A series of emails unsealed Monday by a U.S. federal judge in Minneapolis includes an exchange between NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, deputy commissioner Bill Daly and former discipline czar Brendan Shanahan in which the executives discuss possible links between fighting in hockey, concussions, depression and drug use.
The judge is overseeing a lawsuit filed by a group of former NHL players who say the league knew, or ought to have known, about the link between repetitive head injuries and long-term brain damage but failed to protect or educate its players.
More than 100 former players are involved in the lawsuit, including Gary Leeman, Dave Christian, Bernie Nichols and Brian Savage.
The judge will decide if the lawsuit will be certified as a class action.
Included among the unsealed emails is a chain from Sept. 3, 2011 — soon after the deaths of former NHL enforcers Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak.
The chain begins with Shanahan, who has since left his job with the league to become the president of the Toronto Maple Leafs, sending Bettman and Daly a link to a Globe and Mail story with the headline "Getting rid of hockey's goons." In the story, former Bruins general manager Harry Sinden suggests that the NHL ought to reduce, if not eliminate, fighting's place in the game.
Bettman replies: "An interesting question is whether being an NHL fighter does this to you (I don't believe so) or whether a certain type of person (who wouldn't otherwise be skilled enough to be an NHL player) gravitates to this job (I believe more likely)."
Daly responds: "I tend to think its [sic] a little bit of both. Fighting raises the incidence of head injuries/concussions, which raises the incidence of depression onset, which raises the incidence of personal tragedies."
Bettman then expresses doubt over whether the NHL Players' Association would consent to eliminating fighting and, with it, the enforcer's role.
"I believe the fighting and possible concussions could aggravate a condition, but if you think about the tragedies there were probably certain predispositions," the commissioner writes. "Again, though, the bigger issue is whether the [Players' Association] 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)."
Shanahan replies, "I thought [the players'] current position on illegal checks to the head is that it should encompass ALL contact. If we keep this simply about concussion and brain injuries then how can they argue against it."
'Now they take pills'
Shanahan then outlines how he thinks enforcers have evolved over the years, ending with an implication that some may be using sources other than team doctors to obtain medication.
"This is not the same role as it was in the 80's and 90's," Shanahan writes. "Fighters used to aspire to become regular players. Train and practice to move from 4th line to 3rd. Now they train and practice becoming fearsome fighters. They used to take alcohol or cocaine to cope (Kordic) [a reference to late enforcer John Kordic, who died in 1992 after a drug overdose]. Now they take pills. Pills to sleep. Pills to wake up. Pills to ease pain. Pills to amp up. Getting them online."
Bettman then expresses his doubt over getting players, and NHLPA head Donald Fehr, to agree to changes.
"Agree, but remember you are about to try to take a certain type of player (or aspiring player) and tell him his ability to earn more money than he could probably make doing anything else is over! The current head of union spent a decade in baseball protecting steroid users over what was best for the vast majority of his players and the game."
NHL spokesman Frank Brown said the league would not be commenting on the release of the emails.
"Our position on this matter was expressed by commissioner Bettman at his All-Star availability," Brown told the CBC. "Nothing has changed. There is nothing to add while this matter is before the court:"
Bettman said during NHL All-Star weekend in Nashville in January that he wasn't concerned about the impending release of emails in the concussion case.
"I think that the selective release leaking of documents out of context may cause some people to scratch their head, a couple of other people maybe to, for a brief moment, be a little embarrassed about salty language or the like, but I'm very comfortable with our record," Bettman said.
"I think, in terms of us running our business on an ongoing basis and the fact that we have a league to run, I'd prefer these things not be public. They'll be a distraction at best. But I don't think they impact the merits of the case."