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Senior NHL lawyer urged commissioner to 'Leave dementia up to the NFL'

NHL counsel Julie Grand advised Commissioner Gary Bettman to keep focus off retired players.

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Brain injuries and their impact on long-term health have become a major issue for athletes -- both active and retired -- in many sports around the world.

One NHL lawyer, though, thought her league should ignore the problem altogether.

In a 2009 email placed into evidence in a lawsuit against the league, NHL Deputy General Counsel Julie Grand gave her thoughts to Commissioner Gary Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly on the NHL and NHLPA's Concussion Working Group. In the email, Grand said that she did not think the group should focus on the problems of retired players, via TSN:

"(they are) removed from the current issues we face … I’d rather focus on the here and now and leave the dementia issues up to the NFL!"

More than 80 former players have filed a lawsuit against the NHL in U.S. federal court in Minnesota, saying that the league ignored player safety and used violence to sell the game. Grand's email was one of 101 documents that the NHL agreed to release publicly after negotiations between the two teams of lawyers.

In the email, Grand suggests focusing on issues designed to help current players, saying, "it makes sense both for player safety purposes and PR purposes (both to our Clubs and the public)."

The suggestions she endorsed included improved helmet design, sensors that could measure the impact of hits and ways to speed up the time required for players to safely return from a brain injury.

However, she was not enthused by the plan to commission a study "on the long-term neurocognitive and psychological effects of repeated concussions among retired NHL players. Such a study could be retrospective (as in the NFL studies) or prospective since we now have baseline data that date back over 10 years."

Bettman replied to Grand's email on the same day -- Nov. 30, 2009:

"Good job. Thanks. You should give it to pr -- good idea."

Lawyers for the retired players claim that the email shows that Bettman and Daly knew as far back as 2009 that there was a possible link between concussions and long-term brain damage. They also point out that none of Grand's suggestions -- even the ones she endorsed -- were ever implemented.

Daly responded to the document's release in an email to TSN.

"[I] don't intend to try the case in the media," Daly wrote. "Suffice to say, hard to perform an informed analysis on isolated e-mails with absolutely no contextual background or understanding."

The NHL did not put a standard concussion protocol into place until March 2011, when it mandated that all players suspected of a brain injury be tested in a quiet room away from the ice. Before the 2013-14 season, the league put into place a rule that players had to be removed from the game after being diagnosed with a brain injury.

NHL officials have said that they do not intend to settle the lawsuit and that players should been able to figure out the link between concussions and brain damage on their own. In the league's court filings in the lawsuit, which were obtained by TSN, they state:

Publicly available information related to concussions and their long-term effects, coupled with the events that had transpired -- i.e., the players incurring head injuries -- should have allowed (players) to put two and two together.

The NHL has provided the former players with 2.5 million pages of information, spread over 300,000 documents, but most of it has been kept out of the public record.