

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In June, attorneys for the players will ask U.S. District Judge Susan Nelson to certify the suit as a class action – a decision which would potentially cover all former NHL players as the litigation moves forward.

Contact Investigative Producer Joe Augustine at jaugustine@kstp.com

Contact Investigative Reporter Eric Chaloux at echaloux@kstp.com


Credits

Joe Augustine & Eric Chaloux

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

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