March 2, 2015 / 1:13 PM / 3 years ago

NHL concussion lawsuit following a path blazed by the NFL

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Gary Leeman suffers from memory loss, dizziness, headaches and other symptoms associated with repeated head trauma.

He also has anger issues, although it may be hard to discern whether it’s from the concussions he suffered as a Toronto Maple Leafs forward or his contempt for the National Hockey League.

“Obviously part of the entertainment value of the NHL is fighting,” he said.

“You get five minutes for fighting,” he said, referring to time in the penalty box given to a player who fights. “If you did that on the street, you’d be in jail.”

Leeman, an all-star who played 15 seasons in the NHL before retiring in 1997, is one of about 70 players suing the league for knowingly withholding information about the long-term effect of concussions.

It’s a path taken by thousands of former players of the National Football League, whose class-action lawsuit awaits judicial approval but is expected to cost the league in the vicinity of $1 billion.

Twenty-nine former players recently joined the NHL lawsuit, which has quietly been gathering energy since a group of 10 banded together 15 months ago and initiated the action.

“There is clearly growing momentum for the litigation amongst former players who are concerned about the long-term effects of the repetitive head trauma they sustained in the NHL,” said Charles Zimmerman, co-lead counsel for the plaintiffs.

“We hope this case will allow former players to finally hold the NHL accountable for its misconduct so they can receive the care and support they urgently need.”

The case gained widespread attention two weeks ago when retired NHL defense man Steve Montador, who played for six NHL teams over 10 seasons, was found dead at the age of 35.

The Vancouver native was forced from the game after suffering a season-ending concussion on March 27, 2012. Having been plagued by concussions throughout his hockey career, Montador admitted in 2013 that he struggled with depression.

Montador left his brain to researchers who will see if he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain disease caused by repetitive hits to the head.

Several well-known NHL players, like the late Bob Probert and Reggie Fleming, and brutish enforcer Derek Boogaard, who died of an accidental overdose of painkillers and alcohol in 2011 at the age of 28, were found to have suffered from CTE.

“With the medical evidence out there, I think (the NHL) has known for a long time that repetitive hits to the head, concussions, are going to cause long-time ill effects on people,” said Leeman, just the second Toronto Maple Leafs player to score 50 goals or more in a single NHL season.

“We never heard anything about that awareness when we went to have our physicals before the season. The c-word (concussions) is out there now. It was just considered dings and having your bell rung back when we played.”

The lawsuit received a bit of star power earlier this month. Among the 29 former players signing on was Butch Goring, a four-time Stanley Cup champion with the New York Islanders in the 1980s.

Leeman tipped his hat to the NFL for paving the way for concussion lawsuits.

“I‘m appreciative of the legwork the NFL has done,” he said. “Football and hockey are both physical sports. Hockey players are reeling from a lot of the effects our players have had and I‘m hoping we can go down the same road.”

The NHL, wanting the lawsuit dismissed, said it did everything it could do protect players and that most of the complaints had passed the statute of limitations. An NHL spokesman declined to comment on the lawsuit.

U.S. District Judge Susan Nelson heard arguments last month and could rule at any time.

Editing by Frank McGurty and Eric Walsh

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