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Rick Westhead

TSN Senior Correspondent

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The family of deceased NHL player Steve Montador, who was found dead in his Toronto-area home in February at the age of 35, is suing the National Hockey League, charging the league failed to provide him with up-to-date medical information about the risk of long-term brain damage.

Montador played 10 NHL seasons with six teams and had a well-documented history of concussions, depression, memory problems and erratic behaviour. According to the lawsuit - filed on behalf of Steve's son, Morrison Montador, and other family members by Steve's father, Paul - Steve had 69 fights and 15 documented concussions in the NHL.

"During regular season NHL games, preseason NHL games, NHL practices and morning skates prior to NHL games, Steven Montador sustained thousands of sub-concussive brain traumas and multiple concussions, many of which were undiagnosed and/or undocumented," says the statement of claim, filed in U.S. federal court in Chicago on Tuesday. "The league induced him into continuing to play, and fight, in NHL games and practices."

The claims of Montador's family have not been proven and the NHL has not filed a statement of defence. Neither NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly nor league executive vice-president of communications Gary Meagher responded to an email seeking comment on the lawsuit.

"The NHL continues to ignore the lasting problems caused by multiple head traumas suffered by its players," Paul Montador said in a statement. "Tragedies like that of my son Steven will continue until the problem is addressed. The NHL knows, but denies, that years of repeated head injuries cause long-term brain problems."

The lawsuit details several of Montador's concussions. He allegedly sustained at least three concussive brain traumas in six months in 2003; four in nine months in 2010; and "four to five" in three months in 2012 while he played for the Chicago Blackhawks. He also played for the Calgary Flames, Florida Panthers, Anaheim Ducks, Boston Bruins and Buffalo Sabres during his career. 

"By promoting and, in fact, glorifying fighting, the NHL continues to perpetuate its message to players, coaches and fans that blows to the head should not be considered serious injuries," the lawsuit says. "The NHL knew that by eliminating staged fights from their game they would decrease drug addiction and depression in the men it enlisted in the barbaric role."

Montador decided several years before his death to donate his brain to the Canadian Sports Concussion Project, which is headed by Toronto doctor Charles Tator. In May, three months after his death, researchers confirmed Montador's brain had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, the brain withering disease that has been linked to repeated head trauma.

"The NHL has long known that its players were susceptible to developing CTE and other neurodegenerative brain diseases as a result of the fist-fighting it allowed and promoted, the hard hits it encouraged and marketed, and/or the blows to the head that it steadfastly refused to eliminate from its game," the Montador family's lawsuit says.

The NHL, the statement says, was "armed with vastly superior managerial, medical, legal and other resources to gather, analyze and understand" head injury data.

The lawsuit echoes many of the same claims made by a group of 100-plus former NHL players who charge the league put its financial interests over the health of its players.

Bill Gibbs, a lawyer with the Chicago firm of Corboy & Demetrio, represents Montador's family. Gibbs is also representing the family of Derek Boogaard, a one-time NHL enforcer who died in 2011 at the age of 28 of an overdose of alcohol and painkillers. Researchers found Boogaard's brain, too, showed signs of CTE.

The Montador family's lawsuit describes how the NHL in 1997 promised to study the issue of concussions and brain injuries among its players.

The league "supposedly studied the frequency, timing, duration of symptoms" and other data for brain traumas suffered by NHL players from 1997 through 2004.

"The NHL's study was highly anticipated by many, including NHL players," the lawsuit says. "NHL players hoped that the NHL's study would address the critical question: ‘Does repetitive head trauma in NHL hockey lead to long-term neurocognitive or neurodegenerative changes in NHL players' brains?'

"In reality, the NHL simply sat on the data it collected," the lawsuit says. "In fact, the NHL waited to publish its data for 14 years."

The league published findings from its NHL-NHLPA Concussion Working Group in 2011, although it didn't pass a rule insisting players who suffer concussions do not return to the same games in which they sustained the injury until 2013.

 The lawsuit also assails the NHL for continuing to market and profit from fighting.

"While personal tragedies such as that endured by the Montador family mount, the NHL still refuses to eliminate fighting," the lawsuit says. "Eliminating fighting is a rules issue that can be easily implemented by the NHL without any collective bargaining. Instead, for nearly a century, the NHL has developed and promoted a culture of gratuitous violence within NHL hockey."

The National Hockey League Competition Committee, established by the collective bargaining agreement that ended the 2004-05 lockout, is now responsible for making recommendations about rules and related issues to the NHL Board of Governors and the National Hockey League Players' Association (NHLPA) executive board. The NHLPA and NHL are represented on the committee by equal voting members, who are joined by club officials and a non-voting supervisor.

At a 1992 Board of Governors' meeting regarding the introduction of a game misconduct penalty for players who fight, the discussion was never brought to a vote, the lawsuit says, despite seven NHL teams allegedly "expressing strong desire for such a rule."

Years later, in 2007, during Montador's sixth season in the NHL, the league was asked how it reconciled the fact boxers who are knocked out are banned from fighting for up to 90 days while NHL players who were knocked unconscious could "come back for more" almost immediately.

"The NHL thought this was a good question, but did nothing to act on the provocative reality," the Montador family's lawsuit says. The lawsuit also references a controversial email sent by a top league lawyer about player brain injuries.

In November 2009, the NHL contemplated a long-term study of brain injuries and cognitive problems. Rather than pursuing that study, NHL lawyer Julie Grand wrote in an email to colleagues that she would prefer to "leave the dementia issues up to the NFL!"

"As a result of its repeated decisions to bury its collective head in the sand, the NHL never conducted any proposed studies on its retirees, apparently not wanting to confirm what it already suspected - that repetitive head trauma sustained in contact sports can, and does, lead to permanent brain damage," the lawsuit says.