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"I will die young." Mike Peluso’s voice trails off.

"That’s the way it is," he says. "That’s the way it’s going to be.” It has been 18 years since Peluso last pulled on an NHL jersey. Almost two decades since he last experienced the high of being cheered and jeered in overflowing NHL arenas.

Not long ago, Peluso sat in the darkened basement of his rural two-storey home on the tony outskirts of Minneapolis, Min. He emptied bottles of prescription drugs into a bowl, determined to end his life. Just then, his dog, Coors, ambled down the stairs. Coors is an aging black lab Peluso took home from a rescue shelter 15 years ago. If I die, Peluso thought, who would look after Coors?

“God works in really good ways and he actually did save my life, there’s no question about it,” Peluso says. “That dog came down and I looked at him and I said, ‘I’m sorry, man.’ And I took out the pills and I put them back in the bottle. And I said I’d never do that to that dog again."

Today, Peluso just feels tired.

Tired of feeling broken, isolated and abandoned.

Tired of the sudden rages, the repeated grand mal seizures, the inability to remember people’s names and important appointments.

And especially tired of being told by the NHL that the problems he battles have nothing to do with his more than 175 fights and countless on-ice collisions in the NHL.

 

 

Peluso is damaged goods. Now 50, he played in the NHL from 1990 until 1998 with five NHL teams, including Chicago, Ottawa and New Jersey.

Peluso says he has suffered eight grand mal seizures and has brain damage after playing in the NHL. He holds the league responsible, saying that after he suffered violent head injuries, including some that left him dazed, oblivious or unconscious, team doctors and trainers rushed him back onto the ice too soon.

Peluso is among more than 100 former NHL players who are suing the NHL, arguing that the league has put profits ahead of player safety for decades. The litigation has boiled over into a venomous battle.

On one side, lawyers for the former NHL players allege the league has not taken the health problems of its former players seriously. They charge that the league’s high-profile working concussion group, headed by Dr. Ruben Echemendia of Penn State University, has been a whitewash.

They point to the fact that even though it began its concussion study in 1997, it wasn’t until 2011 that the group published its findings. Moreover, the former players allege, it wasn’t until 2013 that the NHL changed concussion protocols to prevent a player from returning to the same game in which he was concussed. A number of emails sent by NHL executives, including commissioner Gary Bettman, deputy commissioner Bill Daly and league lawyer Julie Grand have been released by the court and reveal league officials with a keen eye on the public relations element of the issue.

If the lawsuit makes it to trial, a jury will surely be asked to consider the following questions: What did NHL neurologists, doctors and medical trainers know about the dangers of repeated severe head injuries, and when did they know it? Did team doctors put the financial interests of their employers ahead of the health concerns of players? Did NHL executives put their collective heads in the sand when it came to learning more about the dangers of repeated head trauma, and about possible rule changes that might have better protected players, including safeguards that could have meant popular tough guys were sidelined longer between fights?

For its part, the NHL accuses lawyers for the former hockey players of 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 NHL has said that players, Peluso included, who wanted to learn about the long-term dangers of repeated head trauma could have done their own homework and put “two and two together.” The NHL has also pointed out that in 1997 it became the first North American major sports league to start a concussion study program and said that it has changed rules to respond to concerns about head trauma.

“While the subject matter is very serious, we are completely satisfied with the responsible manner in which the league and the players association have managed player safety over time, including with respect to head injuries and concussions,” Daly said in a statement when the lawsuit was filed in November 2013.

The NHL says first-person stories in newspapers such as The Globe and Mail and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette by former players such as Peluso and Dan LaCouture about their struggles after playing in the league were actually ghost-written by their lawyers. The lawsuit, NHL executives suggest, is little more than a copycat case, fostered by a group of lawyers who want to strong-arm the NHL into paying a settlement like the one the NFL agreed to in a similar case.

As part of a $1-billion (U.S.) settlement, the NFL has agreed to pay former players who develop dementia or other brain disorders an average of $190,000, although the awards might be worth more in cases of men diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease or ALS. The NHL declined repeated requests to comment for this story.

 

Peluso shakes with anger when it’s suggested that he and other players are simply looking for one more payday from the NHL. Peluso led the league with 408 penalty minutes in 1991-92 and fought 179 times in his nine-year career, according to court documents.

He dropped the gloves against some of the toughest players in the league and his fights were promoted in the media like boxing matches. “You go into Ottawa, play the Red Wings,” Peluso says. “Tale of the tape: Mike Peluso versus Bob Probert. Tale of the tape: height, weight, size. Peluso is a righty. Tale of the tape in every newspaper. You couldn’t get a ticket when Bob Probert and Tie Domi fought for the heavyweight title in New York City. They were scalping tickets for a thousand dollars a seat to see Probert and Domi fight."

