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Allegations of injured NHL veterans cannot simply be dismissed as lacking merit

This was a lawsuit waiting to happen and, despite the assurances of the National Hockey League’s commissioner, there seems little reason to believe the league is somehow invulnerable to the claims made by injured players.

The 104 veterans, including 16 former Buffalo Sabres, are seeking class-action status and, while the details of the case will shape the outcome, the fact is that these men have a tale to tell, and it’s not a pretty one. The allegation by former players like Mike Robitaille is that the league hid the game’s risks from the young men it sent onto the ice and then denied appropriate medical care for the severe injuries that some of them suffered.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because it echoes the costly and legitimate complaints lodged against the tobacco industry and, even more tellingly, against the National Football League. It’s not about – or at least not solely about – what the NHL has done lately about concussions and rule changes, as Commissioner Gary Bettman seems to believe. It’s also about what was done years ago that may have caused injuries whose consequences are still felt today.

Robitaille, for example, couldn’t stay on his feet at the end of his career and, now, at 68 years old, needs help getting out of bed. He suffered several injuries, including one 40 years ago that produced a fractured neck, an injury to his spinal cord and a concussion. Yet a team doctor told his wife everything was fine – nothing a glass of cognac couldn’t cure.

But there’s more to it than that. Unlike football, whose on-field violence is mainly part of the game structure, and now shown to cause life-threatening injures, hockey has an additional problem: For decades, the league has tolerated – if not tacitly encouraged – on-ice brawling, an extracurricular distraction that has nothing to do with the sport but which, sadly, helps to put fans in the seats.

It also gave Shayne Stevenson a broken nose and a concussion. Worse, perhaps, he says it also produced an order from his team, the Boston Bruins, to keep playing rather than seek care.

NHL brass likes to claim that fighting is inseparable from the sport, so intense is the action and so committed are the players. But it’s a canard. The proof is in other arenas. Fighting is prohibited in European professional hockey leagues, and in Olympic hockey the penalties are severe enough that fighting is rare.

If the NHL were serious about discouraging fighting and protecting players – that is, serious about the sport – it could move aggressively against fighting. That it doesn’t speaks volumes about its priorities and suggests that players with injuries that date back years and even decades have a serious case to make.

Hockey is a thrilling sport, played professionally. It is infused in Buffalo’s culture and should be protected. But that means the NHL has to be professional, as well. That requires finding an honorable way to deal with the life-altering issues that former players like Robitaille have laid at its moneyed doorstep and finally confronting the ugly distraction of fighting. Denial is unattractive and will have its own long-term consequences.