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.

The Buzzer: Stamkos seen, rising Rangers, Crosby’s back

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Three Stars

1. Steven Stamkos

The Lightning did not take it easy on the other team from Florida in the first full game since Vincent Trocheck‘s jarring ankle injury. They hung seven goals on the Panthers, and Stamkos was leading the charge with a goal and three assists for four points.

After a relatively quiet start to 2018-19, Stamkos is heating up, even if there are still some scoreless nights here and there. Wednesday’s surge represents Stamkos’ fifth multi-point game since he generated three on Oct. 30.

Tampa Bay can win in a lot of different ways, and they might need more offense here and there as Andrei Vasilevskiy heals up. A keyed-in Stamkos could make a big difference in that regard.

The Lightning needed this win to maintain their lead in the competitive Atlantic. They’ve played the same number of games (22) as the Maple Leafs and Sabres, maintaining a slim one-point lead.

2. Sidney Crosby

After anxiously awaiting a return from an upper-body injury, Crosby wasted little time in making an impact for the struggling Penguins.

Number 87 generated a goal and two assists as Pittsburgh handled the Stars on Wednesday. Crosby extended his point streak to four games (three goals, five assists for eight points) with one of his better performances of 2018-19.

Will the Penguins right the ship? Outputs like these sure provide optimism.

3. Alexandar Georgiev

The 22-year-old Rangers goalie earned the first shutout of his NHL career, making 29 stops. He’s now won four of his last five games.

There are a lot of things to point to when you explain how the surprisingly strong Rangers are winning games, but noting that they’re currently able to stay in games even when Henrik Lundqvist is getting a breather is a good place to start.

The Rangers are on a dizzying 9-1-1 tear in their last 11 games, including an active three-game winning streak. How much longer will this go before we should forget any notion of a rebuild?

Factoids

This is bad … but at least the Senators are scoring enough goals to make their stumbles more palatable to watch than some expected.

Through thick and thin, Mike Hoffman is scoring for his new team, the Panthers:

Pekka Rinne‘s been awesome so far this season, and he’s also enjoyed an outstanding career. Need more to cement that? He broke his tie with Miikka Kiprusoff for the all-time record for Finnish goalie wins:

Highlight of the Night

It’s been a tough season for the Ducks, who’ve had to lean on John Gibson way too much most nights. Still, Ryan Getzlaf alone means you can’t take them lightly, either.

Lowlight

Bad hit by Stars forward Brad Ritchie on Jusso Rikkola of the Penguins:

Scores

NJD 5, MTL 2
NYR 5, NYI 0
PIT 5, DAL 1
WAS 4, CHI 2
CAR 5, TOR 2
BUF 5, PHI 2
DET 3, BOS 2 (OT)
TBL 7, FLA 3
NSH 4, STL 1
MIN 6, OTT 4
VGK 3, ARI 2 (OT)
ANA 4, VAN 3
CGY 6, WPG 3
COL 7, LAK 3

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Flyers can’t cool off red-hot Sabres

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The Buffalo Sabres are so hot right now.

Buffalo roared to a 4-0 first period, ending Alex Lyon‘s first 2018-19 appearance for the Philadelphia Flyers early. Philly made a game of it, but the Sabres ultimately prevailed by a score of 5-2, giving Buffalo an impressive seven straight wins.

If you needed a reminder, consider that the NBCSN telecast noted that this is Buffalo’s first seven-game winning streak since October 2006.

This was Buffalo’s first sellout since opening night, and a national audience witnessed an affirming win for the Sabres.

Jeff Skinner began the scoring early, giving Buffalo a 1-0 lead just 3:38 in. Tage Thompson and Evan Rodrigues followed with goals of their own, putting the Sabres up 3-0 less than nine minutes into the game.

There were stretches during that opening frame where it felt like things might get even uglier for Alex Lyon, who appeared overmatched for a Flyers team that just isn’t enjoying any luck in net this season.

