Hockey Enforcer Had Brain Damage

Three months ago, we wrote a blog about how some folks were calling to ban fighting in major league hockey. The call for action came on the heels of three deaths:  35-year-old Wade Belak, who committed suicide; 27-year-old Rick Rypien, who was found dead in his home; and 28-year-old Derek Boogaard, who died from an accidental overdose of alcohol and painkillers. Boogaard’s brain was given to a laboratory at the Bedford V.A. Medical Center in Bedford, Massachusetts, so it could be examined for signs of damage. The goal:  To see whether years of hockey fights and head injury had done permanent damage. According to Dr. Robert Cantu, co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University’s School of Medicine:

“There’s no way to know how much was damage caused by fighting as opposed to hits to the head sustained in the normal course of playing the game. Personally, though, I suspect it’s caused more by fighting,” Cantu said. “In my practice, when I’ve studied ‘enforcer-type’ guys and we discuss fights, they say roughly one in four times they get concussed. But they never bring it to the trainer’s attention. They just go to the box and try to recover enough to make it back to the bench when the penalty’s over. It’s the code. They’re afraid if they admit it, they’ll be out of a job.”

The results are in. According to an article in The New York Times, Boogaard had Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a neurological disorder thought to be caused by repeated blows to the head. It can only be diagnosed after death, via autopsy and examination of the brain, but symptoms often reveal the disorder. Memory loss, mood swings, impulsiveness, addictions, and in the late stages, a person with CTE can develop symptoms that look very similar to dementia and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease).

Boogaard’s brain was the fourth hockey player brain examined, and all four were found to have CTE. According to The New York Times:

But this was different. The others were not in their 20s, not in the prime of their careers. The scientists….told the Boogaard family that they were shocked to see so much damage in someone so young. It appeared to be spreading through his brain….

“To see this amount? That’s a ‘wow’ moment,” [Dr. Ann] McKee said as she pointed to magnified images of Boogaard’s brain tissue. “This is all going bad.”

What’s particularly scary is that other current, young hockey players could have the disease…and how many will sustain blows to the head tomorrow that will start the disease process. And yet, the NHL isn’t convinced that here is a link between hockey and CTE.  Hmmm…guess that means that they won’t be changing the rules about fighting on the ice. In fact, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman told The New York Times:

“If you polled our fans, probably more would say they think it’s a part of the game and should be retained.”

There you go—the fans want the fights, so I guess we can tolerate a little brain damage. As Chris Nowinski, another co-director of the Boston University center, said:  “They are trading money for brain cells.”

That says it all.


To read our September blog about the call to ban fights in hockey, click here:  A Call to Ban Hockey Fights

To read the full article in The New York Times, click here:  Derek Boogaard–A Brain ‘Going Bad’

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