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Published 19 April 2016
| Authored by: Ryan Lake
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This is first in a series of blogs by Ryan Lake. The blogs are intended to give an overview of some of the contemporary legal issues impacting the sport of ice hockey, with a strong focus on the National Hockey League (“NHL”). Readers are encouraged to leave comments and participate in debates around the topics raised.
This blog examines the difficult and concerning issue of player concussions, focusing on a review of the ongoing consolidated litigation by ex-players against the NHL relating to the long-term effects of concussion and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (“CTE”).
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The true extent of brain damage after suffering multiple concussions in sport was not scientifically discovered until the untimely death of Mike Webster in 2002.1 Webster was a Hall of Fame football player for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the National Football League (“NFL”).2 After playing 17 years in the NFL and suffering multiple concussions, Webster started to experience symptoms normally only shown in people suffering from dementia and was prescribed a powerful cocktail of medications.3 In 2002, at the age of 50, Webster died from heart failure.
The pathologist on call at the Allegheny Medical Coroner’s office the day Webster died was Dr. Bennet Omalu.4 Dr. Omalu, conducted several tests on Webster’s brain, in the hope of discovering what was causing his symptoms. What Dr. Omalu found would change medical and sports history. Dr. Omalu described Webster’s brain “as one of boxers, very old people with Alzheimer’s disease or someone who had suffered a severe head wound.”5 Dr. Omalu published his findings and named his discovery CTE.
A medical diagnosis of CTE can only be made after a posthumous examination of the brain. Over the next ten years, several former NFL and College football players were diagnosed with CTE, including, Terry Long, Andre Waters, Tom McHale, Owen Thomas, Dave Duerson, Ray Easterling, and Junior Seau, among others.6
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After the discovery of CTE and the multitude of deaths associated with the disease, former NFL players filed a lawsuit against the NFL. Additionally, the U.S. Congress launched a former investigation in the NFL and its handling of players suffering from concussions.7
These events not only impacted the NFL but had ramifications throughout the sporting world.
CTE and the National Hockey League
The summer of 2011 was one of the most tragic periods in the history of the NHL. That summer saw the deaths of Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Leafe Wade Belak in a span of four months. Boogaard, Rypien, and Belak, all played the role of enforcer during their NHL careers. An enforcer, in hockey terms, is a designated player given the responsibility and task of defending the other players on his team from cheap shots and other dirty plays. Enforcers tend to accomplish this task by playing a very physical game and specialize in the art of fighting. The three players also shared many of the common symptoms of CTE.8
It is reported that it is common for those who suffer from CTE to become depressed and resort to the use of drugs and alcohol to cope with the disease.9 Boogaard, Rypien, and Belak all suffered these symptoms towards the end of their lives.10
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