Gary Leeman was in agony.
The puck – after a slap shot from then-Calgary Flames defenceman Al MacInnis deflected on its way to the net – had hit the budding Toronto Maple Leafs star in the back of the head, crushing the part of his skull that stuck out under his helmet.
Teammates later told Leeman that he was moaning as he lay on the ice.
All he could hear was a ringing that wouldn't leave for three weeks.
"The ringing was caused by blood," Leeman explains. "The blood needed somewhere to drain, so it went into the bone, and it caused pressure on the eardrum. I had that drained a couple times."
He played the next two games. When a trainer realized that Leeman could hardly hold his head up, he was finally pulled from the lineup.
Twenty-seven years later, he calls the injury "life-changing."
Now 51, Leeman has frequent headaches and vision problems. He also believes that his personality has changed over the years, that his short temper is connected to all of the concussions he suffered in his career, which began to go sharply off the rails in his mid-20s in large part because of mounting injuries.
He worries that he is no longer himself. "I saw it alter me completely," he says.
Leeman, an undersized defenceman-turned-winger who played the majority of his 13-year National Hockey League career with the Leafs, is one of the biggest names among the dozens of former players involved in a lawsuit against the league that is slowly winding its way through the U.S. court system. The lawsuit alleges that the NHL knowingly put players at risk despite decades of data connecting blows to the head with long-term neurological damage.
Over the summer, some of the most powerful people in the game – including NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, Leafs president Brendan Shanahan, Flames president Brian Burke and several owners – gave depositions as part of the lawsuit, which could potentially go to trial by November of 2016.
More players have continued to file complaints in recent months, including a group of eight led by defenceman Michel Petit – who played for 10 NHL teams in an 800-plus game career – and three other former Leafs (Kurt Walker, Gary McAdam and Greg Terrion) earlier this week.
Later this year, the legal team representing the players will argue to Judge Susan Nelson in Minnesota to proceed with the case as a class-action suit, meaning that all former NHL players will be represented and not only the group of around 80 that has come forward to date.
Leeman says he has received widespread support from other alumni.
However, multiple retired players contacted by The Globe and Mail say they are fearful of being blackballed – losing their jobs as coaches, broadcasters or other roles connected to the NHL – if they speak out.
Others have sons or nephews progressing through the system and don't want to hurt their draft stock or careers.
"Trust me, they have a lot of support," says one recently retired player in his early 40s who suffers from memory lapses and says he can't afford medical insurance in the United States. "One hundred per cent support the lawsuit.
"There's a lot of players that get left hanging with this. Guys are screwed up the rest of their lives. … Sometimes I'm at the grocery store and suddenly I can't remember what city I'm in.
"My kids ask questions [about potential long-term health issues] and it's hard because what do you say? That I don't remember where I am sometimes?"
Given their situations, the players' case at first seems convincing. More and more stars – including Chris Pronger and Marc Savard – have been forced out of the NHL early because of head injuries in recent years, and devastating stories from retired players like Leeman have been filtering out for months because of the lawsuit.
But the legal complexities involved are immense. While retired football players and the National Football League came to a controversial $765-million (U.S.) settlement two years ago, legal experts say there are enough differences between the leagues and their handling of head injuries that a similar outcome for NHL alumni isn't guaranteed.
In football, for example, there was somewhat of a smoking gun: documented evidence the league knew the dangers head injuries could present and failed to act to protect players.
It's not as clear that exists in the NHL. The league to date has only offered a series of denials, including an insistence that they didn't know – certainly not back in the late 1980s when Leeman was first injured – the dangers and that they acted appropriately (by changing rules etc.) to keep players safe as the medical science became available.
Bettman has also made public denials about the link between concussions and conditions such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease that has been found postmortem in former players Bob Probert, Rick Martin, Reg Fleming and Derek Boogaard.
The NHL declined to comment for this story.
