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Hockey Owners warned Bettman over NHL’s concussion stand, e-mails reveal

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman gestures during a question and answer session at the Calgary Chamber of Commerce in Calgary, Alta., Monday, Jan. 11, 2016.

Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Buried in the mounds of e-mails that have surfaced this week as part of the NHL concussion lawsuit were signs of serious discontent from some NHL owners over how the league handled head shots.

While the NHL's top power brokers typically present a unified public front, the private e-mails indicated that multiple owners were not on the same page as commissioner Gary Bettman.

Tom Cigarran, a respected Nashville businessman and long-time part owner of the Predators, had the stiffest rebuke for Bettman back in October, 2011. After Predators centre Mike Fisher was dropped by a violent hit to the head in an early season game, Cigarran e-mailed his general manager, David Poile, to check on Fisher's condition.

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When told Fisher had a concussion and that the culprit, Ducks defenceman François Beauchemin, wasn't going to be suspended, Cigarran sent a pointed note to Bettman.

In it, Cigarran alluded to a potential lawsuit like the one the NHL is now facing from former players, who allege the league didn't do enough to protect them from concussions.

"As I have tried to get across, ANY hit to the head MUST be a major penalty and result in a suspension," Cigarran, who made his fortune as CEO of Healthways Inc., a wellness provider in Tennessee, wrote. "We would be the last league to take this position so this is not a RADICAL concept. The cost of our delay is huge in financial terms and in terms of damage to player careers as well."

Cigarran added that while the hit on Fisher "might have been legal" according to the NHL's rulebook, "this just demonstrates the need to change the rules."

The Predators chairman wasn't the only owner in the recently unsealed e-mails to raise the issue of legal liability due to the NHL's failure to adopt more stringent head-shot rules.

In August, 2011, Montreal Canadiens president Geoff Molson forwarded Bettman a column that appeared in The Globe and Mail on how the NHL needed to make changes after the National Football League was sued by 75 former players.

"Given the league's zealous willingness to keep head shots in the game," it read, "the NHL is vulnerable to a similar lawsuit."

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"In case you did not see this," Molson wrote in an e-mail to Bettman that included the article. "As you know, I am aligned with what [the writer] says as mentioned in the [board of governors meetings].

"As an owner, the NFL lawsuits could put us at risk. Although we are making good progress, I don't think it's enough until any head hit is made illegal. I hope we get there soon!"

In both cases, Bettman disagreed with the owners in his responses. He explained to Cigarran that the league has a rule against head hits but not "head contact in conjunction with a full body check." He advised Molson not to worry about the potential of a lawsuit.

"I do not believe that we are in the same situation as football," Bettman wrote. "And I do not believe the NFL lawsuits should put us at risk. Among other things, we have been the leaders in the area of concussions and have set the standard on diagnosis, treatment and rule changes at the professional level."

"Good to hear we are unlikely at risk," Molson replied. "That is [was] my biggest fear."

The NHL was sued by a group of former players a little more than two years later, a lawsuit that has since grown to include more than 100 league alumni.

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The unsealed e-mails from Cigarran and Molson are the first sign that those at the highest level of NHL leadership were heavily conflicted over the league's lack of better concussion-prevention measures.

It's not known how many other owners feel the same way. As commissioner, Bettman works to build unanimity between the 30 teams' ownership groups, but a select few are believed to have far more sway than others. The NHL's old-guard foursome of Jeremy Jacobs (Boston), Ed Snider (Philadelphia), Murray Edwards (Calgary) and Rocky Wirtz (Chicago), in particular, are Bettman's strongest backers and have considerable say in board of governors' decisions, as was made clear when they had prominent roles during the league's recent lockouts (2004-05 and 2012).

No e-mails from the four powerful owners materialized in the thousands of pages of documents that were unsealed earlier this week. But Cigarran appeared to take aim at the (unnamed) more traditional members of the board in his e-mail to Bettman.

"The 'it will change the game' or 'we will have our players wearing figure skates' stories show the thinking of the old-timers," Cigarran wrote. "Our incremental approach to change to mollify them has gone on too long. I intend to bring this up at every owners meeting until the changes are made. Enough is enough."

"Let's discuss tomorrow," Bettman replied.

Five years later, the NHL still does not have a rule banning all hits to the head. The high hit Beauchemin laid on Fisher, which kept the Predator out for most of two games, would not likely be a suspension today, either.

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The e-mails from Cigarran and Molson don't constitute the so-called "smoking gun" that the players' lawyers are searching for in the sea of documents, but they do offer a potential glimpse of why the NHL has been slow to evolve on the issue of hits to the head.

The recently unsealed e-mails also only make up an estimated 1 per cent of all the material in the case, and many of the documents made available have been heavily redacted. More explosive comments from owners could be publicized down the line.

While the attention of many fans since the release of the e-mails has focused on former senior vice-president Colin Campbell's colourful references to various NHL players as king rats, wusses, punks and dickheads, the meat of the concussion lawsuit will more likely come down to whether the league willfully put players in harm's way by not being proactive in preventing head injuries.

What's clear from these early documents is that some at the ownership level, as far back as five years ago, believed they were not doing enough.

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