The Malik Report
by George Malik on 03/02/11 at 11:50 PM ET
Updated at 10:10 with a parallel article from the Globe and Mail: The New York Times has posted a pair of articles discussing the possibility of the NHL banning fighting as part of the league’s crackdown on blows to the head, and, as the Times’ Jeff Z. Klein notes, the crux of their argument surrounds Red Wings enforcer Bob Probert:
Efforts to outlaw fighting in hockey go back decades. But though the number of fights in the N.H.L. has dropped significantly in recent years, fighting persists, preserved by the idea that it is a deterrent against cheap shots, a safety valve against more serious mayhem and something that fans like to watch.
This core belief in the value of fighting may prevent the league’s general managers, when they meet this month in Florida, from reacting decisively to the latest research findings, including the determination announced Wednesday that the longtime enforcer Bob Probert had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative disease of brain tissue associated with repeated concussions. Probert, who retired in 2002 after a 16-year career with the Detroit Red Wings and the Chicago Blackhawks, died last year at 45.
“If you want to reduce concussions in hockey, you should outlaw fighting,” said Dr. Paul Echlin, a sports medicine physician in London, Ontario, and the lead researcher in a study of concussions in junior hockey released last December.
Echlin’s study followed two Ontario junior teams over 52 games in 2009-10, with independent clinicians conducting in-game examinations of players suspected of having concussions. They found that of 21 diagnosed concussions, 5 were the result of fights. None were self-reported.
“The normal case is that the player ends up in the penalty box and doesn’t self-report,” Echlin said. “He suffers symptoms that indicate he is neurologically injured, and yet they think it’s nothing.”
[T]the legacy of Probert, who died last July of heart failure at 45, could soon be rooted as much in his head as his hands. After examining Probert’s brain tissue, researchers at Boston University said this week they found the same degenerative disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, whose presence in more than 20 deceased professional football players has prompted the N.F.L. to change some rules and policies in an effort to limit dangerous head impacts.
Although the National Hockey League has taken steps recently to reduce brain trauma — banning blindside hits to the head, for example — it has nonetheless continued to allow the fighting that some say is part of the sport’s tradition and appeal. Teams continue to employ and reward players like Probert, who are known as enforcers because of how they intimidate opponents. 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.”
Donald Fehr, the executive director of the players union, said the findings on Probert could not be taken lightly.
“Obviously, when you have a finding like this, it raises concerns and it bears serious examination,” Fehr said. “My impression is that the players want the best medical and scientific evidence that they can find so they make their decisions. They’re not looking to hide from the data. I don’t think anyone in hockey is looking to hide from the data.”
When informed of the Probert finding, Bill Daly, deputy commissioner of N.H.L., said he could not comment beyond his immediate reaction:
“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.”
Continued—it’s a two-pager—with Dani Probert saying this…
“In my heart of hearts, I don’t believe fighting is what did this to Bob,” she said. “It was hockey — all the checking and hits, things like that.”
And any Probert article would be remiss without posting some of his greatest bouts, so the Times posted six of Probert’s most notorious fights.
Update 10:10 PM: The Globe and Mail posted a parallel article:
On Thursday, Boston University researchers will release findings that show Mr. Probert had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) when his heart gave out during a fishing trip last summer. The diagnosis makes him the second former professional hockey player to be found with the degenerative disease after Reggie Fleming, who died in 2009 at the age of 73 with dementia after three decades of worsening behavioural and cognitive problems. Like Mr. Fleming, Mr. Probert was a fighter who banged his way through more than 200 fights during 16 seasons with the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks. He had suffered at least three concussions and struggled with substance abuse. And in his 40s, Ms. Probert said, her normally laid-back husband may have begun to show some of the telltale signs of CTE, such as odd bouts of road rage and memory gaps.
“If he was playing blackjack, he could remember plays from years ago, and every player’s hand and what the dealer had. But boy, if you asked him what he had for breakfast that morning … It definitely makes you think.”
Dr. Cantu said of Mr. Probert’s results: “They’re not nearly as severe as we’ve seen in a number of other athletes in other sports like boxing or football, but nonetheless it’s unequivocally there.”
[Keith] Primeau said hockey players are hesitant to discuss brain donation. “It’s still a tough topic of conversation.”
Which is why Ms. Probert has decided to reach out to the Boston researchers and make her husband’s results public, she said. “Having Bob’s name attached to that can show other athletes, and especially the hockey players, that they need to get involved.” Ms. Probert had other reasons, too, she said. They included the couple’s four children: three daughters and a son, now ages 10 to 16. They are all athletes and avid hockey, lacrosse and volleyball players.
“I remember leaving the hospital and coming home [after Bob died],” Ms. Probert said. “It was the following morning that I looked at my aunt and asked her to take care of getting the numbers for me. I didn’t know who to contact, I just knew that it was in Boston. It’s so surreal, even looking back now. I just knew with such certainty when I was doing the [funeral] planning that that was the only thing I knew that he wanted, because he was so young.” She paused to collect herself. “That was the one thing I knew that had to be done for him.”
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