Terrifying Trend: Evaluation shows Rick Martin had brain damage

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On the last night of a positively nightmarish offseason, the league may have been dealt the most devastating long-term news of the summer. Rick Martin, NHL Hall of Famer and member of the legendary French Connection line, passed away in March at the age of 59. Tonight, researchers from the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy revealed that Martin had Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)—a disease that has repeatedly been linked to brain trauma.

Martin is the third NHL player to donate his brain to the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (a joint venture between the Sports Legacy Institute and Boston University). Reggie Fleming and Bob Probert had previously donated their brains to the center for research—both were found to have Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. Sadly, Martin is now the third former hockey player to show signs of CTE.

This is nothing new for athletes—football players like Mike Webster and Dave Duerson have also shown signs of the degenerative disease. The difference here is the type of player Rick Martin was and what this could mean for an entire generation of hockey players. Webster and Duerson were interior linemen in the trenches of the National Football League. They were paid to knock heads for 60 snaps per game—14 (now 16) games per season.

On the hockey side of things, Reggie Fleming and Bob Probert were known for the physical side of their trade as well. Both were known for their hands flying in a fight as much as they were known for their hands on a hockey stick. It doesn’t take a long leap of faith to understand that repeated fists to the head can lead to brain damage.

Rick Martin is different. It’s the difference that should send chills down the spines of hockey fans and players all over North America. From the Associated Press:

“The difference is Martin wasn’t a fighter. He’s the first non-enforcer who has been diagnosed with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy by researchers at a Boston University brain bank.

“Martin died of a heart attack at the age of 59 in March. All three former NHL players who have donated their brains for research so far have been diagnosed with CTE, a neurodegenerative disease linked to repeated brain trauma.”

The obvious part of the story that stands out is that Rick Martin was known as a skilled forward and not as an enforcer. Lisa Dillman from the LA Times shared even more specifics about the report and Martin’s health history:

“It was noted by researchers in the report that Martin’s only known concussion occurred in 1977 during a game when his head hit the ice. Martin, who was not wearing a helmet, suffered ‘immediate convulsions.’”

Martin engaged in only fourteen fights in fourteen seasons in juniors and the NHL. Let’s be honest, we have a name for a guy who gets into one fight per season: a hockey player. From a physical standpoint, Martin was a normal hockey player. In fact, during his era, you could almost consider him a finesse player—so for Martin to be diagnosed with CTE makes one wonder about an entire generation of hockey players.

It’s important to note that Martin played in a different era and without a helmet for the majority of his career. Even though he was diagnosed with a concussion, it took convulsions to make doctors take note. Back when he played, trainers would diagnose most concussions by saying the player “just got his bell rung.” The culture of the game would force players right back onto the ice and ignore any possible symptoms that could have served as warning signs.

Recently, we have player after player diagnosed with concussions. The players are missing longer periods of time as they recover and the league is taking admirable steps to insure that teams don’t rush their players back to the ice. In just as many instances, the league is protecting the players from trying to come back before they’re 100% ready for the rigors of an NHL game.

The chilling part is that this could just be the beginning for the sport. As more and more hockey players from the 1970s and 1980s donate their brain to science, we will undoubtedly hear about more players who have suffered from the degenerative brain disease. But what about today’s players? Are they adequately protected with improved helmets and equipment? Or is the game so fast today that NHL players are exposing their bodies to long-term damage that we won’t know about until they’ve retired and it’s too late?

Before today, there was hope that CTE was limited to the enforcers around the league. It was a dirty little secret that the league needed to deal with—but it was an isolated problem. Two enforcers had already shown to have CTE and Derek Boogaard’s brain is currently being examined at Boston University.  But now?  This is a problem that could affect every single player who’s stepped on NHL ice over the last four decades.

Regrettably, this isn’t a problem that will stop when the offseason ends.

Wild fire GM Chuck Fletcher, who leaves behind a mess

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The Chuck Fletcher era is over for the Minnesota Wild. After employing Fletcher as their GM for about nine years, the Wild dismissed him on Monday.

“I feel it is time for a new approach,” Wild owner Craig Leipold said in the team’s official release.

The team added that they are immediately searching for a replacement.

For better or worse, the Wild have been generous when it comes to giving their general managers time to make their new approaches work.

Fletcher was GM since May 2009, while Doug Risebrough served as the first GM for about a decade (1999 to 2009). While some teams employ their top executives for multiple decades (see: David Poile in Nashville, Ken Holland with the Red Wings), there are also plenty of front offices who receive precious few opportunities to get things right. Fletcher received plenty of opportunities to break through, and ultimately, his run with the Wild ends with a whimper … and some problems for the next GM to sort out.

Let’s ponder the biggest decisions of the Fletcher days.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The Decisions

Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

There’s simply no way to get around it: the dual signings of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter were the defining moves of Fletcher’s tenure with the Wild. On July 4, 2012, Fletcher handed Parise and Suter matching 13-year, $98 million contracts.

