|Derek Boogaard still was due $4.8 million from the Rangers when he died. (Getty Images)|
The family of the late Derek Boogaard has filed a lawsuit against the NHLPA, saying the players union failed them in their attempt to file a grievance against the New York Rangers to receive the $4.8 million remaining on Boogaard's contract with the team.
The lawsuit seeks the $4.8 million for the value of the contract and an additional $5 million in punitive damages. The crux of the lawsuit, in particular, is against the NHLPA. The family says the union lawyer dragged his feet and the window passed to file the grievance before he told them it wasn't worth it.
If the lawsuit goes forward, it seems clear from the papers filed last week where the Boogaard family's lawyer could head.
He could seek to take depositions from officials from the league, the Rangers, the Wild and the substance-abuse program Boogaard was in when he died.
If you're starting to get depositions from the teams, league and rehab facilities, then you really could be opening up Pandora's box for more -- a lot more.
The family's lawyer, Howard F. Silber, could also attempt to show that Boogaard sustained brain damage as a result of his role as a fighter and that the league and the union knew that its fighters faced such a risk. Boogaard's parents authorized researchers to examine his brain after his death, and those researchers concluded he had a degenerative brain disease linked to repeated head trauma.
If it comes to that, the NHL could find itself in the same position as the NFL right now, dealing with a multitude of lawsuits from players who have suffered concussions.
This is purely speculative at this point. The NHLPA already has dismissed the lawsuit in a statement by more or less saying there is no merit to the suit. So it's entirely possible that the legal action goes nowhere. Or it could just as easily go everywhere.
To state the obvious, I am not a lawyer, so I don't know much at all about contracts and the likelihood of this lawsuit from the Boogaard's succeeding. However, I will point out that the contract probably was null-and-void when Boogaard died, as sad and callous as that is. In that regard, the original grievance didn't seem to have much of a leg to stand on. Perhaps that's why the NHLPA treated it the way the Boogaards and their lawyer allege.
If the lawsuit is to go through and succeed, I would think it would have to target the Rangers and Boogaard's other NHL team, the Minnesota Wild -- accusing them of continually giving him pain-killing medicine that contributed to his death.
This much is certain: Nobody or no team will come out of this looking good.
Depending on what is potentially revealed out of a lawsuit, the scope of it could grow dramatically.
Fighting is a fabric of the game; ardent supporters will remind of you of that at every turn. That's fine. This isn't meant to be an anti-fighting point. But the fact that the league "allows" for fighting in the game is something that leaves it open down the line. Commissioner Gary Bettman will say fighting isn't allowed, that's why it's penalized. But we all know that's just the semantics of a lawyer talking. It's not allowed in other sports, but that doesn't mean they let it play out and allow players to return later in the game. If you throw a punch in football, it's an automatic ejection and likely a suspension. It will be multiple games in baseball or basketball.
The fact that Boogaard was a fighter is why I'm drawing the connection. Former players who have recently died, such as Boogaard, Rick Rypien and former enforcer Bob Probert, had their brains given to research. Each was found to show evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, which is a degenerative brain disorder from repeated traumas to the head. Very clearly that happens a lot in hockey, only more so with those who drop the gloves. (It's pretty indisputable that players who fight face higher risks of taking hits to the head.)
But it doesn't matter much if somebody fought 30 times a season or never fought once in their careers. If the concussion road is opened, it could lead to a lot of places, probably none good for the NHL. Whether or not the Boogaard family lawsuit is successful, it seems to be only a matter of time before the NHL is facing the wrath of concussions in a court.
The Times has this ominous note from another former enforcer.
Rob Ray, a former enforcer who has complained of residual effects from his years of fighting, said he had not heard of any formal effort to enlist ex-fighters in a more ambitious suit.
But Ray said a lawyer he knows was shocked that one had not been filed already.
"He says it's got to come," Ray said.
It would be cynical to say this is why the NHL is closely monitoring the new rules in the Ontario Hockey League, which punish repeat offenders in the realm of fighting. That would imply the NHL doesn't care one bit about the players' health, just its bottom line. But at the same token, it would be naive to think this hasn't crossed the minds of those in the NHL and they are beginning to prepare for that. Hence taking a longer look at measures to curb fighting.
But that's all getting a bit ahead of ourselves. First is a matter of the lawsuit brought forth by Boogaard's family. The NHLPA is pretty well-consumed by another matter at the moment.
In addition to the labor talks, this story is going to be one worth paying attention to.