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NHL, retired players reach $19M concussions settlement

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The National Hockey League announced a tentative $18.9 million settlement Monday with more than 300 retired players who sued the league and accused it of failing to protect them from head injuries or warning them of the risks involved with playing.

The lawsuit, consolidated in federal court in Minnesota, was by far the largest facing the league. The NHL, as it has for years, did not acknowledge any liability for the players’ claims in the proposed settlement and can terminate the deal if all 318 players or their estates don’t elect to participate.

The settlement is significantly less than the billion-dollar agreement reached between the NFL and its former players on the same issue of head injuries. Each player who opts in would receive $22,000 and could be eligible for up to $75,000 in medical treatment.

”The cash amount of $22,000, that’s small, but we were always looking for (medical) coverage to begin with,” said former player Reed Larson, who was among the first to sue the league over head injuries that could lead to the brain disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. ”The bottom line is this is monitoring, testing and hopefully help for players that will either have (CTE) now or could get it in the future.”

Players’ attorney Stuart Davidson said he knows there will be comparisons between the NHL and NFL settlements, even though they differ drastically.

”When you have a defendant who has spent millions of dollars litigating a case for four years to prove that nothing is wrong with getting your brain bashed in, you can only get so far,” Davidson told The Associated Press. ”I think it’s important for players who have an opportunity to settle their case with the NHL now to understand that before they get anything through a trial against the NHL it’s going to cost millions of dollars in experts to get there, and that’s going to have to be paid for before they see a penny from any recovery, assuming they win.”

An NHL spokesman said the league would not make any comment until after the opt-in period of 75 days for players. There were 146 players who added their names to the lawsuit as plaintiffs between November 2013 and this August and 172 more who joined as claimants.

In addition to the cash payment, the settlement includes neurological testing and assessment for players paid for by the league; up to $75,000 in medical treatment for players who test positive on two or more tests; and a ”Common Good Fund” for retired players in need, including those who did not participate in the litigation, worth $2.5 million.

Pittsburgh star Sidney Crosby, who has dealt with concussion problems throughout his career but is not involved in the lawsuit that includes only retired players, told reporters after practice the league, Players’ Association and others must all have a role in the issue.

”It’s something as players that we know that risk,” Crosby said. ”Obviously we know a lot more now than we did before, even a lot more than we did when I had my first one. It’s something you hope they can mutually agree on. It’s something that I think is important from both sides.”

Retired player Daniel Carcillo, one of the plaintiffs, urged players not to accept the settlement. In a series of tweets , he said players would be forced to see the same NHL and NHLPA doctors to determine if they’d be eligible for treatment.

Carcillo also asked for Wayne Gretzky’s thoughts: ”I want him to use his platform to help the men who protected him throughout his career. Lack of pressure from former players is a direct result of this insulting attempt at a settlement.”

Charles Zimmerman, who was a lead attorney for players, said he was most disappointed the lawsuit couldn’t assure future benefits for all retired players like in the NFL.

”I think it’s a very appropriate result and a good outcome in a very contested, hotly litigated matter,” Zimmerman said. ”The main goal in the case was to get medical testing and treatment for the players, something that the NHL wouldn’t agree to for the four years that we’d been litigating and that’s what we achieved.”

The settlement comes four months after a federal judge denied class-action status for the retired players, a significant victory for the league in the lawsuit filed in November 2013. U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson in July denied class-action status, citing ”widespread differences” in state laws about medical monitoring that would ”present significant case management difficulties.”

The bid for class-action status would have created one group of all living former NHL players and one group of all retired players diagnosed with a neurological disease, disorder or condition. Had Nelson certified the class action, more than 5,000 former players would have been able to join the case.

”It’s not surprising after the NHL prevailed on the class-action motion that there would have been movements in this direction,” NHLPA executive director Don Fehr told reporters in Toronto. ”I’m glad for the parties that it’s all over. Hopefully people can go on with their lives and now we can perhaps deal with these issues with the NHL without having to worry about the effect on the litigation.”

Davidson called Nelson’s decision a ”watershed moment” for the case and that players lost leverage as a result.