Just seeing the total cash and term on those deals is staggering, especially as each contract seems to look scarier every time you consider the implications for the Wild as a franchise. Both players are 33 – and showing their age at times, especially in the case of Parise’s unfortunate health – yet their $7.538M cap hits (with no-move clauses) won’t expire until after the 2024-25 season.

At the time, Parise and Suter linking up in Minnesota as free agents felt as close to the NHL would get to its version of LeBron James’ “Decision.” The biggest of many differences is that, while the Miami Heat won two titles and made multiple NBA Finals appearances with James & Co., the Wild have settled for modest gains. Sure, they’re riding six straight playoff appearances, but they’ve never gotten beyond the second round and haven’t won a division title since signing Suter and Parise.

Spending $15M in cap space on the two already seems dicey. It may only look worse going forward, and if a new GM gets the Wild out of one or both of the deals, it will come at a cost.

Mixed bag

The bad tends to outweigh the good when you consider how much Minnesota is spending on its team (a final cap hit above $75M this past season for a team that won one playoff game, according to Cap Friendly).

This is an aging group, which is disconcerting when you consider that this team doesn’t appear to have a ceiling as a true championship contender.

Eric Staal stands as one of the best additions of Fletcher’s tenure – and make no mistake about it, Fletcher’s had some nice hits along the way – and he’s already 33. Staal also will need a new contract after next season.

Staal, Parise, and Suter are all 33. Mikko Koivu is 35. Even Devan Dubnyk (another nice Fletcher find, and a guy on a team-friendly contract) is already 31.

Again, it’s not all bad. The Bruce Boudreau addition helped players old and young flourish. Fletcher fleeced Garth Snow in getting Nino Niederreiter. The franchise has done a nice job in certain drafting and developing situations, particularly with the likes of Mikael Granlund.

The whiffs have been pretty epic, though, with Parise and Suter already entering albatross territory.

Questions ahead

The next Wild GM faces a tough haul.

Do you try to move Parise and/or Suter, even if it means sweetening the deal by giving up picks? Should the Wild keep Boudreau or let him move on if the plan is a more concerted “rebuild” effort? Would the Wild be better off making difficult decisions, such as parting ways with underrated Selke-caliber center Koivu while he still has value (if he’ll waive his no-move clause, of course)? How much will useful RFAs Matt Dumba and Jason Zucker cost?

Those are some difficult riddles to answer. Fletcher faced tough calls of his own, and enough went wrong that he’ll no longer be running the show in Minnesota.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Blue Jackets, Maple Leafs go home facing elimination

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A year after Mike Babcock told arena staffers in Washington he’d see them a few days later for Game 7, John Tortorella claimed his Blue Jackets would be back after winning Game 6 back in Columbus.

Now the trick is doing what Babcock’s Toronto Maple Leafs couldn’t last year: stave off elimination from the Capitals.

“It’s about finding a way to win a hockey game right now,” Tortorella said Sunday. “There are so many ways of winning and losing in playoff hockey, so many ebbs and flows. That’s just the way the game is.”

Toronto is in the same spot as Columbus, down 3-2 in its first-round series against the Boston Bruins with Game 6 at home Monday night (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN, stream). The Maple Leafs held off a significant surge from the Bruins on Saturday night to avoid being eliminated in five and send the series back across the border.

“You got to look forward — there’s no sense and no good in looking back,” forward Connor Brown said. “We’re going back to (Air Canada Centre) where we love to play. Our fans are going to be excited so right now we’re all just thinking about Game 6.”

Game 6 in the Bruins-Maple Leafs series comes after Boston took a 3-1 lead in the absence of suspended Toronto center Nazem Kadri. Goaltender Frederik Andersen needed to make 42 saves to keep the Maple Leafs alive as they hope to avoid another first-round exit.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The Blue Jackets are trying to do the same in their Game 6 Monday (7:30 p.m. ET, CNBC, stream) after losing to the Capitals in overtime Sunday in Game 5. Four of the five games between Columbus and Washington have gone to OT compared to one total in the other seven first-round series.

“It’s been a crazy series,” Capitals forward Brett Connolly said. “So much is happening. Calls and OT — it’s been fun. I think guys are enjoying it. It’s pretty nerve-wracking, but we’re going to keep pushing forward here. We know we have a good team. They have a good team, as well. It’s not going to be easy.”

It’s rarely easy for the Capitals, who are 2-5 in their past five chances to eliminate an opponent and 6-11 overall in those situations in the Alex Ovechkin era. They’re also 2-5 over that time in Game 7 at home, which they’d like to avoid another incarnation of Wednesday.

This is the same situation Barry Trotz’s team was in last year — an overtime-filled first-round series against Toronto — and it wrapped things up in six.

“If you have a chance to eliminate a team, you have to have that killer instinct,” Trotz said. “You have to have that ability to close out a team. And it’s the toughest game to win because the other team is desperate. Their backs are against the wall. They’re there. They’re going to give their absolute max effort.”

No one doubts max effort from the Blue Jackets or the Maple Leafs staring down elimination. Columbus outshot Washington 16-1 in the third period of Game 5, and while that kind of ice-tilting onslaught is unlikely, the Blue Jackets are going to try to push the pace and ratchet up the pressure on the Metropolitan Division champions after blowing a 2-0 series lead.

