Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Pain the price of a few hours of entertainment

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The glory days are gone. What's left, for some National Hockey League players, is a life marred by the cumulative impact of brain injuries suffered during years spent in a brutal sport.

As news emerged of a blockbuster $5.2-billion deal between the NHL and Rogers Communications Inc. (allowing the CBC and tough-guy booster Don Cherry to keep their Saturday night gig for at least the next four years) another hockey story, without the razzle-dazzle but possibly just as significant, was hovering in the wings.

The Star's Gemma Karstens-Smith reports 10 former NHL players, including ex-Maple Leafs Rick Vaive and Gary Leeman, have launched a class action lawsuit claiming the league failed to properly protect players from concussions. The players say they all now suffer from some combination of depression, memory loss and sleep disorders as a direct result of repeated head injuries during games.

While the debilitating damage caused by concussions has made news in recent years, the lawsuit claims the league had earlier knowledge of scientific evidence showing repeated head injuries risk illness and disabilities. The suit says the NHL did not provide real protections until 2010 when it finally introduced its Rule 48, banning intentional hits to the head.

Launched just months after the National Football League agreed to a $765-million settlement with thousands of former players suffering from dementia and other conditions, the NHL lawsuit is the latest move by athletes who refuse to accept debilitating injury is the price to be paid for an athletic career.

They face a long legal battle, and none of their allegations has been tested in court. Inevitably, some will argue simply by playing professional hockey the players accepted the risk of severe injury and are in no position to complain now. But times are changing and that logic sounds increasingly out of date and out of touch. At a minimum, the players' suit will properly increase pressure on the league to protect all its players -- not just the stars like Sidney Crosby -- when they suffer from concussions.

For far too long the NHL's culture forced players to ignore head injuries in order to make a quick return to the game. Exposure to the ailments faced by former hockey pros is long overdue. Even though the damage can't be reversed, the increased focus on the league's violent culture should provide a cautionary tale for young players. Not to mention fans, since young players love to mimic their NHL heroes.

Let those youngsters and their parents hear the statements from veterans who suffer from neurological disorders or even dementia. The details of their struggles should provide serious pause for all.

Indeed, concussion expert Dr. Charles Tator says the lawsuit is a wake-up call for the NHL. "I think the NHL has to overcome its denial and perhaps this lawsuit will lift their efforts to a much greater degree to prevent injury from happening," he said. In other words, the league needs to stop dragging its feet on this issue.

This lawsuit could turn out to be a turning point in attitudes towards violence in hockey, one of the perpetual debates in Canadian life. If the players can make their case in court, the culture of hockey may shift a bit more away from tolerating the licensed brutality that is now all too common. Certainly the timing is right. There's an increasing public intolerance for the attacks that send players' heads crashing into the boards or onto the ice.

If it's true the NHL purposefully concealed the severe risks of brain injuries, as the players claim in their lawsuit, then it's high time the details of their suffering were made known. Hockey fans should know the price that was paid for a few hours of entertainment.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 28, 2013 A14

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