For the love of the game and its players

Recent lawsuit highlights violence in NHL

Encouraging the most engaging and exhilarating gameplay and caring for the health and well being of players in hockey are not mutually exclusive.

The NHL has actively promoted and allowed an excessively violent game over decades, according to a class action complaint filed against the league by a slew of former players last week. The action explicitly charges the NHL fostered and promoted "a culture of extreme violence and packaged the spoils to adoring fans."

The complaint is a direct blow to the league, but it will undoubtedly suffer far less than its exploited athletes - if it suffers at all.

The lawsuit was initially brought by nine aging players all claiming the NHL misled them or withheld information on the game's violence while it "intentionally created" excessively violent gameplay, knowing head trauma to the player was "imminent."

Certainly the violence involved in hockey is no mystery, particularly to players. That said, despite the reasonable assumption that players knew the game would be violent, the league should have provided access to information, medical and otherwise. Though the connection between an intense, fast-paced contact sport and violence is clear, the link between those fights and head trauma or depression that have plagued so many athletes for years was more opaque until recently.

The lawsuit is hardly unprecedented. It follows several similar cases against the NHL, including the distressing wrongful death suit of Derek Boogaard, who died of an overdose after suffering from trauma and brain damage tied to his role as an enforcer in the league. Recent cases against the NFL have brought mainstream attention to the detrimental, long-term impact of athletic violence on players long after they step off the field.

The problems begin with our own myopia to those plights. The depression and trauma that too often follow our athletic icons after their tenure have remained private battles fought largely outside the public eye. And though respectful privacy remains tantamount, appreciation and attention to the issues at large are overdue.

As the case suggests, we the public are the "adoring fans" to which these fights are being "packaged."

The NHL itself is likewise in need of a change in perspective - and policy. Bill Daly, the NHL deputy commissioner, has taken off the gloves, brandishing legal fists against the charges. Daly released a statement vowing to "vigorously" defend the league against this and other cases, seeing "no valid basis for liability or damages."

If he so vigorously fought for even a reasonable amount of safety for the players of his league, these charges likely would have never been filed.

Undeniably, hockey is a fast, powerful game. With padded goliaths racing across an ice rink on steel blades wielding wooden sticks, the likelihood of some contact - some of that yielding injuries - is assured. How the NHL has dealt with this reality, and allegedly worsened it, is what's at stake.

The lawsuit claims, "Through enclosed rinks and lax rules for fighting," the league fostered such deplorable and detrimental violence. The fighting is a particularly controversial issue.

The NHL is unique in its allowance, if not promotion, of physical fights on the ice. Collegiate, European and international hockey have much more stringent rules on fighting during the game. Fighting results in game disqualification in college and it is strictly prohibited in the latter two leagues.

That the NHL would so brazenly run afoul of international norms in regard to fighting furthers the case for banning fighting in games.

For those who love hockey, or any contact sport, our passion should extend further than foam fingers or branded t-shirts - a level of empathy for those playing is necessary. For the league, anything less than eliminating fighting and working more actively in the best interest of players is reprehensible.

These two actions, however, are far from separate. Changes will be made when the public decries this violence, irrespective of the forthcoming court ruling (or more likely out-of-court settlement).

It has yet to be seen how adamantly hockey fans will watch this legal fight unfold, though it will surely be a game-changer - for the long-term health of our athletic heroes or the pocketbooks of the league.