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Could NHL players follow NFL players in brain injury lawsuits?

During the spring and summer of 2011, three professional hockey players were found dead unexpectedly. All three of the men were “enforcers,” or players whose primary duty was to fight. As anyone who has seen a professional hockey game knows, fights in the NHL mean gloves come off and blood spills.

In the wake of these tragedies, the NHL-endorsed fighting has come under scrutiny. Two of the deaths were rumored suicides and the other was an accidental overdose of pain medication and alcohol. All three players are believed to have suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease that is caused by trauma to the head.

According to an article this week in the New York Times, this is an issue that will likely only get more heated. Last week, the family of Derek Boogaard, one of the most feared fighters in the NHL, filed a lawsuit against the player’s union that could expose a dark side of the NHL. Boogaard was found dead in May 2011 after an accidental drug-and-alcohol overdose. Posthumous research concluded he suffered from CTE.

Boogaard’s family is suing the player’s union for failing to file a claim that would have allowed the family to collect the remaining $5 million on Boogaard’s contract. But the family also makes allegations that could lead to lawsuits similar to the ones brought by players against the National Football League.

For one, Boogaard’s family alleges that doctors, trainers and dentists for the Minnesota Wild and New York Rangers prescribed Boogaard drugs that they knew he was having substance abuse problems with. In fact, the lawsuit states that Boogaard was enrolled in the union’s substance abuse program when he died.

The lawsuit also alludes that the NHL and the union knew that Boogaard and fighters like him were at risk of developing serious brain injuries but did nothing to protect them.

While this lawsuit is only in its primary stages, it could have a big impact on the NHL and lead to many other lawsuits, similar to the ones the NFL faces.

Source:  The New York Times, “Boogaard Lawsuit May Shake Up Hockey,” Jeff Z. Klein, Sept. 26, 2012