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When do players and the NHLPA take ownership over concussion issues?

Ken Campbell
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Clarke MacArthur (Jana Chytilova/NHLI via Getty Images) Author: The Hockey News

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When do players and the NHLPA take ownership over concussion issues?

Ken Campbell
By:

The NHL faces a lawsuit from former players alleging the league underplayed the dangers of repeated head trauma, but the actions of the NHLPA and some of its members make you wonder whether knowledge of concussions would have made any difference.

You’ve got to think that every NHL player and executive will think at least twice before hitting the ‘Send’ button the next time he wants to send an email or text message with sensitive information. As we’ve found with the Dennis Wideman and NHL concussion case recently, you never know when what you thought were your private words are going to be used against you.

Such is the case with the emails that were unsealed by a U.S. Federal Court in Minneapolis involving the highest-ranking NHL officials. The messages, part of the concussion lawsuit against the NHL, are damning to both the league and the NHL Players’ Association and pull back the veil on what some of the league’s most powerful people really think about the culture of violence in the game.

Back in 2011, on the heels of the tragic deaths of enforcers Rick Rypien, Derek Boogaard and Wade Belak, an email thread involving commissioner Gary Bettman, deputy commissioner Bill Daly and then senior vice president Brendan Shanahan spoke about the tragedies and the possibility of the NHL eradicating fighting.

Among the emails made public by Rick Westhead of THN, Bettman said: “Do you remember what happened when we tried to eliminate the staged fights? The ‘fighters’ objected and so did the (NHLPA). Eliminating fighting would mean eliminating the jobs of the ‘fighters’, meaning that these guys would not have NHL careers.”

The NHL has never had a huge appetite for eliminating fighting, but the emails make it look as though if it did, it would expect a huge pushback from the NHLPA, so much so that it's a route the league doesn't see the point in pursuing. (The Hockey News contacted the NHLPA seeking a comment from executive director Donald Fehr on this issue and he declined through a spokesman.)

But here’s the thing. Eliminating fighting in the NHL would not deprive the NHLPA of one single member. There would still be 23 roster spots open per team and while it’s true some players might lose their jobs, they would be replaced by players with a different skill set. Was the NHLPA concerned about slow-footed defensemen losing their jobs when the NHL cracked down on obstruction and interference more than a decade ago? There were players whose careers ended prematurely because of that. Did the union flex its muscles when the league introduced the trapezoid and reduced the effectiveness of goaltenders who could handle the puck, thereby taking a huge advantage away from some of its members? Nope.

The players who are suing the NHL right now claim that the league repeatedly underplayed the dangers of repeated head trauma and put its own bottom line ahead of player safety and they have a good point. But when it comes to looking out for the safety of their members, at some point the players have to look at the union that represents their interests and the behavior own members.

Even now, with all the knowledge we have when it comes to head injuries, we have Wideman basically blowing off a member of the Calgary Flames medical staff and refusing to go to the quiet room after a hit that he later claimed concussed him. We have Clarke MacArthur of the Ottawa Senators admitting that he knew he had a concussion early in the season, but essentially lying about it to the team’s medical staff. “I was telling the trainers and doctors that I was fine, but I was hiding the symptoms,” MacArthur said.

Neither Wideman nor MacArthur received his concussion from a fight or violent player that went beyond the rules. Wideman was allegedly concussed after a legal hit along the boards and MacArthur suffered his concussion after colliding with a teammate. There’s really not much anyone could have done to prevent their injuries.

But when it comes to major rule changes, the fact remains the players have an enormous amount of sway. Any major rule change such as, say, imposing harsher penalties for fighting, would have to go through the competition committee, which needs a two-thirds mandate for a proposed rule to go ahead to the GMs, then on to the board of governors. That means seven of the 10 members have to be in agreement. But with five of those spots on the committee designated for active players, at least two of those players would have to vote in concert with all five representatives from the league.

So if the NHLPA has no interest in seeing the enforcer’s role disappear, as was intimated by the league in those emails, then it’s unlikely it would ever happen. But as Bettman said in one of this emails: “The bigger issue is whether the (NHLPA) would consent to in effect eliminate a certain type of ‘role’ and player. And, if they don’t, we might try to do it anyway and take the ‘fight’ (pun intended).”

Which means the league at least at one time considered the possibility of making a radical rule change unilaterally and without the consent of the players. It looks as though Bettman knew it would be challenged on legal grounds, but was willing to bet there would not be a court that rule against the NHL.

Now wouldn’t that be interesting? You’d have the league enacting a rule aimed at improving workplace safety and the union challenging it. That would put the NHLPA in a pretty awkward position, no? It’s a development we’ll probably never see, since the league has never really had an appetite for banning fighting, but it would certainly put to the test the notion that the members and their union are actually looking out for the welfare of players.

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When do players and the NHLPA take ownership over concussion issues?