Peluso is not alone in arguing the NHL put profits ahead of player health.

Former Los Angeles Kings player Scott Bjugstad complained that he was suffering concussion symptoms during the 1990-91 season. He says when he was referred to the team’s neurologist, he was told he had vasovagal — a nervous system problem that commonly leads to fainting spells. He was advised to wear compression socks, according to court documents. No concussion treatment was provided.

“The Kings did not prohibit Bjugstad from returning to play in spite of knowing that Bjugstad had been concussed multiple times, including the last two within several days of each other,” Bjugstad’s lawyer wrote in his complaint against the NHL. "Instead, the Kings attempted to persuade Bjugstad to quit so the Kings could avoid paying the salary owed."

Former Boston Bruins first-round draft pick Shayne Stevenson, now 45, claims that when he fought Ken Baumgartner on March 30, 1991, he was knocked out and sent to the dressing room, where he received 30 stitches over his left eye. Stevenson told the team doctors he was feeling concussion symptoms and was told to lie down.

According to court documents: “After the game, head coach Mike Milbury sent Stevenson down to assist with the (AHL) [Fredericton] Mariners to play in the playoffs three nights later, against the Sherbrooke Canadiens. Stevenson pleaded with the Bruins training staff and doctors not to force him to play, having lost a substantial amount of blood… Stevenson’s pleas were ignored. He was forced to play the night in Fredericton, where he sustained another concussion, risking death due to second-impact syndrome.”

 

It may seem that awareness of the risks of head trauma in sports has only emerged in recent years. In fact, scientists have been researching the issue for nearly a century.

In 1928, a New Jersey pathologist named Dr. Harrison Martland published a medical study noting that some retired boxers were in a constant state of being "punch drunk." Fast forward to the days following the Second World War, and Dr. MacDonald Critchley, a British neurologist, followed up Martland’s work with another study, this time of 21 punch-drunk patients. Critchley found that the average time between the beginning of a boxer’s career and the onset of encephalopathy, or brain dysfunction, was 16 years, with a range from six to 40 years.

In 1951, boxing regulators in New York, acting partly on the findings of Critchley's study, introduced rules that demanded boxers who were knocked unconscious during a fight had to be sidelined — no fighting or training — for at least a month. After that, boxers could return to the ring only after passing a medical exam. A 1952 study in the New England Journal of Medicine recommended football players end their careers after their third concussion. In 1982, a study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal recommended athletes stay out of competition until headaches and other symptoms had disappeared.

So why weren’t these studies used by doctors and researchers employed by other high-impact, violent sports, including hockey? One potential reason: For decades, fighting was a key part of the NHL's sales pitch to new fans. It’s hard to imagine any team agreeing that a high-profile player should sit out 30 days after being knocked out.

As former Montreal Canadiens goalie Ken Dryden wrote in his 1983 book, The Game, the NHL expanded aggressively into the U.S. in the 1970s and '80s. Hockey was a niche sport that trailed football, baseball and basketball in popularity, so to lure new season-ticket holders and TV viewers, the NHL used fighting and violence to stand apart. There's little disputing the mindset of the day, a period during which many of the former NHL players involved in the litigation against the league got their starts in the NHL.

"Big-time professional hockey prepares for the 1974-75 season more schizophrenic than Dr. Jekyll and Cinderella combined," Stan Fischler wrote in the Oct. 6, 1974, edition of The New York Times. "NHL and WHA leaders can’t seem to make up their collective minds whether they want their product hyped as a refrigerated second coming of D-Day or an athletic ballet on ice. At the moment, blood holds a slim lead over finesse, but gore threatens to score heavily in the months to come. There are some who fear that the new season will be dirtier than [the pornographic film] Deep Throat."

As then-NHL defenceman Bob Stewart famously said, "Red ice sells hockey." It also won games. The Philadelphia Flyers, aptly nicknamed the Broad Street Bullies, won the Stanley Cup in 1974 and 1975, using violence as a tactic. Then-NHL president Clarence Campbell made no apologies. Testifying before a 1974 inquiry into hockey violence overseen by Ontario lawyer William McMurtry, Campbell said, “We must put on a spectacle that will attract people.”

In the NHL concussion case, violence in hockey won't be on trial. But the way doctors and trainers handled injured players will come under scrutiny.