”It severely limited the damages to the NHL owners and benefits to the NHL players,” Vanderbilt University sports economic professor John Vrooman wrote in an email to the AP. ”This decision essentially forced the 140 (plus) players involved in the suit to settle and prevented the participation of all other potential litigants. So it will seem that both sides ‘won’ in what was really a lopsided victory for the owners. It’s just that all of the owners won by gaining current and future protection from damages and a minor fraction of the players won something that they would have zero chance in obtaining in isolation versus the league.”

Settlement talks ramped back up in July with an agreement reached Nov. 7.

Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly have, on multiple occasions, said the lawsuit had no merit.

”When it comes to focusing on concussions and trying to understand them and how to treat them, we’ve been leaders in the field,” Bettman told the AP in May. ”And that gets completely lost in the rhetoric of the litigation, and I don’t like discussing the litigation. There is a sense because it gets sensationalized that the reality of our position with player safety is somehow at odds with the reality of the science and the medicine and it’s not true. We study it very closely.”

The NFL settlement covers more than 20,000 retired players, and lawyers expect payouts to top $1.5 billion over 65 years. As of last month , the NFL concussion lawsuit claims panel has approved more than $500 million in awards and paid out $330 million.

AP Hockey Writer John Wawrow and Associated Press Writer Amy Forliti contributed to this report.

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

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Canadian goalie Szabados takes move to NWHL in stride

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SASKATOON, Saskatchewan (AP) — Two-time Olympic medalist Shannon Szabados is used to facing shots in men’s leagues this time of year. Now, the veteran goaltender is perfectly happy competing in the Four Nations Cup and for Buffalo in the women’s pro league.

”I loved my time playing men’s hockey,” Szabados said. ”I don’t know at 32 that a 65-game schedule is what my body needs.”

Szabados has been the go-to goaltender for the Canadian women’s team in many world and Olympic finals since 2010. She was recently part of Canada’s team for the Four Nations Cup tournament, an annual event that includes the United States, Sweden and Finland.

Szabados has spent the majority of her hockey career in men’s leagues, starting with exhibition games for WHL’s Tri-City Americans at age 16 to full seasons in the Alberta Junior Hockey League, Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference and the Southern Professional Hockey League.

Any sustained time in the women’s game came in the winters she spent with the Canadian team in Calgary preparing for Olympic Games.

Her physical, personal and geographic needs factored into the Edmonton native signing with the Buffalo Beauts of the five-team National Women’s Hockey League.

Lorain, just west of Cleveland, Ohio, is the hometown of her partner Carl Nielsen. It’s where Szabados wanted to move after the Olympics in February.

”First and foremost, the decision was based on him having a good job there,” she said. ”They’ve had a jewelry store in their family for almost 400 years, so it was important for him to be there.”

Now, she’s become familiar with Interstate 90, and the 435-mile (700-kilometer) round trip from Lorain to Buffalo, New York, that she makes twice a week to play and practice with the Beauts.

”Exit 27, that’s my go-to. On the way to Buffalo, there’s a Shell and a Tim Hortons,” she said Thursday at the Four Nations Cup tournament.

Kim and Terry Pegula, owners of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres, purchased the Beauts in 2017.

”It’s kind of a huge step for women’s hockey,” Szabados said. ”A lot of our staff overlap. Our media staff, one guy puts on his Sabres jacket and then he puts on his Beauts jacket.

”We get first-class treatment all around as far as facilities and how we’re treated.”

Szabados injured ligaments in her left knee toward the end of her second season with the Columbus Cottonmouths of the Southern Professional Hockey League in 2016.

Injuries also limited her to a handful of games with the Canadian women during their 2017-18 preparation for Pyeongchang.

But Szabados stopped 40 of 42 shots, including nine in overtime, in the Olympic final. The U.S. prevailed in a six-round shootout to claim gold.

Szabados became tearful after the game while talking about injuries that sidelined her for much of the season. A healthy body that can extend her career is a priority for her now.

”I knew if I wanted to continue … I didn’t have the healthiest of years last year, so it was important for me to be somewhere where I could be back to being 100 per cent,” Szabados said. ”Being on the ice seven days a week for hours upon hours and getting running over by 200-pound men was probably not the ideal situation for me health-wise. I miss it, but I enjoy where I’m at.”

In 64 games for Canada, Szabados ranks second all-time in wins (47) and shutouts (17), behind Kim St. Pierre, who has 64 wins and 29 shutouts.

