The Malik Report
by George Malik on 03/03/11 at 11:26 PM ET
Updated 3x at 9:41 with comments from Keith Primeau, Sheldon Kennedy, Red Wings GM Ken Holland, Stu Grimson, Marty McSorely and Rob Ray: The reaction to Boston University’s researchers’ news that former Red Wings enforcer Bob Probert’s brain showed signs of a degenerative neurological condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy has split the hockey world as even the doctors at the Sports Legacy Institute have proffered suggestions that concussions suffered from fighting contributed to Probert’s condition.
Probert’s widow, Dani, however, tells the Windsor Star’s Chris Thompson that she wants to make one thing very clear—she has no agenda other than to fulfill her husband’s wishes and further the science of studying brain injuries in competitive sports so that they can be better diagnosed and, hopefully, prevented:
“I’m not taking on the NHL and I’m not wanting to talk about eliminating fighting from the league,” she said.“I just wanted to raise awareness, basically. It’s part of the science. Bob wanted to donate his brain for a reason, to get the results put out there, so this is following through with that.”
Mrs. Probert suggests that there were signs that her husband was suffering from a classic symptom of anyone who’s sustained a severe or repeated traumatic brain injury in progressive memory loss and an increasingly shortening temper:
“Nothing major, but there were certain signs, the short-term memory loss, the short fuse, definitely,” said Probert. “He could remember 15 years ago, games, players, who scored, if he’s playing blackjack who had what hand, even what the dealer had. But if you’d ask him what he’d had for breakfast he couldn’t remember. That, to me, was the most significant one, the short-term memory loss.”
With two of her own sons playing hockey, Probert says the issue is of ongoing concern for her.
“Just knowing my kids are athletes, we love the sport of hockey . . . if one of my kids happened to have multiple concussions, and didn’t have the amount of time to recover from those, if there was any pressure for them to get back in and play, maybe I would seriously consider that wasn’t the sport for them,” she said.
In the end, she simply wants to read the results of BU’s researchers’ study when it’s published in a medical journal, and she hopes that this raises awareness of safety concerns for anyone participating in sports:
“I’m looking forward to that getting out because it’s an incredible study,” said Probert. “There’s so much I want to talk about, definitely. I definitely hope there would be some changes made, I don’t know to what extent, just the fact that it’s being brought to people’s attention, the fact that it’s being talked about.”
Update 8:43 PM: The Globe and Mail’s Alan Maki allows Keith Primeau to get a little political regarding concussions…
“This isn’t going away,” Primeau said Thursday after Boston University researchers confirmed Probert had CTE as did another former NHLer, Reg Fleming, who was diagnosed with the same condition in late 2009. “This is not like the ACL (knee ligament) issue of 15 years ago. It’s not like the sports hernia issue of 10 years ago. Players today hear about older players (battling with concussion issues) and say, ‘That’s so sad. But it’s not me.’ I’m here to tell them it’s true. I am that guy.”
The medical readings of Probert’s 45-year-old brain have added fuel to a raging fire. Already this season, the league has lost its biggest star, Sidney Crosby, to a concussion while the Toronto Maple Leafs were called into question for their treatment of forward Mikhail Grabovski, who returned to action after being knocked woozy during a game against the Boston Bruins. As one team source put it: “The awareness of blows to the head has reached a level where no one can ignore it any longer.”
The NHL, while expressing its interest, was quick to slow any rush to conclusions. Its governors meet later this month and will discuss concussion protocol and potential changes to Rule 48, which penalizes players for lateral or blindside hits that target an opponent’s head. The league will talk about banning all contact to the head, including fighting, which many in the hockey world deem an essential aspect of the game.
But Red Wings GM Ken Holland was the only person to go on record with an honest response as to why the NHL has not reacted more strongly to this news—because it’s the story of one player:
The NHL’s measured response to the Probert findings was echoed by some GMs while others declined to speak on the matter. Detroit’s Ken Holland said he wanted more information.
