Featuring pugnacious youngsters Rob Ray and Mike Hartman, the Buffalo Sabres had a nasty streak back in 1990-91. The Boston Bruins knew it well.
The organizations had already met six times when the Sabres arrived in Boston on March 2, 1991. During the previous visit, three fights filled the stat sheet. Mike Milbury, the Bruins’ coach, expected more of the same.
According to Shayne Stevenson, Milbury walked into the dressing room and told the 21-year-old rookie to be ready. If Ray or Hartman touched Boston star Cam Neely, it was Stevenson’s job to drop the gloves and fight.
The moment came less than four minutes into Stevenson’s ninth NHL game. He stared at Hartman, and the battle was on. Stevenson held his own for a time, throwing at least seven punches and dodging three wild rights. Hartman showed his experience and switched to a left hand.
It connected with a bang. Stevenson went down with a broken nose and a concussion. He alleges the Bruins forced him to keep playing, with the training staff making it clear that concussions were not a reason to call it a night.
Unfortunately for Stevenson, that was his best of two fights for Boston. Later that month, he again proved susceptible to left hands. Ken Baumgartner of the New York Islanders landed haymakers at will, sending Stevenson to the dressing room for 30 stitches above his eye. He alleges he told the team he felt ill with concussion-like symptoms, yet after the game, Milbury ordered the bloodied player to report to the minor leagues. After losing his objection, Stevenson suffered another concussion immediately upon arrival.
Now, 25 years later, Stevenson and Hartman are fighting again. This time, they are on the same team. They are two of the 104 former players who have filed a lawsuit against the NHL claiming the league was negligent in its care and fraudulently concealed the long-term risks of head injuries.
Hartman, according to the lawsuit, suffers from a variety of post-concussion symptoms, including headaches, memory loss and sleep problems. Stevenson is on permanent disability due to anxiety, depression, speech problems, a lack of concentration and comprehension, difficulty sleeping and memory loss.
The retired players are seeking medical monitoring and compensatory damages from the NHL.
“The problem is their cognitive health is deteriorating at a rapid rate, much more than the average citizen,” Charles “Bucky” Zimmerman, founding partner of a law firm representing the players, said by phone. “It’s because they played the sport. It’s because they took a lot of hits and a lot of banging, and now they’re paying the price.”
The plaintiffs include longtime NHLers like Bernie Nicholls, who scored 475 goals in 1,127 games, and guys like Stevenson, who totaled two assists in 27 appearances. There are 16 former Sabres. Much like the overall group, some are well-known while others appeared in Buffalo just long enough to get toll money for their next stop.
Along with Hartman, the ex-Sabres are Shawn Anderson, Doug Barrie, Mal Davis, Richie Dunn, Jim Hofford, Edward “Dean” Kennedy, Reed Larson, Grant Ledyard, Gary McAdam, Craig Muni, Jeff Parker, Steve Patrick, Mike Robitaille, Morris Titanic and the late Steve Montador, who is being represented by his father, Paul.
According to the lawsuit, many of them have had problems as a result of concussions and subconcussive hits:
• Anderson, the No. 5 overall pick by Buffalo in the 1986 NHL Draft, was driven to substance abuse. He entered a substance abuse program after his last game in 1995 and has been sober for 20 years.
• Barrie, a member of the original 1970-71 Sabres, suffers from mood swings, depression, alcohol abuse, headaches, anxiety and temper-control issues.
• Davis, who played in Buffalo and Rochester from 1981 to 1986, suffers anxiety attacks, dizziness, disorientation, memory loss, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), mood swings, problems with impulse control, concentration difficulties, sleep disorder and cognitive deficits.
• Hofford, who played 17 games for the Sabres in the mid-1980s, has depression, anxiety, irritability and difficulty concentrating. He says the conditions negatively affected his personal relationships.
• Ledyard, an 18-year veteran who spent parts of five seasons in Buffalo, has had headaches, mood swings, sensitivity to light and depression while losing his temper for little or no reason.
• Muni, who spent three of his 16 seasons with the Sabres, suffers from depression, short temper and mood swings.
• Titanic, who played his 19 NHL games with Buffalo in the mid-1970s, has memory loss, tinnitus, post-traumatic headaches and cognitive deficit.