Szabados made 27 and 28 saves in the 2014 and 2010 Olympic women’s finals, respectively, on the way to the gold medal.

She is the first player from Canada’s national team to play in the NWHL. Szabados is 1-2 for the Beauts this season with a goals-against average of 1.67 and a save percentage of .938.

U.S. women’s team forward Dani Cameranesi and defender Emily Pfalzer are her Beauts teammates.

How long Szabados will tend net is a year-to-year decision.

She echoes players in both the NWHL and Canadian Women’s Hockey League in wishing for a merger of the two leagues.

”I think women’s hockey is kind of at an exciting point right now,” Szabados said. ”I would regret it if I didn’t stick around to see where it goes.”

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Hockey dispute in Canada: Are young players employees?

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TORONTO (AP) — The commissioner of the Ontario Hockey League believes the players are there for the love of the game and should not be paid. It appears the Ontario government agrees.

Commissioner David Branch has written to the provincial government, The Canadian Press reports. He wants the league’s 425 players to remain amateurs and not become employees regulated by labor legislation.

Michael Tibollo, minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport, replied: ”I want you to know that our government is behind you.”

Branch is also president of the Canadian Hockey League, of which the OHL is part along with the Western Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He considers major junior players – typically from 16 to 20 years old – student-athletes.

Players are eligible for post-secondary school scholarships. Each season in the league is worth one year of tuition, books and fees. Players also get money for out-of-pocket expenses, equipment and travel costs.

”To us it’s the best scholarship program in North America,” Branch said.

Not everyone agrees. A $180 million lawsuit was filed in 2014 against the Canadian Hockey League on behalf of all current and many former players for outstanding wages and other pay. If the Ontario court rules for the players, Branch says some teams could fold.

If players were paid the $14 hourly minimum wage for a 40-hour work week over an eight-month season, it would cost the OHL about $8 million a year.

Branch’s letter to the Ontario government also cited the involvement of player agents. One agent, Allan Walsh took issue with that.

”This is just an attempt to avoid paying players minimum wages,” he said on Twitter.

Brach says he wants to work with the Ontario government, as his group has in seven other provinces.

”One of the great questions is ‘When does the game start being fun, when does it start becoming purely a business?”’ he said. ”And I don’t know the answer for that. But I do know that when you look at the players that have had great success they played the game because they love it.”

Racism lingers for NHL players 60 years after O’Ree landmark

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WASHINGTON — Devante Smith-Pelly got up from his seat.

The Washington Capitals forward had heard the unmistakably racist taunts from fans from inside the penalty box. As a black hockey player, he knew exactly what they meant by yelling, ”Basketball, basketball, basketball!”

”It’s just ignorant people being ignorant,” Smith-Pelly said.

That scene unfolded in Chicago in February, 60 years after Willie O’Ree broke the NHL’s color barrier and paved the way for more minorities to play the sport and reach its highest level. O’Ree is being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday for his pioneering career, and yet incidents like the one Smith-Pelly went through show how much more progress needs to be made, in a league that’s 97 percent white and beyond.

”It’s come a long way, but there’s still a lot of things that still need to change,” Edmonton defenseman Darnell Nurse said. ”That just comes through minorities as a group working together to try to eliminate those things from this game.”

Those things just keep happening.

In 2011, Philadelphia forward Wayne Simmonds had a banana thrown at him during a preseason game in London, Ontario.

In 2012, then-Washington forward Joel Ward was the subject of racist social media posts after he scored a game-winning playoff goal.

In 2014, then-Montreal defenseman P.K. Subban was the subject of racist social media posts after he scored a game-winning playoff goal.

In April, Detroit prospect Givani Smith was subjected to threats and racial taunts and messages after a junior game in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. His team had a police escort the next time they went to the rink.

”(O’Ree) had to go through a lot, and the same thing has been happening now, which obviously means there’s still a long way to go,” Smith-Pelly said. ”If you had pulled a quote from him back then and us now, they’re saying the same thing, so obviously there’s still a long way to go in hockey and in the world if we’re being serious.”

Through his work as an NHL diversity ambassador over the past 20 years, O’Ree has tried to work toward more inclusion and better minority representation. He is eager to tell kids at YMCAs, Boys & Girls Clubs and schools that hockey is another sport they can play.

