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Rick Westhead

TSN Senior Correspondent

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In fall 2011, after three former National Hockey League players died prematurely in the span of four months, the NHL Players’ Association decided to move forward on a plan: The union would begin a program known as the Concussion Support Network, where active players who had suffered and recovered from concussions and their troubling side effects would counsel other players going through those problems.

The concept never got off the ground.

The NHLPA had kicked around the idea of such a network for several years, but the deaths of Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak jump-started the union’s efforts.

Mathieu Schneider, special assistant to the NHLPA executive director; former NHL player Rob Zamuner, a division player rep with the union; Dr. John Rizos, an emergency room physician who is an NHLPA medical consultant; Maria Dennis, an NHLPA lawyer; and Jonathan Weatherdon, a union spokesman, traded emails for months, drilling down on details about how to start the program.

Rather than forcing players to contact the union if they were feeling depressed or suffering from other symptoms, the Concussion Support Network would see the union add a special section to its players-only, password-protected website. Roughly a dozen players who were willing to be mentors would be listed on the site, along with their contact information, and struggling players could reach out to them directly.

“There are instances where some players have real trust issues and they don't love the idea of contacting the union, thinking there’s now a paper trail to document their problems,” said one of the NHLPA employees who helped develop the support network. “This would have been a way for a player to get that help without worrying that their details are on anyone’s computer or a spreadsheet.”

But by summer 2013, the union decided to shelve the idea permanently because of privacy concerns, two sources familiar with the matter told TSN. 

The sources said union executives worried players who acted as counsellors might use confidential information about their NHL rivals ­– sensitive details provided in the counselling program – against them on the ice. That could potentially leave the NHLPA exposed to a lawsuit.

“There were a number of matters considered by NHLPA staff, including confidentiality concerns with non-medical personnel involved, that the NHLPA ultimately elected not to move forward with a formalized program of this nature,” Weatherdon wrote in a statement emailed to TSN.

Weatherdon said union executive director Don Fehr declined an interview request from TSN about the Concussion Support Network.

Sally Bean, an Ethicist and Policy Advisor at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and the University of Toronto’s Joint Centre for Bioethics in Toronto, said there would have been ways for the NHLPA to address its concerns.

“It seems like there would be fairly easy, manageable ways to address the concerns the NHLPA raised,” Bean said in an interview. “What did the NHLPA do to explore and mitigate or limit those concerns? Did they explore confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements and put parameters around those who could be mentors? Maybe one solution would be to not have an active or current player as a mentor but a retired one.

“Someone willing to help another player seems like a pretty good indication of goodwill. Cancelling a program like that certainly indicates a lack of trust.”

Informed of Bean’s comments, Weatherdon wrote in a follow-up email “… players who have concussions are dealing with a medical matter. Other players or former players are not qualified to provide medical advice, treatment plans etc., so while we continue to informally connect players, we didn’t institute a formal system.”

The NHL’s conduct and care of its players has come under scrutiny in recent years after a group of former players in 2013 filed a proposed class-action lawsuit against the NHL.

In that lawsuit, the former players have alleged that the NHL has ignored medical research documenting the long-term dangers of repeated head trauma. The league has similarly failed to warn players about those dangers, the players allege.

While the NHLPA is not a defendant in the concussion lawsuit, internal league and union emails and other documents have raised questions in recent weeks about whether the union could be doing more to improve player safety.

During a July 15, 2016, deposition in Calgary, NHL medical consultant Dr. Willem Meeuwisse testified that he and other league medical consultants in 2012 proposed mental health studies of current NHL players and retired players to the NHL/NHLPA Concussion Subcommittee, whose members include NHL and NHLPA medical consultants and lawyers.

The union refused to consider such a study because it might have affected player employability, Dr. Meeuwisse testified.