“A year ago, the managers ruled that we put the onus on the person giving the hit instead of the player not protecting himself when he’s in a vulnerable position,” Holland said. “Obviously, the hope would be, in a perfect world, we’d have rules that allow for competitive hockey and protect our players to the max. Is it possible? I don’t know.”
Sheldon Kennedy takes Mrs. Probert’s stance…
“What he’s given us is a platform for change,” said Sheldon Kennedy, another former Red Wing. “We can look at the research done, but what are we going to do about it? How many more guys or star players have to be hurt and retire for the game to change?”
While Primeau wants the findings to further discussion of eliminating hits to the head altogether:
“The Probert finding doesn’t surprise me because of his physical style and physical nature and the job description that he carried,” added Primeau, who retired in 2006 and now works with Play It Cool, a program that teaches parents, coaches and kids how to prevent injuries. “My biggest fear is when I do begin my demise that it’s drastic and that it’s fast. It’s not the finality of it but the progression. We have to make the head off limits. It’s just too important an organ to mess with.”
For the record, Primeau made similar comments to the Free Press’s George Sipple...
Update 9:30 PM: Former Wing Stu Grimson, who had to retire due to a concussion, also spoke to USA Today’s Kevin Allen and Erik Brady about today’s news:
“To know Bob Probert was in this situation (concerns me) because there is no greater parallel for me than Bob,” said Grimson, now an attorney in Nashville. “He is a strong comparable in terms of the trauma he suffered. And the important distinction between Bob and I is that I left the game with post-concussion syndrome and he didn’t.”
A little more than a year ago, not knowing he was close to death, Probert watched a 60 Minutes report on the study of athletes’ brains for concussion research and told his wife to donate his brain. His wife, Dani, asked that the study be made public with the idea that it might help other players.
“I’ve always had suspicions about what damage I’ve done to that area of my body,” Grimson said. “Reading about Bob poses two questions: Should I be tested for anything like this? And maybe what comes before that is: Assuming I had CTE, or something like that, is there a remedy?”
Probert and Grimson each had more than 200 fights during his NHL career. Grimson said he already started to reach out to his local medical community to get more information.
“Today’s announcement regarding the CTE diagnosis of former NHLPA member Bob Probert is an important piece of research that players, along with everyone else interested in the safety and well-being of hockey players, should consider seriously,” said Don Fehr, the NHL Players Association’s executive director. “We look forward to reviewing the full results of the study.”
“But we’re not going to react or make changes based on findings related to one player,” [NHL deputy commissioner Bill] Daly said, “especially when it’s impossible to identify, or isolate, one of many variables that may have factored into the conclusions reached, and when there is no real ‘control group’ to compare his results to.”
Update 9:41 PM: It keeps coming. The CBC posted a Q and A with Sports Legacy Institute founder Chris Nowinski, and both Marty McSorely and Rob Ray discussed the news with the New York Times’ Jeff Z. Klein:
“I want to make this perfectly clear: Did I have a concussion fighting? Probably one or two, yes,” McSorley said. “But I had more from playing. You can’t point at fighting and say that’s the cause of concussions in hockey.”
“I do not think we can stand on a chair and say we should eliminate fighting,” McSorley said.
Rob Ray, a Buffalo Sabres broadcaster who had 287 fights in a 15-year playing career, said he sustained concussions from fights and experiences memory loss, though, like McSorley, did not believe the Probert findings were conclusive.
“Think of how many times you’re hit during a game, and your head whips back or sideways,” Ray said Thursday. “I couldn’t sit here and say that fighting didn’t play any part in the damage, but it’s such a small part compared with the play on the ice.”
McSorley said he believed that outlawing fighting in hockey is “a separate issue.” He pointed out that “some people are going to use concussions as a vehicle to eliminate fighting.” He added: “That’s not fair. It’s a different discussion.”
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