When former enforcer Bob Probert died suddenly months ago at the age of 45, one of the things his family did to help science was to donate Probert’s brain to science. Probert’s wife, Dani, said she hoped scientists would be able to analyze his brain and discover what, if anything, they could find from him about what role concussions may have played on his gray matter.
The scientists at Boston University have looked Probert’s brain over and have made a discovery that may prove to be alarming to everyone concerned with blows to the head. Probert suffered from a degenerative brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a condition that was also found to be in at least 20 former NFL players as well. That condition forced the NFL to make changes to their helmets and equipment in order to help make their players safer when playing football.
The frightening part of this discovery is that’s it not the first time it’s been found in a former hockey player. Alan Schwarz of the New York Times tells us about how the NHL has some history to learn from.
Hockey’s enduring tolerance for and celebration of fighting will almost certainly be tested anew now that Probert, more pugilist than playmaker, has become the first contemporary hockey player to show C.T.E. after death. Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy had previously diagnosed the disease in a long-retired player, Reggie Fleming, a 1960s-era enforcer who played before the full adoption of helmets.
“How much is the hockey and how much is the fighting, we don’t really know,” said Dr. Robert Cantu, co-director of the Boston University center and a prominent neurosurgeon in the area of head trauma in sports. “We haven’t definitely established that the skills of hockey as a sport lead to a certain percentage of participants developing C.T.E. But it can happen to hockey players, and while they’re still relatively young.”
With everything that’s been going on surrounding Sidney Crosby’s absence from hockey thanks to a concussion and now with this finding that Probert’s health was likely worsened from having his brain affected by numerous concussions is likely to stoke the fires of debate even more.
Obviously this will have a huge effect on what happens with any potential rule changes in the offseason to protect players better but that process has have everyone on the same page from the players and the owners just the same. The players have to want the protection for themselves as badly as the team executives will want to maximize their investment in the players. As Schwarz found out from NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr, they’re keeping tabs on things.
“We’re aware of what B.U. is doing, and we’ve met with them before,” Daly said. “It’s interesting science. We have interest in it. To the extent that the science itself starts to suggest certain conclusions, obviously we’re open to accepting that and addressing that moving forward. But we can’t take steps tomorrow based on what we’re finding out today.”
There’s more to be learned here for sure, but the steps taken thanks to Probert’s donation to science might be the sort of thing that goes on to saving more players and their careers in the future. Based on the kind of career Probert had during his NHL days, it’s amazing to see he’s potentially serving to protect everyone else from prematurely having their careers and lives ended.