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Rick Westhead

TSN Senior Correspondent

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Kelli Ewen, the widow of former NHL enforcer Todd Ewen, is suing the league for allegedly profiting off of a culture of violence and continuing to downplay the potential long-term consequences of repeated brain trauma.

Ewen’s lawsuit was filed in California district court on April 30, a day before NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is scheduled to testify in Ottawa before a federal government hearing on concussions in sports.

A copy of the lawsuit says Ewen is seeking “compensatory damages and all other damages permitted by law.”

Todd was posthumously diagnosed with the brain-withering disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, in 2018 by a Boston University neuropathologist – a development that contradicted the findings of a Toronto neuropathologist, who three years ago announced he didn’t have the disease.

Todd, who fought his way through a dozen NHL seasons, battled depression, anxiety and memory loss for the last 20 years of his life. Ewen says her husband was certain he had CTE.

On Sept. 19, 2015, Todd, then 49, killed himself in the basement of his family’s home in St. Louis.

Months later, when a doctor reported his tests for CTE were negative, the NHL pointed to his case as an example that the narrative about a connection between head trauma and long-term brain diseases was dangerously speculative.

“Todd’s death can no longer be exploited to justify the NHL’s complete lack of concern over head hits and violence on the ice,” says Ewen’s 80-page statement of claim. “Rather, his death and CTE diagnosis should be a motivating force for positive change in NHL gameplay, and is further evidence that repeated head hits experienced in the NHL by players lead to long-term neurocognitive deficits.

“To this day, the NHL continues to downplay and deny the long-term neurocognitive effects of repeated head hits and the link between head hits and CTE, leading former NHL players to believe that the neurocognitive symptoms they suffer are not a result of their head hits during their time in the NHL.”

An NHL spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.

Todd’s case has played a key role in the debate over CTE and concussions in hockey.

Ewen asked Boston University researcher Dr. Ann McKee to re-test her husband’s brain after Toronto neuropathologist Dr. Lili-Naz Hazrati declared in February 2016 that Todd didn’t have CTE. Dr. McKee found Stage Two CTE in Todd’s brain in February 2018.

Dr. Hazrati later said she accepted Dr. McKee’s findings.

“...although I respect Ann's findings and [am] not contesting any of it, I am just surprised to see that Todd had so very little [of the] disease for an enforcer,” Dr. Hazrati wrote in a Nov. 26, 2018 email to TSN. “Todd was 50 and already many years progressing with his disease and still not much to find. Just an interesting point I think one should ponder on. We and others have seen more widespread disease in younger players with less exposure time and less years to progress (such as Steve Montador.)”

Bettman used Todd’s case in his defence of the NHL to U.S. lawmakers.

In a July 26, 2016, letter to U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, who had asked for information from the NHL about the impact of concussions in hockey, Bettman blamed the media for stoking fear of the long-term effects of head injuries and ended his letter by retelling Todd’s story.

Bettman, relying on Dr. Hazrati’s negative CTE test, wrote that Todd’s story “is precisely the type of tragedy that can result when plaintiffs’ lawyers and their media consultants jump ahead of the medical community and assert, without reliable scientific support, that there is a causal link between concussions and CTE.”

Bettman’s letter was also filed in a U.S. court in connection with the NHL concussion lawsuit. (A tentative settlement has been reached in that litigation, although some former players are expected to opt out.)

Other NHL players who have been diagnosed with CTE include Bob Probert, Derek Boogaard, Jeff Parker, Wade Belak, Larry Zeidel, Reggie Fleming, Rick Martin, Steve Montador and Zarley Zalapski. Four unidentified former junior hockey players who all died of suicide before the age of 30 also tested positive for the disease.