Johan Larsson showed nice touch on the 4-0 goal, but it’s also the sort that Lyon can’t yield, particularly with the Flyers already reeling:

Credit the Flyers for coming back with two goals in the second period, rather than rolling over altogether. Sure, it’s plausible that the Sabres might have relented a bit with such a lead, but Philly at least made a game of it. Jack Eichel‘s hustle helped set up Sam Reinhart‘s 5-2 empty-netter to wrap up the scoring.

Wednesday’s loss felt like a lot of the same for a Flyers team that’s been frustratingly middling, right down to the seemingly perennial headaches about goaltending.

There was one thing that was different, though: the not-quite-bullies got into their first fight of 2018-19, as Scott Laughton dropped the gloves with Larsson following his 4-0 goal.

Did that scrap spark that mini-rally for the Flyers? Believe that if you want to, but it wasn’t enough for Philly to end the Sabres’ impressive run.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Penguins get all-too-rare win in Crosby’s return

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November has been a ruthlessly brutal month for the Pittsburgh Penguins, but for one night, all felt mostly well.

Of course, the most important element was that the Penguins got a win. By edging the Dallas Stars 5-1 on Wednesday, the Penguins ended a four-game losing streak, and earned just their second win in 11 games (2-7-2).

It was about more than merely winning on Wednesday.

Sidney Crosby suiting back up was almost guaranteed to be a comfort for Pittsburgh, like Thanksgiving’s looming belly full of tryptophan. The extra gravy came in Crosby playing so well, though.

His first goal back in the lineup was quite impressive, while he finished the game with three points.

Crosby also did some great work to set the table for what was eventually a Patric Hornqvist goal:

Naturally, the Penguins’ issues don’t really revolve around their big names in Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Kris Letang.

Instead, those stars haven’t been able to hoist up an increasingly soggy low-end of talent, as the likes of Matt Cullen, Riley Sheahan, and others simply haven’t been good enough.

With that in mind, it’s a promising sign that Tanner Pearson is showing early signs of being another stroke of buy-low trade brilliance for Penguins GM Jim Rutherford. After failing to score a point in his first two games with the Penguins, Pearson scored a goal to give him points in consecutive games (two goals, one assist overall). That’s a hot streak relative to what had been a shockingly abysmal season with the Kings (zero goals, one assist in 17 games).

The Penguins coughed up a 4-1 lead to fall to the Buffalo Sabres in their last game, yet they at least eked out an overtime point there, so they’ve generated some standings points after free-falling for much of the past month. Considering their struggles so far, they’ll take it.

Still, Pittsburgh has a long way to go, and you could probably argue the same for the Dallas Stars. Dallas only mustered 19 shots on goal against a Penguins defense that leaves a lot to be desired, and only managed 17 SOG as they lost to the Rangers on Monday.

[PHT Q&A with Stars coach Jim Montgomery.]

So, the Penguins beat a team that is talented-yet-struggling much like they are. And there remains a lot of work (and winning) to do to make sure they can earn a spot in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

You can only do so much in one game, though, and the Penguins showed promise on Wednesday.

***

One other thing to watch: will Brett Ritchie be suspended for this hit on Jusso Riikola?

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

WATCH LIVE: Sabres host Flyers on Wednesday Night Hockey

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Wednesday night’s matchup between the Philadelphia Flyers at the Buffalo Sabres at 7:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports App by clicking here.

PROJECTED LINES

FLYERS

Claude GirouxSean CouturierTravis Konecny

Oskar LindblomNolan PatrickJakub Voracek

James van RiemsdykJordan WealWayne Simmonds

Dale WeiseScott LaughtonJori Lehtera

Ivan ProvorovRobert Hagg

Shayne GostisbehereChristian Folin

Travis SanheimRadko Gudas

Starting goalie: Alex Lyon

[WATCH LIVE – 7:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

SABRES

Jeff SkinnerJack EichelJason Pominville

Tage ThompsonVladimir SobotkaSam Reinhart

Conor ShearyCasey MittelstadtKyle Okposo

Zemgus GirgensonsJohan LarssonEvan Rodrigues

Jake McCabeRasmus Ristolainen

Rasmus DahlinZach Bogosian

Nathan BeaulieuCasey Nelson

Starting goalie: Carter Hutton