"We will not be deterred by the NHL's attempts to evade accountability, particularly while the league denies any link between repetitive head injuries and long-term neurological conditions," Charles Zimmerman, one of the lead lawyers for the players, said in a statement. "We are committed to getting the security and support that retired players deserve, which includes medical monitoring and comprehensive care."
"If you're the NHL, the potential liability here is huge," said Nathaniel Grow, an associate professor of legal studies at the University of Georgia who is intimately familiar with the NFL and NHL lawsuits. "Plus there's all the bad PR, which probably helped motivate the NFL to settle to a large degree. …
"If you're the players, you say, 'They should have known.' [The NHL has] taken on this role of player safety watchdog – at that point you need to be informed of what the dangers are. But, to be fair, nobody realized 20 years ago how dangerous concussions were and nobody knew with any degree of certainty what the lasting effects would be. It's a credible argument from the NHL's perspective. It helps their case. It might make a settlement more difficult."
The fact the NFL is a much, much wealthier league – with annual revenues more than three times the NHL's – could also make a similar settlement harder to negotiate in hockey, Grow said.
One of the major differences between the NFL and NHL cases has been the players themselves. Many retired football players were outraged over the way they were treated and went into litigation looking for a big payout as a kind of retribution against the league. (Ultimately, the $765-million settlement in the NFL case stipulated only the few with a "qualifying diagnosis" of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's or dementia will receive compensation of $1-million or more.)
According to those involved in the NHL case, retired players like Leeman aren't in this for revenge. They primarily want to right some of the wrongs in their sport, including getting better protection for those still playing, better medical coverage for alumni and monitoring for those at risk for long-term neurological issues.
Leeman also would like to change the "warrior" mentality in the league, as even today players are pushed to play through brutal injuries. The head injury he suffered early in his career – the one that left his ears ringing – was compounded by the fact he continually felt pressure to put his health on the line by playing through the after-effects of head injuries.
Leeman scored 51 goals with the Leafs in 1989-90 – the season after his major injury, which was treated largely by draining the blood from his skull – but he suffered a series of other, undiagnosed concussions. His play declined dramatically beginning the following year, and he was traded to Calgary, then Montreal, where he was a bit player on the 1993 Stanley Cup team.
Leeman never had more than 17 goals in a season again.
"There were a couple times when I got hit in Toronto, my head went off the glass pretty hard," Leeman says. "I remember [one time after being concussed] against St. Louis, struggling getting back to the bench, there not being much time left, and my coach asking me if I wanted to go back out there.
"Meaning, 'Do you want to go back to deliver some retribution?' And the answer of course was yes. You're put in that position to defend yourself. I went back out there. I remember being very dazed – this was minutes later – and taking a run at a guy because he had hit me.
"I hadn't realized that this was something that could really affect me down the road."
Leeman now lives in Ontario's cottage country, a couple hours north of Toronto, where he owns a small rental business and works when he can. He knows he is one of the lucky ones, having earned a couple big contracts – for the time – in the $400,000 range before injuries pushed him into the minors by his 30th birthday.
All told, he probably didn't take home much more than $1-million during his career, and more than 20 years after his last substantial payday, he remains a long ways from being able to collect the small pension available to NHL alumni who played in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
"I do the best that I can do," he says.
But he worries about the future, both his and that of many of his friends and former teammates.
They don't feel taken care of. They don't feel they can speak their minds. Some don't even feel like themselves any more.
"I dealt with a lot of things in silence for a number of years," Leeman says. "I wasn't really prepared to speak to people in the game about it because I was considered to be a warrior. And if I told anybody about my issues, I felt like I was going to possibly lose my job. …
"I'd like the end result [of the lawsuit] to be a program in place for players that need help. There a lot of guys that are suffering, a lot of players that are coming forward, realizing they've got major issues and they're going to have bigger ones down the road, as a result of the game they helped build and love and want to see healthy.
"Everyone wants to see this game healthy. It's a great game. It's just this finally needs to be answered. It needs to be resolved."