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Terrifying Trend: Evaluation shows Rick Martin had brain damage

Oct 5, 2011, 10:38 PM EDT

Terry Pegula, Rick Martin, Gilbert Perreault, Rene Robert AP

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.

  1. billyhoyle4real - Oct 6, 2011 at 7:23 AM

    The competition committee is going to have all season to find ways to protect the players on the ice from suffering blindside hits and finding ways to slow down the game without devaluing the traditions of the game. In my opinion they may want to make the rink a bit larger along the size of the Olympic rink in an effort to slow down the speed of the game.

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