Our View: Fighting culture will haunt professional hockey

November 28, 2018

Minnesota Wild left wing Derek Boogaard gets hit by Edmonton Oilers left wing Steve MacIntyre in a fight in a game in Edmonton, Canada. Fighting is so much a part of NHL culture that there is a special category of players devoted to doing the game’s dirty work. Players like Bob Probert and Derek Boogaard made careers from dishing out and taking punishing hits. That job came under added scrutiny after the sudden death of Boogaard in 2011.

On May 13, 2011, former Minnesota Wild enforcer Derek Boogaard died of an accidental overdose of painkillers and alcohol. He was 28. An autopsy revealed that he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive, degenerative brain condition that may have been caused by the multiple concussions he suffered as one of the NHL’s most feared brawlers.

CTE is the same condition that Dr. Bennet Omalu had found nine years earlier in the brain of former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster. Webster, a Hall of Famer who earned four Super Bowl rings with the Steelers, died of a heart attack at age 50 after a decade of psychiatric problems.

Webster’s death and Omalu’s discovery were the initial impetus for what would become a massive class-action lawsuit that pitted former players against the NFL. A settlement in that case, which took effect in January 2017, is now projected to cost the NFL at least $1.4 billion — money which will be paid to players who develop Lou Gehrig’s disease, dementia or other neurological problems due to concussions they suffered in the NFL. Individual awards can be as high as $5 million, and all retired players are covered by the settlement.

For now, retired hockey players who suffer from concussion-related problems won’t make out nearly as well.

Since Boogard’s death, a total of 318 plaintiffs have sued the NHL for failing to protect players from head trauma and not warning about the long-term risks of repeated concussions suffered on the ice. As the NFL players did, these plaintiffs sought to unite in a class-action lawsuit that would have opened the case up to 5,000 additional retired players and would have given them considerable leverage against the league in settlement talks.

But in June, U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson in St. Paul denied class-action status, citing “case-management difficulties” and “widespread differences” in applicable state laws.

So the former players, facing a bare-knuckles, defend-every-inch-of-ice legal battle against the league, have settled for what amounts to literally pennies on the dollar compared to what NFL players got. The final details are still in the works, but the NHL is projected to pay about $17 million to $19 million, with plaintiffs averaging a cash payment of about $22,000 and up to $75,000 for future medical testing.

The settlement includes no admission of guilt by the NHL. Indeed, the league still maintains that there is no proof of a causal relationship between concussions and CTE.

That’s absurd.

We realize that Minnesota is the so-called “State of Hockey,” and that hockey is a tough-guy sport, but even fans of the game shouldn’t simply turn a blind eye to the long-term risks that hockey players face. And, in a certain sense, fans are at least partly culpable for these risks.

Of the “big four” professional team sports — football, baseball, basketball and hockey — only hockey tolerates fighting. A baseball player or basketball player who throws a punch will be instantly ejected and likely face fines and a multi-game suspension. If NFL players get into a fight on the field, not only are the players likely to be suspended, but their teams can also face large fines from the league office.

But fighting is part of the NHL culture. Fans like fights — league officials know this — so when two players drop their gloves, the refs simply stand aside and let them pummel each other until one or both players fall down. The consequences for engaging in such a brawl can be as meaningless as both players spending five minutes in the penalty box.

The strange thing is that hockey should be able to survive and thrive without gratuitous fisticuffs. It’s the fastest, most action-packed of the major sports, with players whose speed and skills are at times downright astonishing. In terms of pure drama and intensity, we’d argue that nothing rivals a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs — and it’s worth noting that fights in playoff games are extremely rare.

When played well, hockey is a wonderful game.

But fear of losing its fight-loving, blue-collar fan base has caused the NHL to take a short-sighted position that could someday bring the league to financial ruin. We expect that the science connecting concussions to CTE, Lou Gehrig’s disease and early-onset dementia is only going to get stronger and stronger over the next decade. In the not-so-distant future, this link might very well be as accepted as the connection between cigarette smoking and lung cancer.

By denying the evidence now and simply paying suffering ex-players a pittance to go away, the NHL’s future liability will increase exponentially, because the league won’t be able to say, “The players knew what they were signing up for.”

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