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Unsealed emails reveal NHL executives were aware of link between hockey and brain trauma in 2011

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Gary Bettman and other NHL top executives are quoted in the newly released emails.

Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

While the NFL dominates most of the concussion and head injury talk in sports, the NHL has also been tackling the topic on a slightly smaller stage.

In 2013, over two dozen former NHL players proposed a class action lawsuit against the league. Since the start of the lawsuit, more than 100 former players have put their support behind the accusation that the NHL was negligent in protecting and educating their players about head trauma. They argue that the NHL "failed to warn its players of the short and long-term effects of repeated concussions and head trauma, failed to adequately care for its players after they received such injuries, and promoted and glorified unreasonable and unnecessary violence leading to head trauma."

The case is still ongoing, but back in January the Minneapolis judge presiding over the case ordered emails from the league to be unsealed and eventually released to the public. Late Monday, the first details of those unsealed emails made their way online, and it doesn't paint the NHL in the best light.

According to Rick Westhead of TSN, despite the NHL's public instance that there's no such link between hockey and brain trauma, league deputy commissioner Bill Daly and league commissioner Gary Bettman openly discuss the connection in emails from 2011. Former head of the Department of Player Safety and current team president of the Maple Leafs Brendan Shanahan is also included in the released emails.

One potent passage from Westhead's piece shows Daly clearly linking fighting with head injuries, depression and even "personal tragedies":

"Do you remember what happened when we tried to eliminate the staged fights?" Bettman wrote in a Sept. 3, 2011, email to Shanahan and Daly. "The ‘fighters’ objected and so did the pa [NHLPA]. Eliminating fighting would mean eliminating the jobs of the ‘fighters’, meaning that these guys would not have NHL careers. An interesting question is whether being an NHL fighter does this to you (I don’t believe so) or whether a certain type of person (who wouldn’t otherwise be skilled enough to be an NHL player) gravitates to this job (I believe more likely)."

Daly replied: "I tend to think its a little bit of both. Fighting raises the incidence of head injuries/concussions, which raises the incidence of depression onset, which raises the incidence of personal tragedies."

"I believe the fighting and possible concussions could aggravate a condition," Bettman wrote. "But if you think about the tragedies there were probably certain predispositions. Again, though, the bigger issue is whether the [NHLPA] would consent to in effect eliminate a certain type of ‘role’ and player. And, if they don’t, we might try to do it anyway and take the ‘fight’ (pun intended)."

Shanahan responded: "The previous regime at the [NHLPA] definitely would fight it. But I thought their current position on illegal checks to the head is that it should encompass ALL contact, If we keep this simply about concussions and brain injuries then how can they argue against it."

The emails also speak on the NHL's role as leaders for the game of hockey, this time between Gary Meagher -- the NHL's senior vice president of communications -- and Mike Berland, chief executive of Edelman Berland, a market research company the NHL hired in 2013.

Meagher calls the NFL's insistence that they're making the game of football safer "smoke and mirrors," and that the NHL "has never been in the business of trying to make the game safer at all levels and we have never tried to sell the fact that this is who we are."

While the NHL doesn't look good publicly denying the existence of serious brain trauma in their sport, it's clearly been on their minds since 2011.