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NHL officials acknowledged link between fighting and brain trauma in 2011 email, lawyer says

A lawyer for former NHL players suing the league over concussions says that a 2011 email from deputy commissioner Bill Daly to commissioner Gary Bettman linking fighting to concussions, depression and personal tragedies shows the NHL was aware of a connection between hockey and brain trauma.

U.S. District Judge Susan Nelson is overseeing the suit in federal court in Minneapolis, Minnesota; the consolidated lawsuit was filed on Oct. 20, 2014 by more than 100 former players who say the NHL was aware of the dangers of concussions but failed to educate players on the issue.

The latest unsealing of documents, which came about after a petition last fall by CTV's W5, includes an exchange in September 2011 that followed the deaths of three players in a span of four months -- Derek Boogaard (accidental overdose), Rick Rypien (suicide) and Wade Belak (suicide) -- who were known more for making their living with their fists than their puck-handling skills.

"Do you remember what happened when we tried to eliminate the staged fights?" Bettman wrote to Daly and Brendan Shanahan, who at the time served as the league's chief disciplinarian. "The 'fighters' objected and so did the pa [NHLPA]. Eliminating fighting would mean eliminating the jobs of the 'fighters', meaning that these guys would not have NHL careers. An interesting question is whether being an NHL fighter does this to you (I don't believe so) or whether a certain type of person (who wouldn't otherwise be skilled enough to be an NHL player) gravitates to this job (I believe more likely)."

Daly wrote in his reply, "I tend to think [it's] a little bit of both. Fighting raises the incidence of head injuries/concussions, which raises the incidence of depression onset, which raises the incidence of personal tragedies."

Michael Cashman, a lawyer for the former players, told TSN that the 2011 email contradicts the long-standing contention by Bettman and the league that there is not a link between hockey and long-term brain injuries.

"While the NFL has recently admitted the link between repetitive trauma in sport and long-term brain disease, the NHL continues to deny the link, insisting that hockey is not football," said Cashman. "Contrary to those public denials, this internal email from senior NHL executive Bill Daly to commissioner Bettman acknowledges the link between head injuries, depression and personal tragedies."

In another revealing email just released, NHL senior vice president of communications Gary Meagher wrote that the league is not in the business of "making the game safer on all levels."

Meagher was responding to an email from a company conducting a league-mandated survey on fan perception of violence in the NHL versus the NFL.

"NFL is in the business of selling that they are making the game of football safer at all levels -- it is smoke and mirrors but they are masters of smoke and mirrors," Meagher wrote. "The nhl has never been in the business of trying to make the game safer at all levels and we have never tried to sell the fact that this is who we are . . . The question is: should we be in that business and if we were, what could we possibly achieve without throwing millions of dollars at education."

Cashman told TSN that Meagher's email shows that the NHL "has never been serious about player safety at all levels of hockey and has been unwilling to spend the money necessary to be a true leader."