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Bob Probert discovered to have had degenerative brain disease

Mar 3, 2011, 12:59 AM EDT

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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.

  1. chc4 - Mar 3, 2011 at 11:11 AM

    Forgive me for being a little skeptical. Alot of well paid people at the Sports Legacy would lose jobs if this syndrome weren’t pumped up. It may very well be true but I need to hear it from an unbiased source like a coroner. It’s alot like these quacks in Europe that were doctoring global warming data to push their own agendas.

    • sagequest - Mar 3, 2011 at 2:35 PM

      Sorry, chc, but your comment makes no sense. The study was done at the BU Medical Center, one of the best around, and the part of the Center that focuses exclusively on brain degeneration. These are neurosurgeons who have a little more expertise than a coroner. Where is the Center’s bias?

  2. hamptongirl - Mar 3, 2011 at 2:35 PM

    It really is too bad what happened to Crosby. But were was his sympathy when one of his teammates took out Marc Savard with a cheap shot to the head? Savard missed the remainder of the 2010 season, the start to this season, and is now out for the rest of this year after another concussion.
    Crosby said it was just a hit…I wish that people would remember that he couldn’t have cared less about this subject before it happened to him.

    However, while I worry about needless intentional hits where the sole purpose is to cause injury, I realize that hockey is a full contact sport. These men know exactly what they are getting into and they love it. The fans love it.

    I don’t think that hockey would be the same without the hard hits and the fighting, but I do think that it is crucial to research the best equipment and methods to prevent future generations from suffering from the same debilitating injuries. If helmuts need to be reengineered for hard impacts then so be it. The time, energy and money spent in this research is well worth it.

    • tk1966 - Mar 3, 2011 at 3:12 PM

      As someone who had never experienced such head trauma, I am sure Crosby did think it was just a hit. Not having earned a medical degree, or done extensive research into the matter, he would have no way of knowing how severe Savard’s head injury was. Most of us are only familar with what we see on tv – a football player smacks his noggin on the turf and is out the remainder of the game and usually is back the next week. But somehow Crosby is being held to a higher standard for not knowing more? Is that holding him to some standard higher than the rest of us, or is it just your own form of Crosby bashing?

      Now if he comes back from this and should say the same after another incident, then your comment is justified…

  3. mfla7166 - Mar 3, 2011 at 3:06 PM

    As a hockey fan going WAY back to when there were only 6 teams, my observation has been there are far more many hits, sticks, etc. to the head since the requirement of helmets. The players have a false sense of security while wearing them and hitting someone wearing one. Yes, the helmets do have a place in hockey – but I think more respect for each other while still playing rough and tumble hockey can be achieved. Slamming players into the boards head first, slashing them on/over the helmets, are TOTALLY uncalled for. The league, the owners – the folks holding the purse strings – are only concerned about the bottom line – money! Player health and welfare do not fit into their visions of dollar signs!!!

  4. bohemianbill - Mar 3, 2011 at 3:33 PM

    I in my younger days played hockey, football than rugby all at an amateur level yet competitive. Hockey was a road of stitches, broken noses, black eyes. Football was a severely sprained rt ankle (torn ligaments) and torn rt acl. Rugby was a relatively healthy experience, played for 8 years.
    My point being is as violent as rugby may seem it is flesh against flesh, bone against bone. The body is resilient, and the mind knows it’s limits. To me its obvious that the equipment worn gives an athelete a false sense of protection elivating there comfort zone during the performance of their sport to a level were severe injury may occur. Like to see a study done on professional rugby players, I am convinced it would be the tell of the tape. God Bless Bob Probert, we played together in high school.

  5. teedoffon1 - Mar 3, 2011 at 3:40 PM

    Maybe the NHL needs to adopt the policy that the NFL has in place where a player or players are penalized for removing their helmets while on the ice.

  6. wsen1943 - Mar 3, 2011 at 3:54 PM

    I played football in HS, had two concussions, had two bad wrecks in the 70’s and 80’s, & had head injuries in both, then in 1998 I had a stroke and major surgery, in 2002 another stroke, in 2004 another stroke. The doctor’s say they are all related. I believe them, and I am alive thanks to good neurosurgeons.

  7. pioniere - Mar 3, 2011 at 4:14 PM

    Hockey is the only pro sport (apart from the actual fighting sports like boxing and MMA) that allows and basically condones fighting. The NHL thinks it helps to attract fans. I believe the opposite, that it has actually kept fans away. I look at the NFL, where the players are a lot bigger, and the hits are a lot harder, and there are rarely ever fights. If you fight, you’re ejected. Hockey should be the same way. Fighting, or any other intentional hits to the head, should result in the offending player(s) being ejected from the game. And for those who say its a necessary part of the game, my response is, how many fights do you see during the playoffs? Almost none. If it matters enough, the players don’t do it. And if it meant they would get tossed for any kind of headshots, including fighting, then it would drastically reduce this crap. The game would still be physical, but would be more fun to watch.

  8. lilpig710 - Mar 4, 2011 at 2:47 PM

    I want to begin by saying that I knew Bob personally and he was a great guy. If anyone read his recent autobiography, it is obvious that he had a severe problem with cocaine. I wonder if some of the brain degeneration would have been caused by hits, in conjunction with drug use. Just food for thought. May Bob rest in peace and thanks to his family for getting his book out after he had passed.

  9. polegojim - Mar 4, 2011 at 8:55 PM

    Bob will forever be a Detroit Red Wing legend where he played most of his hockey as one of the Bruise Brothers.

    I’m glad to see that some good may come from the tragic loss.

    That said, outside of broken hands, black eyes, and some stitches, hockey fighting produces few injuries that would lead to this type of head trauma. Those of us who have fought frequently know that they’re nothing like a boxing match and typically last less than 60 seconds. There are more

    It’s the cheap shots like Gillies took…again…that are real culprit. Boarding should be a major. Take guys like Gillies and boot them for a year. That will produce more protection and good.

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