Mental Health, Injury Management, and the National Hockey League

Today is the big day. That’s right, the NHL season begins later today with the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning, taking on the second-best team in Pennsylvania and then the league’s two newest franchises facing-off. Before the action takes place, I felt it would be appropriate to have one of the more difficult conversations in hockey: player’s mental health and injury management. I think it’s easy to forget that professional athletes are people, too. We get so caught up in the competition, that sometimes we don’t realize that it affects the people participating it in it, too, if not more than it affects us. Ultimately, we must recognize that players’ well-being should be one of the top priorities for leagues and associations. For the NHL, the events of the past week or so have highlighted the importance of player safety and well-being.

Price Out Indefinitely 

Late last week, news broke that Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price was taking a leave from the team and voluntarily entering into the NHLPA’s Player Assistance Program. The program, which was created in 1996, is designed to help players and their families seek help with substance abuse and mental health issues. It provides access to counselors in each NHL city. While it is unknown exactly why Price entered into the program, his wife, Angela, posted a picture on Instagram, reading in part: “No matter what is on the line, we hope we can communicate the importance of putting your mental health first not by just saying it, but by showing up and doing the work to get better. Carey’s showing up for himself and our family and making the absolute best decisions possible for us.” His decision to enter into the program was met with an outpouring of love and support. The Canadiens tweeted a photo with screenshots of fans’ messages to the goaltender. Canadiens GM, Marc Bergevin, fought back tears when discussing Price’s leave. He noted that the situation has been hard because he’s “not thinking about Carey Price, the goalie for the Montreal Canadiens, but Carey Price the human being.” Out of respect to Carey Price and his family, I will not speculate on what he is going through; I wish him all of the best. He is one of the greatest goalies ever to lace his skates up. 

Robin Lehner’s Accusations 

Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Robin Lehner was in the limelight this past week as he made some shocking accusations. Lehner has been a huge proponent of player mental health and has publicly spoken about his own battles with mental health. In a series of tweets one week ago, Lehner accused several unnamed organizations of pushing pills, such as benzodiazepines and Ambien, on their players while on the road traveling from game to game. He only named one NHL head coach in his accusations, and that was Alain Vigneault, of the Philadelphia Flyers. It is unclear what exactly Lehner was accusing Vigneault of, he stated that he was a “dinosaur coach treating people [sic] robots not human.” Lehner clarified later on that he was not accusing Vigneault of pushing pills, rather, the way Vigneault treats his players is unacceptable. In response, the Flyers’ head coach stated: “I am tough. I am demanding. But I care about my players. I want their best. Through the years, some guys have liked me and some guys a little bit less. But I’ve done it with the best intentions, with respect.” 

Lehner met with the NHL and NHLPA last week and said that he had a good conversation and was encouraged with how they wanted to continue with “potential change that could be made to protect the younger generation.” Lehner added he is “always going to advocate for mental health…But moving forward, I’m looking to handle it in a private manner. I’m just looking to protect the younger players and the only way to affect change in my mind is to do it in a non-public fashion.” 

The Golden Knights goaltender also added that he wanted to bring attention to the Buffalo Sabres handling of Jack Eichel’s injury. Lehner, among many other people, believes that the organization has mishandled his slew of injuries, and he wanted to shed light on the issues. Regardless of how you feel about Lehner’s accusations against Vigneault, he is doing something, that in my opinion is admirable. He is trying to make the NHL a better place and organization for players. 

What’s on the Horizon for Jack Eichel?

As Robin Lehner has pointed out, he Buffalo Sabres have a difficult situation with Jack Eichel. Last season, Eichel, aged 24, suffered a herniated disk in his neck after his head hit the boards against the New York Islanders and he hasn’t played a game since. Eichel has been stripped of his captaincy and he is expecting a trade within the next weeks.

The dispute revolves around a major “disconnect” between Eichel and the Sabres regarding the treatment of his herniated disk. The organization wanted Eichel to have disk fusion surgery, which would have had a six month recovery time, while Eichel prefers to have disk replacement surgery, which only has a six week recovery time, and according to his doctors, would reduce the risk of needing surgeries later on in life. No player in the NHL has had disk replacement surgery, so the results of the process are a theoretical unknown in terms of playing skill and ability after the surgery. Under the NHL’s current collective bargaining agreement, teams have to give “serious consideration to” how players want to be treated, but ultimately, the team has the final say on how players will be treated for injuries, not the players themselves. The CBA has been extended through the 2025-26 NHL season. Sports attorney Dan Lust noted that this is a unique legal situation due to the nature of the injury combined with a patient’s right to be treated in the manner they want to be treated. It would be an interesting court case, as on one hand Eichel and the Sabres are part of the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement, while on the other, can your employer really dictate the way you are treated for an injury? There is a differing standard in each of the four major sports leagues. In the NFL, the team must show that the player’s preferred treatment isn’t medically necessary; in the MLB, there needs to be an agreement upon the opinion of a physician; and in the NBA there is a panel of three doctors (one picked by the team, one picked by the player’s union, and a third picked by the two doctors) to arbitrate the dispute.

Regardless of how it’s handled moving forward, it’s already a lose-lose for the Sabres. Either they keep an unhappy and injured player, or they trade him for fraction of his value. In an interview with a Canadian radio station, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman called it a “terrible situation,” but has not put blame on either side. Hopefully the issue is resolved soon, but we’ve been hoping it would be since March.

Photo Via: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

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3L & Editor-in-Chief of the Buffalo Environmental Law Journal. Sad fan of the Philadelphia sports teams and Tottenham Hotspur. I enjoy writing and learning about the intersection of sports and business law, with a focus on the NHL. H2P!

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