How many other former Sabres are hurting?
“More than you can imagine,” said Ray, the hockey pugilist turned broadcaster who serves as president of the Buffalo Sabres Alumni Association. “The help isn’t there for the guys when they’re done. Yeah, there’s concussions, but I think in the big picture a lot of guys are to the point where things need to be fixed, all because of the game, and there’s nobody there to help them.
“A lot of the guys are getting to that age now where things that they had fixed playing – whether it was a knee, shoulder, teeth, whatever – it’s fixed at that time. But 30, 40, 50 years down the road when it starts falling apart again or things fall apart due to what you did, you’re on your own dime. That’s the part that’s hard, and that’s the part that most guys look at.”
The first small group of retired players filed suit against the NHL in November 2013. The timing created backlash. The NFL had settled its lawsuit with former players just three months earlier, and the payout was $765 million. The immediate perception was hockey players were merely looking to cash in.
Ledyard heard those rumblings. He followed the proceedings through news stories and conversations with players and lawyers. The longtime defenseman learned the primary purpose was to get help for players in need, so he joined in November 2015.
“I hesitated to join the lawsuit for a long time because people were calling it a money grab,” Ledyard said. “No one ever said anything about money to me. It was never mentioned that way. For a couple years, I listened to information that was coming out from both sides, and I just felt like it was being straightened out more. People were starting to understand through not only some of the experiences of players in hockey but also from football.
“I’m just hoping this is a situation where some of the older guys, much older than myself, can get taken care of and get a little bit of peace in their old age.”
Ledyard was an NHL Players’ Association union representative in Buffalo and other cities. He says his longtime desire to work for his hockey brothers prompted him to join. Nicholls, slated to serve as a class representative, has said the same thing.
But of the thousands and thousands of retired players, why have only 104 joined the lawsuit? There are three main reasons:
• The NHL hires its own.
The staff directories for the 30 teams are filled with former players. Once guys hang up their skates, they slide into scouting, coaching or broadcasting jobs.
“It’s hard to go and sue your team,” Ray said. “A lot of guys don’t join because they’re still involved in the game.”
• Hockey comes with acknowledged risks.
Since its inception, the NHL has been a league where toughness is valued as much as skill. Players signed up knowing that fights, hits and physical play were part of the job. Ray’s minor-league coaches in Rochester told him the best path to Buffalo was to fight and fight some more. So he did, throwing and absorbing more punches than nearly everyone in NHL history.
Lawyers approached him about joining the lawsuit, but he declined.
“Sometimes you take the notion that you kind of know what you’re getting into,” Ray said. “I know you’re young and dumb and you do a lot of things, and you don’t think about things sometimes. I know a lot of guys are affected by it, but I think if you would have asked any of them at that time that there’s this chance” of long-term injury, “they’d all say, ‘Screw it, let’s roll the dice.’ ”
• The lawsuit doesn’t need any more players.
The next major step in the case, being heard in U.S. District Court in Minnesota, is a motion for class certification in September. If Judge Susan Richard Nelson rules the case should become a class-action lawsuit, then the plaintiffs will represent all retired players, not just the ones who signed up.
“The definition includes everyone who played,” Zimmerman said from his law office in Minneapolis. “It really isn’t necessary that other people file lawsuits because the lawsuit is proceeding on behalf of the class representatives. There’s no vote. There’s no critical mass that’s necessary. The case is proceeding, and most of the players know about it.”
Zimmerman, who also represented NFL players in their lawsuit, said the potential retired player pool is 4,500 to 5,000. By comparison, the NFL pool included more than 20,000 former players.
“A lot of people are on the sidelines just waiting to see what happens and hoping that they can participate as class members,” Zimmerman said. “The heroes of this case are the players that are in this and trying to help their brethren. For the most part, these are players that played the game hard, left a lot of the best times of their lives on the ice, and now toward the end or middle of their life, they’re trying to help the guys that played with them.
“It’s that group of people that we’re vigorously trying to find a remedy for because many of them − many, many of them, more than you can imagine − have been significantly impaired and their lives are really on a very downward trajectory. We’re trying to do something to help them and their families navigate through these difficult times.”