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New York Times: Red Wings enforcer Bob Probert was suffering from traumatic encephalopathy

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.”

The first article’s worth reading, but the second one, by Alan Schwarz, delivers a knockout blow:

[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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Evilpens's avatar

Just Sad !! I Hell of a mean hockey player & could score too

Posted by Evilpens on 03/03/11 at 12:07 AM ET


It seems to me that fighting at the junior level is a pretty big problem, and so many of these kids never make it to the NHL, so any long-lasting trauma is off the radar.  But you can totally see it: these kids fighting wildly, fighting for their futures. 

Fighting in the NHL just rarely seems to be in that style.  How often is a good blow to the head EVER sustained?  I mean, nothing like any boxing match.  Again, though, in juniors it’s a different story.  But do you need an across the board ban?  I guess that’s the big question.

I don’t know.  I have no problems with fighting, but more and more I just don’t really give a damn about it.

Posted by nosferatu from Albany, NY on 03/03/11 at 12:34 AM ET

Nathan's avatar

Has been a noted issue with retired NFL players, and now we’ve got a documented case from an NHLer. Time to get serious about this, NHL and PA…

Posted by Nathan from the scoresheet! on 03/03/11 at 09:33 AM ET

Primis's avatar

Uhhhhh… are they sure it wasn’t the coke he snorted or the god-knows-what-else he ingested?  This seems convenient given the current state of the game… but ignores some obvious facts?

Posted by Primis on 03/03/11 at 09:46 AM ET

Primis's avatar

Or furthermore, if this is a concussion-related issue, can they prove his came on the ice?  The dude did get into bar fights and god knows what else happened to him… his lifestyle precludes the assumption that whatever happened to him must have happened on-ice.

Posted by Primis on 03/03/11 at 10:24 AM ET

Hank1974's avatar

This definitely needs to be looked into. Adam Deadmarsh’s brain tissue is probably that of an 80-year old just from the Jovo Punch.
Calgary’s Raitis Ivanans is still suffering from a concussion he sustained early in the season when he was one-punched KO’d by Edmonton’s Steve MacIntyre.
I believe Derek Boogard is also out with a concussion he suffered during a fight.

These aren’t little 150lb Ted Lindsay’s chucking bombs anymore.
And with all due respect to Mrs.Probert, I don’t believe for a second that it was only the bodychecks that caused Probie’s condition.

Probert certainly didn’t live a clean life, but there’s enough evidence to suggest that a lot of his drug use was due to dealing with the head trauma he sustained during his career.

I’m as entertained by fighting as the next fan, but I think the NHL needs to explore what the league would look like if they banned it completely and how to properly protect players from cheapshots and dangerous plays if it is removed entirely.
It’s a huge undertaking, but both the league and PA need to do what’s necessary to ensure the athletes who draw fans in are protected as best they can.

Posted by Hank1974 on 03/03/11 at 10:31 AM ET

Primis's avatar

If the league bans fighting, players are going to have to go with mandatory full cages.

Posted by Primis on 03/03/11 at 12:28 PM ET

edillac's avatar

If the league bans fighting, players are going to have to go with mandatory full cages.

Posted by Primis on 03/03/11 at 10:28 AM ET

so *#$%@& what,
its common sense that excesive fighting,checks to the head and all that crap will cause lasting brain damage
do we really want our athlethes to live 50 years or less?

Posted by edillac from isolation on 03/03/11 at 02:46 PM ET

Hank1974's avatar

its common sense that excesive fighting,checks to the head and all that crap will cause lasting brain damage
do we really want our athlethes to live 50 years or less?

And that’s the magic line that seems to have divided most fans.

I think like you in that these players need to be looked at than more than commodities for our entertainment. They’re human beings who’s value of life could be drastically reduced if not protected.

The league can ban fighting as long as it disciplines the players properly. With Campbell in charge, this won’t be happening anytime soon.

I’m still of the opinion that fighting doesn’t deter anything. Guys like Clutterbuck, Cooke, Avery, etc. will always play on the edge because they never have to fight goons and they can handle themselves against fellow middleweights.
Cooke ruined Savards career and the only price he had to pay was fighting Shawn Thornton - a light heavyweight at best. He didn’t even do that poorly in the scrap.
So why would Cooke stop doing what he’s doing. A 4-game sitdown here or there is nothing to him as long as he continues making millions in the NHL.

Besides, the NHL loves fighting. If it was so against it, it wouldn’t post the best fights of the night on the front page of it’s website.
And the NHL and owners could care less about the well being of the players it employs. They’re faceless drones who help make them even richer. So why would they care if a guy like Probert had the brain tissue of a vegetable at the time of his death. They don’t.
Just like they don’t care if Crosby’s ever the same again. “Hey, Stamkos is awesome now and we have guys like Hall and Seguin emerging. Who needs Sid!?!?”.
They’ll just replace one golden boy with another.

Posted by Hank1974 on 03/03/11 at 02:58 PM ET

MarkK's avatar

are they sure it wasn’t the coke he snorted or the god-knows-what-else he ingested?

Primis, any pathologist (and more specifically a highly trained neuropathologist in this case) can recognize and differentiate brain damage from different insults… repeated trauma, versus toxic levels of chronic drug use, versus alzheimer’s, major depression etc.  Hell, a medical student can clearly see the difference, and “traumatic encephalopathy” isn’t a term that you throw around loosely.  Excellent point about the bar fights, though. Who knows, until you have larger studies and move away from anecdotes. 

It’s becoming clear that athletes in contact sports (football, boxing and hockey particularly) are suffering from neurodegenerative diseases - parkinsons, alzheimers, dementia - decades earlier than the rest of the population, all the way down to middle age.  There’s something clearly wrong with that. These guys put everything on the line to make the team and, bottom line, entertain us for money. They don’t need their lives destroyed or ended before their kids make it out of high school.

Someone should start (NHLPA?) a public campaign pushing for hockey players to consent to brain donations at death for research. Isn’t it the players concern to find out if it matters or not, and what exactly is the cause? I applaud the BU researchers and Ms. Probert’s efforts to bring this to light.

Posted by MarkK from Maryland on 03/03/11 at 03:29 PM ET

SYF's avatar

Here’s hoping some good will come out of this revelation.  This league really needs to wake up on this issue.

Posted by SYF from Twerkin' with Anastasia Ashley on 03/03/11 at 03:56 PM ET


But we can’t take steps tomorrow based on what we’re finding out today.

To which I say “Why the f—- not, you clueless, insensitive, obdurate, exploitative Neanderthal?”

Posted by BobTheZee on 03/03/11 at 04:11 PM ET

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The Malik Report is a destination for all things Red Wings-related. I offer biased, perhaps unprofessional-at-times and verbose coverage of my favorite team, their prospects and developmental affiliates. I've joined the Kukla's Korner family with five years of blogging under my belt, and I hope you'll find almost everything you need to follow your Red Wings at a place where all opinions are created equal and we're all friends, talking about hockey and the team we love to follow.


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