One time during his 14-year National Hockey League career, Reed Larson got knocked out after a check from behind sent him headfirst into the boards.
Another time, he took a slapshot to the face during a morning practice, requiring 50 stitches and plastic surgery. He still played in that evening’s game.
Larson believes he suffered numerous concussions — he’s not sure how many. Players didn’t necessarily count head knockings when he played. So when the 60-year-old Minnesotan hears tales of retired hockey players suffering from neurological woes, he worries.
“Whenever I’m irritable or forgetful, is it because I’m just getting old, or is it because of the abuses to my head over my career?” asked Larson, one of 126 former players who have sued the NHL for allegedly failing to protect players from the long-term effects of brain trauma.
More than a dozen of those plaintiffs have Minnesota connections, including several former North Stars such as Larson. The litigation is snaking its way through the federal courts in St. Paul, and the battle is heating up. The NHL is intensifying its challenge to brain-injury scientists, and a ruling on class status for all retired players is expected soon.
The National Football League faced similar litigation, settling with players for $1 billion in 2015. The NFL later publicly acknowledged a link between the sport and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain disease at the heart of the head injury debate.
The NHL maintains that scientific research has yet to establish a causal link between sports concussions and CTE. “At bottom, the science just has not advanced to the point where causation determinations can be responsibly made,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a letter to a U.S. senator included in court filings.
To make its case, the league is seeking a trove of pre-publication research data from Boston University’s CTE Center. Experts there have said the disease is a long-term consequence of repetitive brain trauma. The CTE Center is fighting the NHL’s request, calling it an invasive demand that threatens to have a chilling effect that could undermine research.
Meanwhile, more e-mails between NHL executives were unsealed recently in the court case, against the league’s wishes.
“Well, ultimately you never can get rid of fighting … no matter what the injury risk,” wrote one NHL officiating executive to another in 2009, capping her observation with a winking emoji.
Replied the other: “Ya love it, much to the dismay of the tree huggin’, never played sport, leftist doctors … that soon won’t let us climb stairs for fear of concussion.”
Hockey long has been a game of grace and speed, but also — in its North American iteration — one of violence, even as the NHL has successfully worked to reduce fights. Seventy percent of concussions over four regular seasons came from legal hits and accidents, according to NHL documents filed in court.
“Players skate with a posture that makes removing all head contact from the game virtually impossible,” said an NHL document.
Former players began suing the NHL over concussion injuries in late 2013. Several suits have been rolled together into one “multidistrict” case before U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson in St. Paul.
The plaintiffs, co-led by Minneapolis law firm Zimmerman Reed, are demanding the NHL pay damages and set up a medical monitoring and treatment system for retired players. Attorneys are asking for class status covering all retired NHL hockey players.
The named plaintiffs run from fourth-line also-rans to stars like Larson, who made his name with the Detroit Red Wings in the late 1970s and 1980s and later played briefly for the North Stars. Larson was a Minneapolis high school hockey star and a key member of the Minnesota Gophers team that won the NCAA championship in 1976. He’s now an insurance salesman who lives in White Bear Lake. He was among the first former NHLers to sue the league.
“We love the league,” Larson said. “We know what the owners do for the league, and we know what the players do for the league. But I don’t get why you can use and abuse a person and then not take care of them.”
Larson played during a particularly violent period in the NHL. He was a tough defenseman who knew how to fight. So was Brad Maxwell, who spent most his 10-year career with the North Stars and also played in the 1980s, when the NHL says fights per game peaked.
“I always wanted to be more of a finesse player than a physical player,” said Maxwell, another plaintiff. “But it was a physical game, so you had to play physical.”
Like Larson, Maxwell, 59, isn’t sure how many concussions he’s had, but there were plenty of incidents when “you got up slow [from a hit] and went back to the bench and you weren’t all there. They gave you a little smelling salt. … You wanted to get out there and play, and you felt like you had to keep playing or you would lose your job,” Maxwell said.
Today, he runs a cabinetry business from a wood shop next to his home in Elko New Market, south of the Twin Cities. He says he’s had some short-term memory issues, so his shop is filled with notes to himself. “I write everything down so I won’t forget.”
‘Brain bank’ for athletes
Multiple concussions increase the long-term risk of neurodegenerative disease and reduced brain function, according to an affidavit in the lawsuit by Dr. Robert Cantu, a neurosurgeon who co-founded Boston University’s CTE Center.
NHL players, like those in other contact sports, are within the “upper tier of risk” for concussive blows, Cantu wrote. An NHL report in 2011 found that team physicians reported 559 player concussions during regular season games from 1997 to 2004.
CTE symptoms include mood disorders, aggression, depression, forgetfulness, loss of impulse control and a heightened suicide risk.
However, CTE can only be diagnosed after death. Since 2008, BU’s CTE Center has built up a “brain bank” for athletes, military veterans and others who suffered repetitive brain trauma. The center has found CTE in 34 former pro football players.
BU discovered the first hockey CTE case in 2010, and four more cases have been diagnosed since, including that of Derek Boogaard, the onetime Minnesota Wild enforcer who died in 2011 from a mix of alcohol and painkillers.
CTE is “clearly associated” with multiple brain injuries, said Dr. Michael Stuart, co-director of the Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center in Rochester. “Suffice it to say people in the medical community like myself are concerned. But there really is no direct proof of a cause-and-effect relationship.”
That cause-and-effect link is where the NHL is seeking to dispute the CTE research.
League takes action
The NHL has been scrutinizing concussions and head hits for at least 20 years. The league, too, has taken some concrete action. Checks that target a player’s head were banned before the 2010-2011 season. This past season the NHL rolled out an extensive new concussion protocol.
If a concussion is suspected, a player must be removed from the ice for an evaluation in a distraction-free zone — meaning not the bench. To assist the teams’ physicians, NHL “spotters” are watching for concussions from the stands and via video from NHL headquarters in New York.
“The National Hockey League has made some great strides,” Stuart said. But the Mayo Clinic has concluded that all head hits and fights should be banned from hockey.
That’s not likely to happen in the NHL. “We sell and promote hate,” Colin Campbell, a top NHL executive, said in a 2015 deposition, acknowledging an intra-league e-mail saying the same. “We do sell rivalries.”
One 2009 e-mail from a team doctor to NHL medical consultant Dr. Willem Meeuwisse took the league to task: “We all sit around and talk and talk and talk about concussion management. Then it’s the playoffs, someone suffers an obvious loss of consciousness and is back playing in less than 48 hours. Another example of situational ethics.”
Meeuwisse sent the anecdote on to other league officials, saying the doctor “is verbalizing what many people think.”