The recent unsealing of NHL emails and documents by a judge involved in the NHL concussion lawsuit revealed the often-candid private discussions among league executives, team owners and even some notable pundits over player safety.
Pundits and bloggers had a field day scouring through the trove of information. Puck Daddy’s Greg Wyshynski, SB Nation’s Mary Clarke and Pat Iversen and CBS Sports’ Chris Peters all did a fine job breaking down the key points and juicy personal chatter, providing a fascinating and revealing peek behind the scenes over how the league is struggling to address the safety of its players.
The emails also revealed serious concerns among team owners several years ago regarding possible legal ramifications, as well as the league’s efforts to address that problem. There was even resentment among some league executives regarding concussion warnings from doctors.
Their contents also provoked calls for the league to do more to prevent head trauma among its players, including banning fighting and further steps to crack down on hits to the head. Concerns that the league remains hampered by “old-school thinking” about players safety also led to suggestions of a “troubling disregard” by top officials about the matter.
Time will tell if the release of these documents to have much immediate impact upon player safety. Whether they help the former players in their lawsuit against the league is up to a judge to determine.
For years, the league dragged its feet over efforts to improve player safety. In fairness, however, they have taken steps during this decade to address this problem.
Suspensions and fines are now implemented and enforced for reckless play. Fighting is now on the decline largely because today’s coaching systems require players who can do more than chuck knuckles. There’s also ongoing improvement in the treatment and handling of concussion cases, as well as a growing understanding of the severity of head trauma.
Compare that to over a decade ago, when there was little understanding about the seriousness of concussions and fighting was so much a part of the game that it was used to sell the league’s entertainment value. In ten years, the NHL has come a long way.
However, that doesn’t mean the league shouldn’t do more to protect the players. Indeed, its brain trust could ban fighting outright if it wanted. Tougher stances could be taken against players who have an ongoing history of reckless play causing injury.
Despite the recent changes, there undoubtedly remains an old-fashioned mindset around the league that fears banning fights and cracking down on careless play could hurt league revenue. Fans still enjoy the physical aspect of the game. For many, that includes fighting, even if that tactic does little to actually change the outcome of a game.
The NHLPA also deserves its share of criticism. Few in the PA hierarchy or among the membership’s influential stars are calling for the elimination of enforcers or harsher penalties for recidivist cheap-short artists. They instead seem more interested in protecting jobs than in pushing for change to protect the players, even if it could cost the jobs of those who make their living from rough play or their fists.
Not even the elimination of fighting and dirty play will eradicate concussions form the game. Hockey is a physical sport. Head trauma can sometimes result from even the cleanest of bodychecks. While players should have access to the best protective equipment and be able to participate in as safe an environment as possible, the threat of concussions will still be there.
That doesn’t mean the league and its players shouldn’t address the issue, but there must be some acknowledgement that the risk of injury will be part of the game. While more can and should be done to protect NHL players, the league is at least taking steps – at times halting or sometimes halfhearted – in the right direction.