You've all seen them by now.
Social media in the hockey world has been whipped into a frenzy by the release of thousands of office emails. A unlikely sentence to write, you'd think - except these office emails aren't revealing mundane arguments over meeting times, administrative tasks and requests for documents (although there are enough of those out there).
They're revealing that the NHL, at its administrative and ruling heart, at the very top, is a league rife with refusal to take responsibility, double-dealing language, equivocation, and concern about image. It's a league where the head of player safety can express concern over player suicides and make a direct link to head trauma, and be shouted down by his peers. It's a league where the commissioner can turn one of the biggest issues facing the game into a sick joke.
And it's a league where one of the people in charge of player safety can be someone who says that players should be suspended for putting themselves into a position where a hit can end their career, and react to a hockey player actually dying as a direct result of head trauma from a fighting related incident by refusing to "go hard" on an NHL response.
In short, the emails released today aren't so much a PR black eye for the NHL as another howitzer aimed at the hearts of those who like to think their sport is run with a sense of decency and morality at the highest levels.
The emails go back many years, but trawling through them there is evidence that there IS pressure for change and warnings constantly flying into the NHL office about the dangers their policy is putting in place. Witness the angry tone of this 2007 letter from B. Thomas Golisano (owner of the Buffalo Sabres at the time) in response to Chris Neil's infamous blindside hit on Chris Drury.
The problem is, though, this falls on deaf ears - and onto an organisation where the person responsible for dealing with questionable hits (at the time and for some years afterward) is Colin Campbell...a man who reveals himself again and again to be someone with views not exactly conducive to improving NHL safety. Campbell continues in a role as VP of Hockey Operations to this day in the NHL, which means he holds an influential position in all policy discussions - including those about safety.
Here is a man who reacted to the tragic death of minor league hockey player Don Sanderson in 2008 (a death caused by head trauma suffered during a fight) by admitting he "didn't have the balls" to address the safety issues brought into sharp focus by this event-despite expressing strong private concerns about the safety of players including his son, Greg Campbell, in similar situations.
Campbell is also a man who reacted to this hit by arguing that Mike Van Ryn should be suspended for putting himself in a vulnerable position:
Think about that. That's a man responsible for the safety of NHL players arguing that a player who's hit from behind while defenceless is the one to blame (and should be suspended, to boot) for being hit. The lack of logic is mind-boggling.
The hits continue on Campbell, though. He reacts to this hit by Kris Letang by complaining that "we're going to get rid of hitting. Keep your freaking head up!" Those comments sound like the worst kind of Youtube commenter - but they're from a guy who's supposed to be looking at every questionable hit with an even-handed eye and the safety of players paramount.
This attitude of not wanting to rock the boat and almost refusing to investigate/accept risks to players' safety is a running theme in NHL management circles...despite the many public protestations to the contrary. For example, in 2009 the NHL's Concussion Working Group was looking at ways to investigate both the possible effects of hockey concussions and ways to negate them. Laudable, you might think.
Except apparently, they decided that there was "no value" in studying the effects of head injuries on former NHL players. In this email chain from 2009, the NHL's lawyer, Julie Grand, advises that there is "nothing to be gained" from studying the effects of repeated concussions on former players, and that any attempt to measure the effects of concussions on current NHL players using medical technology would be "too expensive."
A reminder, here, that this is the NHL itself deciding that studying the effects of head injuries on both former and current players wouldn't actually help. They're effectively saying that there's no way to gain knowledge about the effects of hockey head injuries even on the players that are affected by them because it's not worth the effort/expense.
That's not just lazy. That's downright negligent.
Then again, this is the same lawyer who advised Gary Bettman to "leave dementia issues to the NFL" that same year.
Grand, too, continues to exemplify the NHL refusing to accept the problem. For example, in this email from 2010 he advises not to show GMs examples of players staying in NHL games despite clear head trauma issues "because they'll get defensive"...in a meeting designed to stop teams doing things like this. The same email also lists a disturbingly high number of NHL players staying in games despite "clear and obvious" concussion symptoms being present.
The picture is building up of a league that simply doesn't care about protecting players - indeed fears to take options to do so for fear of "rocking the boat". Brendan Shanahan is a rare beacon in the darkness - as early as 2011 he's seen responding to the suicides of several ex-NHL enforcers by arguing that the NHL has to take the lead in phasing fighting out of the sport-indeed he makes a direct link between brain injuries and the problems caused for players suffering them, particularly Wade Belak. It is Bettman, once again, urging caution.
Shanahan gets stronger still - in 2012 he goes as far as saying "fighting as a tactic is leaving hockey. We can either lead or follow". Again, it is Bettman urging restraint in eliminating fighting from the sport.
What we now have is a director of player safety (and former player himself) actively pushing the NHL to make changes to make the sport safer and less mindlessly violent - to eliminate a major factor in the risk of injury - and the commissioner saying "let's not be too drastic". Such a move is almost indefensible for a league claiming to care about the "safety" of players.
But then, maybe they don't. In 2014 Gary Meagher, the NHL communications director, flies in the face of Shanahan's logic with one of the most shocking sentences ever said by a league official.
Think about that. Here you have a league in the midst of a major question over how safe their sport is, faced with several high-profile recent suicides that can, at least in part, be attributed to injuries suffered AS A DIRECT RESULT of their time in the league, and this is a high NHL official saying "well, we're not the ones who are meant to make it safer for those playing".
People are suffering life-threatening injuries, having life-threatening medical issues as a result of their NHL careers (see - Rich Peverley) and playing with potentially life-threatening injuries (see - Patrice Bergeron playing a whole playoff series with injuries up to and including a PUNCTURED LUNG) - and the NHL is fostering a culture where they're only paying lip-service to preventing this happening. When you have league officials arguing that it's "not their responsibility" to ensure that their players are safe when playing the sport and protected from danger where possible, that is a horrifying thought.
The NHL emails released this week paint a dark picture of a league where the top echelon of those running it (with the odd notable exception) simply don't want to look too hard into the toll their sport is taking - and in the case of those like Gary Bettman and Colin Campbell, would rather weigh up the possible effect on their PR image and public reaction rather than simply acting decisively to make their players safer.
This is a league that has already demonstrated that it is shockingly uncaring about hockey culture's often horrendous treatment of female fans and minorities - and now, it appears, it cares little about the safety of a large number of its players, too.