British Columbia

Former hockey enforcer sues Canadian leagues over concussions

The claim says the leagues neglected to protect their players from traumatic brain injuries and subsequent long-term effects.

'I was facing major depression. I was having mood swings,' says former player

James McEwan fought more than 200 times between junior and pro hockey. After battling depression and suicide, he's now a yoga teacher and meditation coach in Kelowna, B.C. (Marissa Baecker/Getty Images and Jeremy Allingham)

A former hockey enforcer has launched a class action against the major junior Canadian and Western Hockey Leagues and Hockey Canada claiming they neglected to protect their players from traumatic brain injuries and the devastating long-term impacts that follow.

The Canadian Hockey League (CHL) administers the operations of North America's three major junior hockey leagues for players 16 to 20 years of age.

The Western Hockey League (WHL) is one of those leagues with member clubs  located in Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and British Columbia. Hockey Canada is the national governing body of ice hockey and ice sledge hockey in Canada. 

James McEwan, 31, the former captain of the WHL's Kelowna Rockets, fought more than 200 times in major junior leagues. He says he has many symptoms of chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE, a degenerative brain condition caused by repeated blows to the head. 

The symptoms of CTE may not begin until years after the injuries and it can progress to dementia, behavioural problems and depression. 

Depression and mood swings

"I could check off many of the boxes," McEwan told CBC's On The Coast host Gloria Mackarenko.

"I was facing major depression. I was having mood swings. I just wasn't feeling myself. I had nervous breakdowns and it started to happen more and more."

Now McEwan is leading a class action against the hockey leagues claiming they encouraged, praised and rewarded fights when they should have "known the risks of neurological damage arising from repetitive head trauma."

McEwan is the representative plaintiff for the action, which represents former and current players in the CHL, who did not play in the National Hockey League and who suffered injury due to on- or off-ice hockey activity.

The class action has not yet been certified by the court. 

Seeks change and compensation

It's not the first such legal case against a sports league.

In November 2018, the NHL announced a tentative $18.9 million US settlement with more than 300 retired players who sued the league and accused it of failing to protect them from head injuries or warn them of the risks involved with playing.

McEwan says he hopes his lawsuit, if successful, will lead to real changes in the sport as well as compensation for players who have suffered. 

"I want to see players protected, and I want to make sure people don't go through the things I've had to go through and I want to make sure they are taken care of," he said.

None of the allegations have been proven in court. CBC has reached out to Hockey Canada, the WHL and the CHL and is awaiting comment. 

Listen to the interview with James McEwan:

With files from On The Coast