Columnist image
Rick Westhead

TSN Senior Correspondent

|Archive

Lawyers for a group of more than 80 former NHL players suing the league over its handling of head injuries are “ghostwriting” newspaper articles on behalf of the former players in an effort to influence the public and recruit other former players to file lawsuits, the NHL says.

The NHL made the allegation in court documents filed in U.S. federal court in Minnesota on Wednesday night. The league did not specify which stories it believes have been ghostwritten.

It’s unclear which players the NHL is referring to when the league charges first-person newspaper stories authored by players have actually been ghostwritten.

However, in April, former NHL players Dan LaCouture and Mike Peluso both wrote stories highly critical of the NHL’s handling of players with head injuries.

In a first-person account in The Globe and Mail, Peluso discussed fighting in the NHL and his head injuries.

“The altercations were brutal on our bodies, and I suffered at least 10 concussions from fighting, probably many more,” Peluso wrote. “After some fights, I went to the wrong penalty box, only to be treated by doctors or trainers who asked me to name the President of the United States, provided a few aspirin, and sent me right back into the game.”

LaCouture’s account of his struggles with headaches, nausea and motion sickness after his playing career ran in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

“My most serious concussion occurred in 2004 during a game at Madison Square Garden when I jumped into a fight to defend a Rangers teammate who had been hit from behind,” LaCouture wrote. “During the brawl, my helmet slipped off and I split my head open on the ice as another player landed on top of me. The next thing I remember was being lifted off the ice by teammates and trainers. I got some stitches but never received an MRI, a CAT scan or serious medical treatment of any kind.”

At the time, a senior NHL executive told TSN both LaCouture and Peluso’s stories were ghostwritten.

Lawyers for the former players, including Kevin Stevens, Joe Murphy and Gary Leeman, want the court to unseal a number of sensitive documents and emails filed under seal with the court in connection with the concussion lawsuit filed against the NHL.

They argue that there is public interest in the case. They say the public, as well as current and former NHL players, has a right to know the NHL’s behind-the-scenes strategies in drafting policies over head injuries and fighting.

The NHL, on the other hand, charges the lawyers for the former players are simply trying to stoke a “media firestorm” and “spin documents to the press in an effort to influence the ‘court of public opinion’ and recruit additional retired NHL players to file lawsuits.”

The former players’ motion, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman wrote in an Oct. 15, 2015, affidavit obtained by TSN, is “nothing more than a public relations campaign to inappropriately seek public disclosure of documents and communications at this discovery state of the litigation in a transparent attempt to embarrass and harass the NHL.”

“I have no doubt that plaintiffs’ disclosure of these documents would result in a media firestorm based on plaintiffs’ mischaracterizations and a lack of context,” Bettman wrote.

Colin Campbell, the NHL’s executive vice-president and director of hockey operations, has also filed an affidavit with the court asking for documents and emails to remain confidential because of the “Harmful effects their public disclosure would have on the NHL, certain third parties, and me personally.”

In his affidavit, Bettman said that neither he nor his “direct reports” leaked a memo that recently stirred public interest in the case.

In an Oct. 1, 2015, story, a Yahoo Sports reporter quoted an excerpt from a Sept. 29, 2015, NHL memo distributed to the league’s board of governors. The memo made it clear the NHL has no plans to settle the lawsuit because it does not believe there is a “smoking gun” that might aid the plaintiffs’ case, Yahoo Sports reported.

Bettman wrote in his affidavit that he was aware “plaintiffs contend the NHL intentionally ‘leaked’ this except as part of a purported public relations campaign.”

“That contention is categorically untrue,” Bettman wrote. “I did not provide this excerpt to the media, nor did any of my direct reports. I am not aware of any NHL employee providing this excerpt to the media and I have no knowledge as to who provided this excerpt to the media.”

The NHL in its latest court filing defended a recently publicized email sent by Julie Grand, a senior league lawyer, to Bettman and Daly.

In the 2009 email, which was included last week in a court filing by the lawyers for the former players, Grand writes the NHL should “leave the dementia issues up to the NFL!”

Grand suggested the NHL-NHLPA Concussion Working Group might consider four possible plans for the future. Of her ideas for the working group, Grand said she was least interested in studying the long-term neurocognitive and psychological effects of repeated concussions among retired NHL players because they are “removed from the current issues we face…”

The NHL, however, said it’s not surprising that lawyers for the former players are “focusing tremendous effort and attention to keep the case alive ‘in the media’ by frequently feeding perhaps interesting but legally irrelevant information to reporters.”

TSN reported on Grand’s email in an Oct. 14 story.

The NHL said the concussion working group’s mandate has been narrow in scope and has focused on the diagnosis, treatment and management of concussions with respect to return-to-play decisions for current NHL players.

“During the evolution of the NHL/NHLPA concussion program, the NHL and NHLPA have, among other things: identified common visible signs and symptoms of potential concussions; instituted mandatory league-wide baseline and post-injury neuropsychological testing; educated players, doctors and trainers regarding concussions; and assessed the mechanisms of concussions in the NHL,” the NHL wrote.

The NHL’s court documents also highlighted a tactic employed by the plaintiffs.

In Bill Cosby’s high-profile sexual assault case, the Associated Press successfully filed a motion to unseal discovery material. The AP said there was a public interest in the case.

Lawyers for the former NHL players say there is similar public interest in the concussion case, an allegation the league denies.

“Here, by contrast, plaintiffs fail to cite any legitimate public interest in the NHL’s confidential discovery material,” the NHL wrote in its filing.