“The belief in this room is incredible,” captain Nick Foligno said. “There’s no better motivation than what we’re facing.”

Tactically, the Blue Jackets need to cash in on the power play after going 0 for their past 13. Goaltender Braden Holtby and Washington’s penalty kill have been the difference in the series.

“The penalty kill has been a major factor for us in the last few games,” Trotz said. “I think as a group, they’ve all stepped up. I don’t think I can single out anybody. They’ve all stepped up. The penalty kill is as good as the five guys that you have, your four and your goaltender. They’ve been very committed there.”

WAITING IT OUT

The Vegas Golden Knights and San Jose Sharks will meet in the second round of the Pacific Division bracket, while the Winnipeg Jets await the Nashville Predators. In the East, the Atlantic Division-champion Tampa Bay Lightning finished off New Jersey on Saturday and will face Toronto or Boston in the second round.

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AP Sports Writers Mitch Stacy in Columbus, Ohio, and Jimmy Golen in Boston contributed.

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

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More NHL hockey: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Nathan MacKinnon would get P.K. Subban’s MVP vote

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Norris Trophy finalist P.K. Subban just got a good, in-depth look at Nathan MacKinnon, after they went head-to-head during a six-game series in the opening round of the playoffs.

Subban’s Nashville Predators got the better of MacKinnon’s Colorado Avlanche, but that doesn’t take away from how Subban views the Avs forward and his chances of winning the Hart Trophy this year.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

“You guys know I’m biased about [Pekka Rinne], but in my opinion, he was the best player in the league this year,” Subban said of MacKinnon, per Tracey Myers of NHL.com. “That’s not to take away anything from other guys like Taylor Hall who have had great years. But I think for him and what he’s done with this team, a team that’s been up and down…he’s just come into his own and he’s a phenomenal hockey player. He’s so tough to handle, so fast, strong and shifty. My expectations for him as a player as a player is to be a hall of famer by the end of his career. He understands that. Just tremendous respect for him. I just told him I hope he takes home that trophy that he deserves as the MVP. He deserves it.”

MacKinnon’s 97 points during the regular season was the fifth-highest in the league this season. It’s important to note that he played between four and six games less than the four guys who finished ahead of him.

In the postseason, The 22-year-old had three goals and three assists in six games against the Predators.

There’s many reasons for Colorado’s turnaround in 2017-18, but there’s no denying that MacKinnon’s play was the biggest factor. His points-per-game jumped from 0.65 last year to 1.31 this year.  The Avalanche went from being the worst team in the NHL by a mile to finishing in a Wild Card spot.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: McAvoy needs to step up; 2018 mock draft

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Keelan Moxley (the young girl that Brett Connolly had a hard time getting a puck to last week) finally got to meet the Capitals forward. (Russian Machine Never Breaks)

• Overtimes between the Capitals and Blue Jackets have made this series exciting, but it’s starting to take a toll on players and fans, too. (The Hockey Writers)

• Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy needs to find a way to be more involved in this first-round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs. (WEEI)

• There’s a few reasons why the Winnipeg Jets managed to dispose of the Minnesota Wild in five games. Their play on home ice and Connor Hellebuyck are right at the top of the list. (NHL.com)

• Now that Tomas Hertl is completely healthy, the Sharks are expecting him to take his game up another notch. (NBC Sports Bay Area)

• Even though the second round is on the verge of beginning, the Vegas Golden Knights are as healthy as they’ve ever been. (SinBin.Vegas)

Andrei Vasilevskiy is a man of few words, but he made quite the statement in Tampa’s first-round series against the New Jersey Devils. (Tampa Bay Times)

• NHL Seattle CEO Tod Leiweke discussed the challenges and next steps his group has to undertake in order to get a team running by 2020-21. (MyNorthWest.com)

• Finding a general manager might not be so easy for the Carolina Hurricanes, but Rod Bring’Amour is definitely willing to serve as a head coach. (Raleigh News & Observer)

• The St. Louis Blues invited their season ticket holders to paint the ice, so one fan took the opportunity to mock a controversial offside decision. (The Sports Daily)

• Blackhawks forward Anthony Duclair reached out to a youth hockey player in Nova Scotia that was the victim of a racial slur. (Chicago Sun-Times)

• The Sporting News came up with a first-round mock draft for the upcoming NHL Entry Draft. There’s no surprise at no. 1, as Rasmus Dahlin is the pick, but things get interesting after that. (Sporting News)

• Washington Nationals star Bryce Harper has added the Golden Knights’ logo to the end of his bats. (Sports Logos)

• Ellen DeGeneres paid tribute to the victims of the tragedy in Humboldt at an event in Calgary last week. (CBC)

• Boston University head coach David Quinn will serve as the bench boss for Team USA at the World Junior Hockey Championship next December. (College Hockey News)

• One year after leaving the NHL, Andrei Markov took home the KHL’s Gagarin Cup with AK Bars Kazan. (Associated Press)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.