Allan Walsh, a prominent NHL player agent, says some of his clients who played during the 1990s told him that NHL team doctors and medical trainers ordered them back on to the ice before they were fully recovered. "They should have been looking out for the long-term health of players," Walsh says.

One NHL team owner who requested anonymity told TSN the league didn't adopt a more aggressive protocol for sidelining concussed players because it didn't have to. While there were 423 deaths in pro and amateur boxing between 1918 and 1981, Bill Masterton's death in 1968 marked the only time in NHL history that a player was killed as the result of an on-ice incident.

 

Dan LaCouture played parts of nine seasons in the NHL. He arrived in the league after playing college hockey at Boston University. According to hockeyfights.com, he fought 52 times during his NHL career.

In all, LaCouture says he suffered 18 concussions in the NHL, the worst of those coming in 2004, when he was playing with the New York Rangers. During a fight against Calgary defenceman Robyn Regehr, LaCouture's helmet came off. Regehr flipped LaCouture and landed on top of him. LaCouture’s head snapped back and smashed against the ice. He was knocked out, bleeding from the back of his head. There was no CT scan, no appointment with a neurologist, no close monitoring by the Rangers’ team doctor or medical trainer, LaCouture says.

“They sent him home with me and basically said keep an eye on him,” says Bridey LaCouture, Dan’s ex-wife. And from the moment he got home, LaCouture planned for a quick return to the ice. “I knew that I had to come back and play because my contract was running out that year,” he says. "That was my last year and I couldn’t finish the year … as damaged goods, because who was gonna sign me going into the next year?"

 

 

And there’s the rub.

If the NHL is, in fact, responsible for not doing enough to protect players from long-term brain injuries, then it can also be said that players need to have done more to protect themselves. Some players are afraid to admit publicly they've suffered a concussion. There are uncertain consequences for players who are tested, such as the ability to secure insurance coverage, workers' compensation and other medical benefits or even their next NHL contract.

Former NHL player Matthew Barnaby told The Buffalo News that he played in one game — and fought — when he had lost vision in his left eye. "It's a big business and there's a lot of money involved," Barnaby said. "We all know as players, we know what management thinks of guys who have had one, two, three concussions, whatever the number may be. Every time you have one more diagnosed, you're thought of as damaged goods and your price tag when you become a free agent is going to go down. There might not be anyone come calling."

The worry about being forced out of the NHL because of head injuries was all too real for former Pittsburgh defenceman Phil Bourque, now a radio analyst for the club. Bourque, 53, told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in January that he suffers “abnormally long” memory lapses and forgets the names of people he sees every day. Bourque, who is not part of the NHL concussion litigation, said he “probably lied to the trainer numerous times” and told the paper that he wouldn’t let a concussion – he figures he had at least a dozen – keep him out of the lineup for more than seven days. “Every single time, I know I came back earlier than I should have because I feared for my job,” he said.

 

If former players are expected during a trial to show the human toll of repeated head injuries and concussions, NHL internal emails, documents and correspondence will likely be used to form the backbone of any argument the NHL could have done more to protect its players.

So far, the NHL and its U.S.-based teams have produced more than 2 million pages of evidence in the case; a handful of documents have been filed publicly in court. The NHL's Canadian-based teams will also likely be ordered to turn over internal emails, documents and other correspondence. While NHL executives insist there is no "smoking gun" hidden within the reams of evidence, some of what has already been introduced has made headlines.

In November, 2009, Grand, an NHL lawyer, wrote an email to Bettman asking for input about what direction the NHL’s concussion working group should take. One of the options Grand mentioned included a study "on the long-term neurocognitive and psychological effects of repeated concussions among retired NHL players." But Grand said she wasn’t that interested in the idea. “I’d rather focus on the here and now and leave the dementia issues up to the NFL!” she wrote in the Nov. 30, 2009, email. “I think it is important that we continue to move in more than one direction with the work of the (concussion working group) and appear to both the players/Clubs and the public that we are actively engaged in the issue,” Grand wrote. "Can you let me know your reactions to these ideas and others you may have?”

Bettman responded to Grand’s email the same day. “Good job,” he wrote. “Thanks. You should give it to P.R. — good idea.”

Other emails filed in court raise questions about the NHL’s due diligence on the issue of concussions. For instance, in a June 25, 2007, email to Bettman and Daly, Grand wrote that the league’s so-called concussion study group was being "disbanded." “Really due to its inability to conclude the analysis of the seven years of data collected,” Grand explained, adding that a new “Concussion Analysis Working Group” would be established.

