NHL concussion suit grows to 200 players

Former National Hockey League players, including Rick Vaive, pictured, are claiming in a class-action lawsuit that the league hasn't done enough to protect players from concussions. (Michelle Siu/CP)

The number of former NHL players involved a class-action concussion lawsuit against the league is growing at a rapid rate. Within 48 hours of the suit being filed in a Washington federal court, the original group of 10 plaintiffs had inflated to more than 200, according to one of the lawyers working on the case.

Steven Silverman told Sportsnet on Wednesday afternoon that he expected the total to climb even further by the end of the day.

That revelation came a few hours after Mel Owens, another lawyer representing the players, told Sportsnet in a separate interview that some big names might eventually join in. He also pointed out that the relatively low profile of the 10 initial players named as plaintiffs shouldn’t in any way diminish its importance.

“You don’t have to be famous to be hurt,” said Owens, a former NFL linebacker turned disability lawyer. “You don’t need big names to splash across the lawsuit. These guys have moms, these guys have wives and kids, and so they’re just as important as anybody else.”

The original group of 10 included Gary Leeman and Rick Vaive, both former 50-goal scorers during their NHL careers, and a handful of journeyman: Curt Bennett, Richie Dunn, Bob Manno and Blair Stewart. The remaining four players enjoyed little more than a cup of coffee in the NHL – Brad Aitken (14 games), Morris Titanic (19 games), Darren Banks (20 games) and Warren Holmes (45 games) – and some have questioned the motives behind their involvement.

For Owens, the fact that those men have suffered with everything from memory loss to depression to severe headaches related to concussions they say they received during their playing careers is proof of how serious the issue is.

“You don’t need five head-on collisions on a freeway to say, ‘OK, now I’m really hurt,”’ he said. “You need to have your head punched in or have your head slammed on the ice or slammed into the boards once and it could alter your career forever and your life.”

The lawsuit alleges that the NHL failed to do enough to protect and educate its players from the dangers of head injuries and, according to Owens, seeks to find out the answer to three important questions: What did the NHL know about concussions and the effects of subconcussive hits? When did it know it? And what did it tell the players?

There are obvious parallels to a class-action suit filed by thousands of former NFL players that was settled earlier this year for $765-million. The NHL players are seeking financial damages along with medical monitoring for the players’ injuries.

Reaction throughout the tight-knit hockey world has been mixed since the lawsuit was filed. While a number of players were busy joining the class, Jeremy Roenick told The Associated Press on Tuesday that he always knew his health and life “could be altered in a split second” during his playing days.

Word about the lawsuit has spread quickly this week – Owens even reached out directly to a number of former players on Twitter.

“Some guys don’t want to be in it at the beginning,” said Owens. “Like in the NFL, one, there were players that came on later that were Hall of Famers but they didn’t want to take the initial leap. That’s OK. We’re not going for the superstars and saying `Oh, here’s (Eric) Lindros or Pat LaFontaine or someone who got knocked out early in his career’ because that’s not the point.

“The point is helping the thousands of guys that have suffered these types of injuries. They are very valuable in their communities.”

The NHL now has the option to answer the complaint in court or make a motion to dismiss the case. It will be restricting public comment until one of those things occurs, although commissioner Gary Bettman told reporters on Tuesday that he believes the lawsuit is “without merit.”

Meanwhile, Owens applauded the 10 men that launched it. While that opened them up to some public scrutiny, he thinks they did it with their former colleagues in mind.

“It takes a lot of courage to be the first believer,” said Owens. “Nobody wants to be first. These guys are former professionals and you don’t play in professional sports, and in particular hockey, if you don’t have courage.

“When you have the problems and you’re actually speaking out for others, that’s when you show your true best.”

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