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NHL Concussion Lawsuit Slogs On

NHL Concussion Lawsuit Slogs On
105 players now pursuing legal action

This week will mark the one year anniversary of the death of former Buffalo Sabres defenseman Steve Montador.

Montador was found dead in his home in suburban Toronto, just four days before his girlfriend gave birth to their son. At age 35, he had just retired from a hockey career that spanned several NHL cities including Buffalo, ending in Europe’s Kontinental Hockey League before calling it quits. He supposedly had his entire life before him, a career beyond hockey, and was to be a new father. And just like that he was gone.

In the aftermath of Montador’s death, doctors who were involved in the autopsy described the damage to Montador’s brain as “extensive” and “florid.” And while no official cause of death was ever listed, or has yet to be revealed, a spokesman for the Canadian Sports Concussion Project, to which Montador’s family agreed to donate his brain for research, said that the chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) discovered was found “in several locations in Montador’s brain.” They concluded that the CTE would most likely have gotten worse had Montador lived.

Medical experts are clear that CTE, in and of itself, does not cause death. Nor does the disease lead to other maladies such as a heart attack or attack on other organs. And that gray area is what led NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly to respond to any litigation from the Montador family as meritless. “The NHL family shares in the sorrow of one of our own losing his life prematurely, and our thoughts, condolences and prayers remain with Steve’s family and friends,” Daly said in an email to media outlets in 2015. “However, we do not agree that the reports and allegations made today establish any link between Steve’s death and his NHL career.”

Nonetheless, the issue is not going away for the NHL, and it appears now that lawsuits coming from every direction are being consolidated into one big case against the league, which is on the docket in federal court in Minneapolis, Minnesota. And the list of litigants has grown to 105 former NHL players. This week, another bombshell name was added to the expanding list when former NHL referee Paul Stewart joined the group of plaintiffs.

According to The Hockey News: “One of the more gregarious and easy going personalities in the game, Stewart now suffers from depressive and anxiety disorders, anger, impulse and temper control issues and loss of memory. According to the lawsuit, Stewart suffered at least five concussions during his playing career as well as numerous undiagnosed concussions and sub concussive hits to the head, causing him to see stars and bright white lights, and experience wobbly legs and a fuzzy head, all of which were not properly treated.”

Stewart also suffers from a brain tumor, which may or may not have any correlation to CTE, and he has also willed his brain to Boston University’s Center Traumatic Encephalopathy for future research into CTE. “I have two children and a family and I gave my life to the game,” said Stewart. “Right now things are looking pretty bleak for me.”

So the lawsuit, which has largely flown under the radar as the NHL has dealt with higher profile issues such as league expansion, shoddy referee work, and the dramatic decline in goal production and boring play, now finds itself in a situation where things could start heating up very quickly.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was deposed last summer in federal court, where he derided the lawsuit as baseless. Furthermore, Bettman asserted that player safety issues and compensation for injuries should be hammered out through collective bargaining rather than litigation in court. The court didn’t buy the argument, refusing then to dismiss the case.

The voluminous pages in the complaint share disturbing and heartbreaking testimony from player after player, describing symptoms which all have a common thread. Almost all the players report those symptoms as having their origins from the first concussion they suffered, and the subsequent hits which just exacerbated their condition.

At last week’s NHL All Star Game, Bettman said little about the ongoing lawsuit, which may reach its crescendo in spring of 2017, also criticizing the release of some of over two million pages of documents which the league has deemed “protected.” Said Bettman, “The selective released leaking of documents out of context may cause some people to scratch their heads, 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. I think in terms of us doing our business on an ongoing basis and the fact that we have the 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 rest of the case.’’

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages, which may reach into the $1-billion range. More importantly, the suit demands lifetime medical monitoring for the approximately 4800 current and former NHL players. Meanwhile, former players’ lives go on, never fully realizing if that sudden loss of memory, or that immediate mood swing, is just a “senior moment,” or something far more dark.

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