“Is it troubling that they couldn’t complete the study?” Bettman asked in a June 25, 2007, email to Grand. It’s unclear why the group couldn’t analyze the data, and it’s similarly unclear whether Grand answered Bettman’s question. No other emails from that chain have been introduced as evidence so far.

One 2010 email released as evidence is from NHL senior executive vice-president of hockey operations Colin Campbell to Mike Milbury, the former NHL player, coach and general manager turned TV analyst. Milbury had asked Campbell about what the league might do to Pittsburgh forward Matt Cooke, who effectively ended the career of Boston centre Marc Savard with a crushing blindside hit to the head. As part of his reply, sent six days after the incident in a March 13, 2010, email, Campbell wrote: "Let's face it Mike... we sell rivalries, we sell and promote hate..."

 

 

The NHL moved to curb hits like the one Cooke delivered to Savard by instituting Rule 48 for the 2010-11 season, banning lateral and blindside hits to the head. The rule was altered in June, 2011 to narrow the scope of legal head hits in the league, making hits resulting in contact with an opponent's head “where the head is targeted and the principal point of contact” illegal. The wording of Rule 48 was changed for the 2013-14 season, with the league and NHLPA agreeing to remove targeting from the phrasing in favour of, “where the head was the main point of contact and such contact to the head was avoidable.”

On March 16, 2011, the league introduced a new protocol for concussed players. The protocol directed teams to remove such players from games and send them to a “quiet room” to be examined by a team doctor. Two years later, on July 23, 2013, the league beefed up that rule with a new statute that states a concussed player cannot return to the same game in which his injury occurred. Despite these changes, critics say the NHL's record of making the game safer is checkered. In 2014, Montreal’s Dale Weise was left visibly disoriented, woozy and unsteady, after a crushing bodycheck during a playoff game against the New York Rangers. Weise returned to play in the same game.

 

"The NHL concussion protocol states players diagnosed with a concussion ‘shall not return to practice or a game’ the same day the injury occurred, but these playoffs have provided several examples of players doing exactly that,” Sean Fitz-Gerald reported at the time in The National Post. "Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Steve Mason admitted to playing with symptoms during a first-round series. Tampa Bay Lightning forward Steven Stamkos conceded he continued to play with a lingering headache after suffering a suspected concussion. Columbus Blue Jackets defenceman James Wisniewski returned after leaving the ice wobbly."

Fast forward to the 2015-16 season. After a summer in which the NHL announced concussion spotters would watch games and look for signs that players were concussed, St. Louis rookie forward Robby Fabbri took an elbow to the head during a game in October. Coach Ken Hitchcock later said Fabbri had played three shifts after suffering a concussion.

 

Calgary defenceman Dennis Wideman earned a 20-game suspension for cross-checking linesman Don Henderson to the ice in a Jan. 27, 2016 incident that quickly became a flashpoint for league discipline and execution of the NHL’s concussion policy. Wideman was hit in the corner and subsequently flattened Henderson on his way to the Flames’ bench. Wideman was given a 20-game ban for violating Rule 40 (Physical Abuse of Officials), despite later being diagnosed with a concussion, leading some to ask how he could be punished so severely for an act committed when his thinking was conceivably clouded.

What remains unclear is whether the Flames properly administered the NHL’s concussion policy. A source told TSN that in the wake of the hit in the corner and collision with Henderson, the league concussion spotter sent word to the Flames bench that Wideman looked concussed. Video showed Wideman talking to Flames head therapist Kent Kobelka on the bench, but he was allowed to continue to play in the game. The NHL video explaining Wideman’s suspension said the player admitted he “repeatedly refused immediate medical attention and remained in the game.”

According to the protocol, the source said, players don’t have the right to refuse to go to the quiet room, a rule meant to take decision-making ability away from someone who may be incapacitated. One suggestion for addressing what has become a vexing issue comes from player agent Anton Thun.

Thun says the league should ensure that neurologists and doctors who examine players with suspected concussions are independent — perhaps by establishing a relationship with medical societies or hospitals and letting those groups decide which doctors will staff games. "When you have doctors who are on the team payroll examining players, it's going to raise questions of bias," Thun says. "It raises a terrible perception."

However, Thun says the NHL can't be blamed for all of the violence that remains in the game. The league can't unilaterally decide to ban fighting without the agreement of the NHL Players' Association, he says.

 

Whatever public pressure has been brought to bear on the NHL is nothing next to the attention garnered by the NFL in recent years.

In 2005, a forensic pathologist who worked at the University of Pittsburgh named Bennet Omalu published a research paper, “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in a National Football League Player," in the journal Neurosurgery. The paper was based on Omalu’s study of the brain of deceased former NFL centre Mike Webster.

