Morris Titanic looks back with disbelief when he thinks about his hockey career.
“It’s something you reflect on and you go, ‘Holy crap, you played that game without a friggin’ helmet on? Are you nuts?’ ” Titanic said by phone. “My God, you’re getting clunked on the head with sticks or your head’s banging in the glass or you’re falling into the boards. When you think about it, why the hell didn’t I wear a helmet? It’s just stupid.
“But when you’re 20 years old you’re indestructible, right?”
Indeed, athletes tend to think nothing can hurt them. But someone in charge should know better, at least according to a recent lawsuit filed against the NHL.
Titanic, fellow former Buffalo Sabre Richie Dunn and other retired players are suing the league for failing to protect them from head injuries or inform them about the resulting effects. The suit comes on the heels of the NFL agreeing to pay $765 million to settle a similar lawsuit filed by its former players, including many who suffer from the degenerative brain disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.
The timing and inclusion of players like Titanic have led some to deem the lawsuit a money grab. The oft-injured Titanic played in only 19 NHL games after being selected 12th overall by the Sabres in the 1973 draft.
“From my observation, the guys that are saying negative things about it are the guys that are invested in the game,” Titanic said. “They’re either in broadcasting or working for a team or they’re trying to work for a team. They have some kind of investment in the National Hockey League, which I can understand. That’s fine. You have to make a living somehow, but you’d almost prefer they don’t say anything because a lot of them were all players once themselves.
“That aside, only playing 19 games for Buffalo didn’t much matter. You’re playing somewhere. Whether things happened while you were in Buffalo, in the American League, junior, who knows? There’s really nothing I guess from what I’ve read about this CTE and things of that nature, there’s really not a specific injury that you can put a finger on that, ‘Yeah, well, it happened on that date and that’s why he’s all messed up.’ ”
According to the lawsuit, the 60-year-old Titanic has suffered memory loss, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), post-traumatic headaches and cognitive deficit as a result of concussions suffered while playing in the NHL.
“From the testing I’d been through and my age and having played in an era where nobody wore helmets, I guess I was the prime-candidate poster boy for anything bad that can happen to somebody,” said Titanic, who was already a client of the legal firm that filed the lawsuit. “You go through all this testing and stuff, and then you start to find some stuff out. It makes you sit up and take notice about what might be in the future. It really kind of makes you realize your mortality and where you’re at.”
While the suit does seek monetary damages, the retired players also are seeking an NHL-funded monitoring program that would test them for brain disorders and provide treatment.
“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,” NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said. “We intend to defend the case vigorously.”
The basic tenet of the lawsuit is that the NHL knew players could suffer long-lasting damage from head shots and did nothing to prevent them while also keeping the information away from the players. The lawsuit points to studies done on boxers as far back as 1928.
“Unbeknownst to plaintiffs, scientific evidence has linked brain injuries to long-term neurological problems for decades,” the lawsuit reads. “While every blow to the head is dangerous, plaintiffs did not know and were not told by the NHL how dangerous this repeated brain trauma is.
“Since the NHL has permitted bare-knuckle, on-ice fighting from its inception to the present, the NHL knew or should have known that the nearly century-old data from boxing was particularly relevant to professional hockey. And given the higher speed of skating compared to running, the NHL also knew or should have known that the data from football was particularly relevant to professional hockey.”
It likely will be years before the lawsuit goes to court or is settled. In the meantime, Titanic is happy it has made people aware of the troubles experienced by players.
“The one thing I guess you can say is positive about it is it certainly has put player safety and head injuries into the limelight,” Titanic said. “If it helps me, if it helps past players that might need some help, especially as they start to get older and find some stuff out, then that’s a good thing.”