Habs owner Geoff Molson feared concussion lawsuits since 2011, emails show

Email exchanges obtained by Radio-Canada's investigative program, Enquête, revealed Montreal Canadiens owner Geoff Molson was worried about legal issues surrounding concussions since 2011.

Email exchange between Montreal Canadiens owner and NHL commissioner obtained by Radio-Canada

Montreal Canadiens owner Geoff Molson feared the NHL was at risk of being involved in concussion lawsuits "until any head hit is made illegal."

Montreal Canadiens owner Geoff Molson expressed fears as far back as 2011 that the NHL could be the target of concussion-related lawsuits, according to email exchanges obtained by Radio-Canada's investigative program, Enquête.

The documents were disclosed by the NHL as part of the class-action lawsuit filed against the hockey league on behalf of over 100 players in a case to be heard by a U.S. court in Minnesota.

On Aug. 2, 2011, Molson sent an initial email to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in which he expressed concerns that appeared to be motivated by an article on the lawsuits against the National Football League (NFL) in the United States.

That correspondence came just weeks after former NFL players filed a judicial appeal against the football league, which Molson feared would impact the NHL.

"As an owner, the NFL lawsuits could put us at risk. Although we are making good progress, I don't think it's enough until any head hit is made illegal. I hope we get there soon!" Molson wrote in his email.

Molson reassured

Bettman sent a reassuring reply to Molson the following day, saying "I understand and respect your view, however, for a variety of reasons, I do not believe that we are in the same situation as football and I do not believe the NFL lawsuits should 'put us at risk.'"

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman did not believe concussion lawsuits against the NFL would affect the NHL, according to the 2011 email exchange. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
The commissioner went on to say the NHL was a "[leader] in the area of concussions and have set the standard on diagnosis, treatment and rule changes at the professional level."

Bettman's email appeared to comfort Molson as the Montreal Canadiens owner responded just a few minutes later.

"Good to hear we are unlikely at risk," Molson said, "that is (was) my biggest fear."

More Bettman emails unsealed

The NHL lawsuit that prompted the release of Molson's email exchange also unsealed another email involving Bettman.

The NHL commissioner debated the possible links between fighting in hockey, concussions, depression and drug use with deputy commissioner Bill Daly and former director of player safety Brendan Shanahan.

"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)," Bettman's email read.

Bettman's correspondence on the issue dated back to Sept. 3, 2011 — soon after the deaths of three former NHL enforcers.

Former NHL enforcer George Laraque says the unsealed emails shows the league knew about concussions for years but failed to do anything about it. (The Canadian Press)
Former players who filed the lawsuit 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.

Former NHL enforcer Georges Laraque said the email chain showed the league knew did in face fail to protect its players despite knowing about the effects of concussions for years.

"A lot of those guys did so much for the league and they were left alone, left aside, cast aside," Laraque told CBC.

Molson's and the Pacioretty-Chara incident

Molson's concerns over concussions have been more public over the years.

In March 2011, Molson strongly reacted when Canadiens left-winger Max Pacioretty suffered a concussion and fractured vertebra after taking a hit from Bruins defenceman Zdeno Chara.

Molson also wrote an open letter to fans in which he denounced the NHL for not suspending Chara.

"Players' safety in hockey must become the ultimate priority and the situation must be addressed immediately," Molson wrote.

A spokesman for the Montreal Canadiens said Molson could not comment on the email exchange or his current stance on concussions in the NHL as the issue is currently before the courts.

The NHL said it would not be commenting on the release of the emails. 

With files from Gino Harel/Radio-Canada and CBC Sports