Columnist image
Rick Westhead

TSN Senior Correspondent

|Archive

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has been ordered by a U.S. federal court judge to offer testimony in the concussions lawsuit filed by 60 former players against the league.

TSN has learned that late Tuesday, a judge ordered Bettman to testify in July on matters related to the high-stakes litigation.

The NHL had argued that Bettman shouldn't immediately be compelled to answer questions about concussions and brain injuries to players.

In an eight-page ruling, Judge Susan Nelson wrote, "The court finds that Commissioner Bettman possesses unique or special knowledge relevant to this lawsuit."

"Commissioner Bettman may be deposed in July 2015, but no earlier," she wrote. "This should cause no hardship to plaintiffs, who will have an opportunity to first depose other witnesses. In addition, both parties will have the benefit of the production of relevant discovery from commissioner Bettman prior to his deposition."

Nelson made the ruling even though she noted that, "the NHL does not necessarily ask that Commissioner Bettman be deposed last, but objects to him being deposed first."

The judge included in her ruling excerpts of seven media interviews Bettman gave between 1993 and 2015 that show his particular insights into how the league has responded to head injuries.

Lawyers for the former players suing the league wrote to the NHL on Feb.23 asking to set up a time and location to question Bettman.

The league refused that request, saying information the commissioner might offer is available from other witnesses. The players' lawyers, in turn, went to a judge and asked that Bettman be forced to testify before July 1.

The NHL said deposing Bettman would be premature.

"They want to start at the end and work backwards, deposing Commissioner Bettman and then filling any gaps in the information he provides through depositions of lower-level employees," the NHL's lawyers wrote in documents obtained by TSN.

"Plaintiffs have already received dozens of names of potential witnesses with knowledge of issues relevant to team safety and player concussions through initial disclosures and the NHL's interrogatory responses. Thus, they have plenty with which to 'start proving their case.'

"The NHL identified 20 other individuals who have 'discoverable substantive information' in its initial disclosures."

A group of 60 former NHL players including Joe Murphy, Bernie Nicholls and Gary Leeman charge that the NHL did not do enough to protect them from head injuries before it created a committee to study head trauma in 1997. Even after that, the players charge the committee's findings were not adequately shared with players.

The former NHL players filed the suit in November 2013 after a group of nearly 4,500 former NFL players reached a settlement with the NFL over similar concussion-related complaints.

The hockey lawsuit has not been certified as a class action. If a judge does grant the case class-action status, which some lawyers say is uncertain, the case could involve several thousand former NHL players, unless they opt out of the case.

The discovery of information and documents in the NHL case began on Jan. 15, 2015. Nearly four months later, lawyers for the former players have said the plaintiffs have received only 7,772 pages of documents, consisting only of insurance policies and the NHL's official guide and record book.

The league has written in court filings that it may call current and former NHL team player reps to testify in the lawsuit, as well as the agents of current and former players.

It's unclear which former players or player agents have agreed to testify on behalf of the league against the former players.