Junior players won’t be cross-examined before certification of lawsuit

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A B.C. Supreme Court justice has ruled that the Canadian Hockey League cannot cross-examine former junior players before a decision is made on whether to allow their class-action lawsuit to go to trial.

James McEwan, the player who is named as the representative plaintiff, and three other former players filed affidavits alleging that fighting was widespread and that players suffered on-ice injuries, including concussions, according to a ruling by Justice Neena Sharma released on Tuesday.

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The four described a “culture of fighting” in the league and described themselves as enforcers who were encouraged to fight and did so dozens of times. Ewan said he suffered from ringing in his ears and dizzy and fainting spells, while another player said the day after a game he would have trouble holding his pencil at school because his knuckles were so sore.

But the CHL, which filed affidavits from 14 other players, argued there was no culture of violence in its leagues, there were only a few enforcers on the teams, and players with concussion symptoms weren’t allowed to play.

The league said because of the discrepancy between the plaintiffs and the 14 players supporting the league, it wanted to cross-examine the four plaintiffs to help the judge determine whether there was enough in common in players’ experiences and alleged consequences to allow a class-action lawsuit to proceed, the document said.

The CHL includes three major leagues in North America — the Western Hockey League, in which the Vancouver Giants play, the Ontario Hockey League and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

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But the judge ruled the league arguments should be tested at a trial, if the case goes ahead, and she did not believe they should be aired now.

“Whether players showing signs of concussion were allowed to continue to play, that is likely to be a controversial issue at trial,” she said, adding it would be premature to judge the evidence before trial, assuming the case reaches that stage.

The league also wanted its lawyers to cross-examine the plaintiff’s expert witness on concussions because of what it called “deficiencies, omissions and flawed reasoning” in his report, but Sharma said those are also issues to be considered at trial.

This case is in addition to a class-action lawsuit filed in 2020 in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice against the CHL and all its teams, alleging abuse of players.

That lawsuit alleges major junior hockey has been “plagued by rampant hazing, bullying and abuse of underage players by coaches, team staff and senior players,” and that the defendants have “stubbornly ignored or failed to reasonably address” those issues.

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