Another paper a year later examined the brain of former NFL player Terry Long. In both deceased players, Omalu found evidence of a little-known condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a sports-related brain trauma.

 

By 2011, four NFL players including Jamal Lewis and Dorsey Levens sued the NFL over brain injuries, saying they were struggling with medical problems years after their playing careers ended. Within a year, some 4,500 former NFL players had joined the litigation. In April 2015, the NFL settled its lawsuit, agreeing to pay out more than $1 billion to former players.

But even after the settlement, there was more trouble for the NFL. In September 2015, researchers at Boston University reported they had found evidence of CTE in all but four of 91 former NFL players who posthumously donated their brains for research. The NFL settlement is now being appealed by some former players who allege the payout and promise of medical coverage isn’t good enough.

In May, 2015, Bettman met with reporters during an NHL playoff game in Chicago and was asked to share the league's view on the connection between hockey and CTE. “From a medical science standpoint, there is no evidence yet that one necessarily leads to the other,” Bettman said. “I know there are a lot of theories, but if you ask people who study it, they tell you there is no statistical correlation that can definitively make that conclusion.”

 

Lawyers for the former NHL players still struggle to understand why only just over 100 hockey players have signed up to their lawsuit when there are clear parallels to the NFL case.

Researchers have found signs of CTE in the brain tissue samples of deceased former NHL players Steve Montador, Reggie Fleming, Bob Probert, Rick Martin and Derek Boogaard. Perhaps it’s because the medical situation of former hockey players, many of whom live in Canada, is cushioned by socialized medical care. Or perhaps there are other reasons that have more to do with the fear of being ostracized.

“There’s been a concerted effort to freeze anybody out who is involved in the concussion litigation,” says Walsh, the NHL agent, citing conversations with clients who have retired from the league. “That means not allowing them to get jobs with the regional sports networks … not having them welcome at alumni events. And you know, that’s basically, for many retired players, a key part of their connection to their social lives. Going to a game and being able to go to the alumni room and being with their old buddies from when they played is very important to many people. The NHL knows that. Brilliant move if you can get away with it.”

Data suggest NHL players should be keenly interested in the concussion lawsuit. Nearly 30 per cent of former NFL players will develop Alzheimer’s disease or dementia during their lifetimes, according to actuarial data released by the NFL in September, 2014. NFL players are also twice as likely as the general public to suffer early-onset Alzheimer’s, ALS, Parkinson’s or dementia. It’s unclear whether the NHL has similar data about its former players.

Peluso says the fight that started his downward spiral took place in 1993.

He was with the New Jersey Devils when they played the Nordiques in Quebec City a week before Christmas. The Devils were winning 3-0 in the third period when the Nordiques sent out tough guy Tony Twist to fire up his team. “He caught me with a really good, hard punch,” Peluso says. “I don’t remember much after that."

In the locker room, Peluso started acting strangely. He says he showered and put his suit on. Then he took his suit off and showered again. And then he repeated the sequence a third time. “It was like a broken record,” he says. Peluso says teammates later told him about his erratic behaviour. After a day and a half in a Quebec hospital, Peluso went home to Hackensack, N.J. Five days later, he returned to the lineup to play Toronto. He says he was so disoriented he couldn’t make his way to the rink alone. He needed his girlfriend to drop him off.

“Of course he was back on the ice sooner than he should have been,” Bobby Huddleston, the Devils’ massage therapist at the time, says in an interview. Huddleston says he told the Devils’ trainer that Peluso was not ready to go back on the ice. “He said, ‘Fuck off,’ ” Huddleston says. “I just said, ‘Okay, you’re the trainer.’ I guess if you can walk, you can skate. That was the whole general idea back then."

Lou Lamoriello, who was the Devils’ general manager at the time and who now works for Toronto, declined to comment, a Maple Leafs spokesman said. Days after Huddleston’s showdown with the Devils’ trainer, Peluso says he suffered the first of — by his estimate — eight seizures while training with the team in Florida. His most recent seizure came months ago when he was in his home with his girlfriend.

“I’ve got a $5,000 deductible to go to the hospital, so a lot of times I don’t go,” Peluso says. “I’ve spent a lot of money on neurology. I’ve had EEGs, I’ve had MRIs. ... But I can’t afford it. And that’s sad. I’d love to be able to see a psychologist. But I can’t afford it. I can’t afford to go to a neurologist. How sad is that?"

“…I’m telling you, with the seizure disorder and brain damage, I would not have played in this league. I swear to God.”


NHL Footage/Stills – National Hockey League and Rogers Sportsnet

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