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In Minnesota, the judge presiding over the concussion lawsuit brought against the NHL by former players agreed to make public dozens of documents from the case, ranging from NHL internal memos to email conversations between executives.
In one of the greatest journalistic contributions in the history of mankind (or this week), the Globe & Mail published all of the documents and made their database searchable.
It’s basically Christmas morning for hockey fans who obsess over the League’s approach to player safety, its relationship with the media and Colin Campbell’s salty mouth.
Here are 12 things we learned:
1. Where Gary Bettman’s CTE Dogma Comes From
Bettman has long been criticized for his refusal to link CTE with long-term sustained head trauma in contact sports. He’s also been criticized for saying “the science is still out” when it comes to many concussion issues.
But what do you expect the head of the organization to say when Dr. Ruben Echemendia, Director of the National Hockey League’s Neuropsychological Testing Program and Co-Chair of the NHL/NHLPA Concussion Working Group, is explaining it that way in his communications?
Once more, with feeling: “What the research shows is that CTE exists as a pathological entity and that a link has been made between CTE and repetitive brain trauma. We don’t know the strength of that link. We also don’t know who gets CTE, who doesn’t get CTE and what factors other than repetitive blows to the head can cause CTE. Consequently, to state that fighting in hockey causes CTE is premature and speculative.”
Echemendia isn’t a shill. He’s worked for other sports organizations like MLS and the U.S. soccer national teams. He’s the founder of the Penn State concussion study program.
What he’s saying here is what many in neuroscience say. It’s literally the thing that Bettman should say when speaking about CTE, but his refusal to acknowledge the basic link undercuts it.
2. The NHL Did Its Concussion Homework
In 2011, the NHL started taking a much more activist approach to concussions, with the adoption of Rule 48, for example. With Marc Savard, David Perron and Sidney Crosby all out with concussion-related symptoms, the League presented an exhaustive look at the issue at its Board of Governors meeting in March 11. That included this bit on fighting:
Give the whole thing a read. It’s fascinating to see how many concussions come from “legal hits” and “accidental contact.” Why, it’s almost like hockey is an inherently injurious game!
3. ‘Rule 48’ Was Years In The Making
Rule 48, which eliminated intentional head shots and blind-side hits, was adopted by the NHL in 2010. But the first inklings of that rule were back in 2007, when Campbell and Bettman led a discussion to see if there was an appetite from the general managers to pass a rule that banned hits where contact was made “initially” with the head. Only one GM at the time was in favor of it.
4. Brendan Shanahan Wanted To Ban Fighting
One guy who comes out of this dump smelling like a rose is Shanahan, the former head of the Dept. of Players Safety, whose email correspondence reveals a progressive thinker with admirable spelling and grammar.
The emails show that Shanahan was having a crisis of conscience: Tasked with keeping the game safe, seeing many fighters dealing with health issues and believing that fighting should be severely curtailed if not banned outright.
Sometimes that view caught him a lot of heat, such as when Brian Burke smacked him on the nose with a newspaper for talking with the media:
But the key email in the drop, arguably, is the one TSN spotlighted earlier in the week: The exchange between Bettman, Daly, Campbell and Shanahan in which Shanahan candidly speaks about players not wanting to fight and self-medicating to maintain the lifestyle.
The NHL misses that candor.
5. NHL Was Blasted For Dissolving Injury Panel
Whatever the reasons were for dissolving the NHL Injury Panel, seeing this kind of rebuke isn’t a good look in a player safety lawsuit.
6. Bob McKenzie Thought Dan Carcillo Was Crazy, Not High On Corey Perry
Bob McKenzie, Darren Dreger, Pierre LeBrun, Steve Simmons, Adam Proteau and Mike Zeisberger are among the journalists whose emails were included in the info dump. McKenzie’s emails to Campbell are, by far, the most jocular and in some cases pointed.
Like here, when the TSN commentator said former Chicago Blackhawks brawler Dan Carcillo was “dangerous” and “not all there.”
(As an aside, we’ve heard that McKenzie reached out to Carcillo to let him know this email would be included in the drop.)
(As another aside, we wonder if Aaron Ward’s snugness was ever mentioned in TSN editorial meetings.)
Like above, when he jokes about giving Corey Perry a suspension.
(Oh, and Doug "Whine" Wilson from Campbell...)
7. Colin Campbell Should Stop Using Email
I mean, we already knew that Colin Campbell plus email equals bad things for the NHL. But this treasure trove of email dumps had a dozen moments of Peak Colie, such as the retort to a reasonable question from then-Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ray Shero about an incident involving Kris Letang.
Then there was this ridiculous assessment, stemming from an incident between the Washington Capitals and the New York Rangers in 2007.
Tree-huggers! Actually, environmentalists are a frequent target:
That was Campbell vs. Brian Burke.
It wouldn’t be a Colin Campbell email without a reference to “balls.”
8. How Gary Bettman Controls NBC Sports’ Editorial Candor
This was an interesting exchange between Bettman, Campbell and NBC Sports boss Sam Flood. Not in the sense that Brett Hull said something dumb during his brief time as an NBC commentator, because he was terrible, but in the sense that it gives you a glimpse at how the NHL communicates with a rights-holder – and how that rights-holder promises to run hot takes past the NHL first.
9. The NFL/NHL Link
There are a few echoes back to the NFL lawsuit in the emails – like, for example, the NHL’s inability to get its teams to actually tabulate accurate concussion info. But this email from then-NHL head of officials Terry Gregson to then-NFL officials boss Mike Pereira shows an interesting working relationship on player safety between the Leagues.
10. How Brian Burke Worked the Head of Refs
On average, how many emails do you think Campbell received from Burke every week that read like this?
11. Players Use Concussions for Vacations
Kris King and Mike Murphy, NHL vice presidents of hockey operations, had this email exchange in 2011. And just when you though Murphy’s “players are over-doctored” was the most ridiculous thing in the email chain, you glance down and realize that Kris King is claiming NHL players are using injuries that “may” be concussions to get a week or two off during the season.
Oy, these kids today, with their exaggerated brain trauma …
And finally ….
12. Still No Smoking Gun
We looked at dozens of these emails. We saw an NHL that was old school dumb. We saw an NHL that was new school progressive. We saw an NHL that knows about concussions and player safety issues, and has tried to create ways to deal with them. We saw an NHL that steadfastly refuses to draw the links to brain injury from fighting that many want them to. We saw an NHL that, frankly, exhibits a willingness to listen to dialogue and new ideas while trying to navigate the murky waters of being a physical contact sport in an era of injury awareness and prevention. That especially goes for Bettman, love him or hate him.
We don’t see the willful ignorance of the NFL. And, most importantly, we don’t see any discussions of concussions, CTE and the like that occurred when most of the litigants in this case were NHL players.
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