USA Hockey and Hockey Canada don’t keep participation statistics by race, though there are fewer than two dozen black players currently on NHL rosters. The NHL celebrates ”Hockey is for Everyone” month each season and quickly condemns racist behavior.

”A lot of it’s basically on your parents and how people raise their kids,” said San Jose forward Evander Kane, who acknowledged being the subject of racist taunting as the only black player on his minor league teams in Vancouver. ”You can have all the awareness that you want, but at the end of the day, it’s really up to the individual and how they act and how they want to treat other people.”

O’Ree, 83, still remembers how he was treated in the ’50s as hockey’s Jackie Robinson. He did his best to drown out the noise by listening to his brother Richard.

”I heard the jeers and some of the racial remarks, but it kind of went in one ear and out the other,” O’Ree said. ”He told me, ‘Willie, names will never hurt you unless you let them.’ He said, ‘If they can’t accept you for the individual that you are, just forget about it and just go out and do what you do best and don’t worry about anything else.”’

Nurse said black players still have to worry about racist jeers and remarks.

”I had a lot growing up and my brother had the big one too last year,” said Dallas forward Gemel Smith, Givani’s brother. ”How we were raised, nothing really bothers me. That stuff doesn’t really get to me and things like that. My dad always taught us just to try to close it out, block it out.”

Like Smith-Pelly, Simmonds is quick to say racism isn’t an issue unique to hockey or sports in general. His solution is a zero tolerance policy, which is what happened to the four fans in Chicago who were thrown out and banned from all home games by the Blackhawks.

”I think what could be done to keep these types of incidents from happening would probably be to ban those people who are doing those lewd acts,” Simmonds said. ”I think if you set a strong example right from the start, you won’t have too many people acting like clowns.”

Commissioner Gary Bettman, who is going into the Hall of Fame with O’Ree as part of the class of 2018, considers it important to make clear to fans and players what’s expected and what’s not tolerated and said: ”Even if it’s only one incident, it’s one too many.” Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said creating and cultivating an inclusive environment and building diversity are significant league priorities.

There has been incremental progress. In the aftermath of Smith-Pelly’s incident, fans in Chicago raised $23,000 to donate to the Fort Dupont Ice Rink in Washington, helping hundreds of children.

”When you see the reaction and the way that people rally around moments like that and try to make a positive out of it, I think that’s definitely a step in the right direction,” Nurse said.

For some players like Seth Jones, the son of former NBA player Popeye Jones, hockey has been a safe place. The Blue Jackets defenseman said he has so far never been on the receiving end of race-based taunts or messages and said, ”I was just like everybody else playing hockey, which is what everyone wants.”

Most black players haven’t been that fortunate. And while Jones is optimistic that people can change, Smith-Pelly wasn’t sure exactly how that will happen.

”It’s tough,” he said. ”I don’t really know a plan to stop it. That’s how people are.”

U.S. wins Four Nations Cup by beating Canada

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SASKATOON, Saskatchewan — Hilary Knight scored twice and the U.S. women’s hockey team beat Canada 5-2 on Saturday night to win the fourth straight Four Nations Cup title and ninth overall.

Holders of the world and Olympic titles, the Americans reinforced their status as the No. 1 team in the world by beating their archrivals on home ice at the SaskTel Centre for the second time this week. The last time Canada beat the U.S. in a tournament final was the 2014 Four Nations in British Columbia.

Brianna Decker, Melissa Samoskevich and Kendall Coyne Schofield also scored, and Alex Rigsby made 23 saves.

”Whenever these two teams get together, it’s always a great battle,” U.S. coach Bob Corkum said. ”We were able to score two goals and gain momentum early, take care of the puck and with some spectacular saves from Rigsby, we were able to get the job done.”

Defenders Laura Fortino and Jaime Bourbonnais scored for Canada. Starting goalie Shannon Szabados was pulled for Emerance Maschmeyer after the U.S. scored its fifth goal early in the third period.

The U.S. edged Canada 3-2 in a shootout in February in the Olympic final to end Canada’s run of gold at four straight.

Finland beat Sweden 4-2 in the third-place game. Sanni Hakala, Annina Rajahuhta and Petra Nieminen scored for Finland in a span of just over four minutes in the third. Jenni Hiirikoski also scored, and Noora Raty stopped 33 shots. Pernilla Winberg scored twice for the Sweden.