Canadian Hockey League Faces Class Action From Former Players

(CN) – A proposed class action on behalf of current and former amateur hockey players in the Canadian Hockey League who didn’t go on to professional careers accuses the league of failing to warn young, vulnerable players of the long-term risks of repetitive brain trauma suffered on the ice.

Lead plaintiff James McEwan’s claim in B.C. Supreme Court names the CHL, the Western Hockey League, and Hockey Canada as defendants. McEwan, who started with the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds in 2004 at age 17, filed the lawsuit on behalf of current and former players who suffered concussive injuries during game play. 

According to the claim, McEwan played in the WHL for four seasons, ending his stint as captain of the Kelowna Rockets in 2008. He was involved in more than 70 fights in his career and was frequently “glorified” as the team’s most entertaining player and best fighter, the claim says. By the time he was 19, McEwan said he “was beginning to experience severe anxiety, mood swings, personality changes and angry outbursts.”

“The side effects of his continuous head trauma began to have a noticeable impact on his day-to-day life,” the claim states. “Mr. McEwan began to consume copious amounts of alcohol in an effort to cope with the physical pain and mental distress he was regularly experiencing. Had Mr. McEwan been made aware by the Defendants of the long-term side effects of concussive and sub-concussive impacts to the head, he would not have involved himself in so many on ice fights.”

Plaintiff’s attorney Robyn Wishart told Courthouse News in a phone interview that the proposed class is made up of “vulnerable” minors who are often away from their families, many living with host families under the leagues’ billet system,  as they chase their near-impossible dream of making the National Hockey League.

“A lot of kids who are trying to compete for elite-level athletics will play at all costs without fear of consequence for their long-term future,” she said. “We’re seeing players who return home who are not the same people from when they left and parents say, ‘What happened to my child? Why wasn’t I told that my child had this many fights, this many concussions?'”

A former athlete in her university days, Wishart said she could relate to athletes who sacrifice their bodies for their dreams, but said the leagues failed to warn players of long-term health risks while failing to enforce rules against on-ice fights.

“These amateur hockey players aren’t going to make the big show. They have to work and what are they left with?” she said. “It isn’t just professional hockey players who end up struggling to function in our society after sport is over. There are elite-level amateur athletes that are going to struggle through their adult lives with repetitive brain trauma and we need to be addressing this as a society. That’s the overall issue.” 

The leagues, Wishart said, haven’t been served with the lawsuit and the allegations remain unproven. The CHL and WHL did not respond to Courthouse News’ requests for comment on the lawsuit by Thursday evening.

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