In November of 2013, a number of former NHL players came forward to file a class action lawsuit against the NHL. Their claim is that the NHL failed to warn them about the long-term effects regarding traumatic brain injuries and also failed in providing the proper care for when such injuries happen. Players have been reported to be dealing with mental health diseases such as Parkinson’s, Dementia and Alzheimer’s.
As of now, there are currently over 100 former NHL players who are a part of the concussion lawsuit, including Gary Leeman and Rick Vaive as part of the original 10 members who initiated this lawsuit.
Since then, it has been a back and forth affair between the NHL players, their legal team and the NHL. In March 2015, a judge denied the NHL’s request of dismissing the concussion lawsuit.
Then, in May 2016, a federal judge thwarted another attempt from the NHL to dismiss the concussion lawsuit.
While NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman continues to have his request for the lawsuit to be dismissed continually denied, he fails to see a connection between the link of concussions leading to long-term mental health issues.
In May 2011, former NHL enforcer Derek Boogaard, took his own life, which resulted from a drug and alcohol overdose. A thorough examination of his brain showed that he was suffering the brain degenerative disease known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, CTE for short, which is a result of repeated blows to the head. Below is an in-depth explanation form the Boston University website that focuses on CTE. It states that:
“This trauma triggers progressive degeneration of the brain tissue, including the build-up of an abnormal protein called tau. These changes in the brain can begin months, years, or even decades after the last brain trauma or end of active athletic involvement. The brain degeneration is associated with memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and, eventually, progressive dementia.”
In the explanation, you can see the difference in the brains shown in the image. The increase of tau protein (which shows up as dark brown blotches) demonstrates the destruction of what can happen when the brain is repeatedly damaged as a result of contact.
I’m not a medical expert, however, I was able to come in contact with Dr. Charles Tator who has been studying CTE. Tator is the Director of the Canadian Concussion Centre for the Toronto Western Hospital and has been studying this degenerative disease since 2010.
Tator and his team and have studied the brains of 23 professional athletes, mostly football and hockey players where most of the high contact stems from.
“The tau protein is a normal constituent of the central nervous system of the brain and spinal cord,” Tator explained. “It’s normally there, but not in the form in which it gets deposited after repetitive concussions. After repetitive concussions, the protein becomes phosphorylated, which means that extra phosphate gets attached to the tau molecule.
“It’s not really known why repetitive concussions cause that accumulation of hyper-phosphorylated tau,” Tator said, “but it’s an abnormal form of a protein that is normally there, but after concussions it gets phosphorylated and it also gets deposited in the nerve cell in which it’s not normally present.”
About a year earlier before Boogaard’s death, fighting legend Bob Probert died of a heart attack at age 45. While that was the initial cause of death, it was reported that researchers at the Boston University found evidence of CTE in his brain. The same condition that plagued Boogaard leading to his untimely death.
Along with Boogaard, former players Rick Rypien and Wade Belak were both dealing with depression and took their own lives as a result. From the Boston University website, depression is one of the links associated with the disease CTE. Many hockey players are currently dealing with many of the above complications. Even after the results, Bettman chose to deny the link concussions and CTE.
Recently, U. S. Senator Richard Blumenthal called out Bettman in a letter he wrote regarding his dismissiveness on concussions and the long-term effects.
In the article by Rick Westhead, Senator Blumenthal stated, “‘Why does the NHL so readily and quickly discount or dismiss warning signs of a link between hockey and CTE?’ Blumenthal continued. ‘Even a cursory analysis of several medical journals should sound an alarm.’”
Blumenthal continued by saying, “‘Most puzzling is why you attack others for asking these profoundly important questions,’ Blumenthal wrote. ‘Instead of aggressively seeking to advance the science surrounding concussions, you accuse the ‘media’, ‘media consultants’, lawyers and players of ‘fear mongering’. Your letter suggests that seeking facts about concussions and CTE could instill ‘unwarranted fears’ that lead to ‘depression’ and ‘suicide.’”
After trying to have the concussion lawsuit dismissed a number of times, I had to ask myself, why? If he had nothing to hide, he wouldn’t be so quick to deny this serious issue. But clearly, the lawyers, the players, the courts and even researchers are catching on to this as more evidence such as emails and texts were brought into the case.
Bettman replied saying that there is “confusion in the press about CTE” and that “none of the brain studies conducted to date” can prove anything.
In the article, Blumnethal added, “‘Your leadership guides professional players who are admired and revered by junior, college, amateur and youth hockey players,’ Blumenthal wrote. ‘Your failure to take a safety issue seriously could have ramifications for players at every level, seriously affecting public health….The NHL has a duty to behave responsibly in light of its public trust.’”
Bettman continued to deny any relation between concussions and CTE in an updated article where he made a 23- page response to Senator Blumenthal.
During my journalism and media studies in University, I watched a documentary based on the death of Derek Boogaard for one of my classes. As a hockey fan and constant follower on the issue, I watched it with great interest.
In the groundbreaking film, they looked at his life as a fighter, his death as well as in depth imaging of his brain. Bettman, again, denied the connection between CTE and concussions. It was astonishing to see the results. Here are snapshots of the images as well as a link to the well-done three-part documentary by the New York Times.
From the clean brain image presented by the Boston University link above and the results from Boogaard’s testing shows a pretty clear picture of a relation between concussions and the brain trauma Boogaard suffered during his career.
“All of that dark material should not be there,” Tator said. “In a normal brain, you don’t see any of that dark material because it requires special staining, to show that dark material. That’s an anti-body to the abnormal tau protein and the anti-body sticks to it and it becomes brown. And normally, the brain doesn’t show any of that dark brown material.”
Tator is the one who analyzed former NHL defenseman Steve Montador’s brain. During his analysis, the damage to his brain was extensive. In this article form The Hockey News, Tator said that the area of the brain that was affected could lead to depression and memory loss.
He noticed glaring similarities between Montador’s brain and Boogaard’s including the massive build up of tau protein.
“The protein that we identified in Steve Montador’s brain was hyper-phosphorylated tau,” Tator said. “In that sense, the Montador brain is similar to the Boogaard brain.”
In 2014, the NHL implemented the headshot rule, known as Rule 48, to try and decrease the amount of concussions. In 2011, they brought in the concussion protocol to evaluate players before allowing them to return to the ice. They have suspensions in place for headshots and repeat offenders, but even at times, the punishment doesn’t fit the crime.
Clearly they realized there was an issue surrounding headshots. But is this really enough considering the severity and complications of the long-term effects of head trauma?
“A lot more can be done,” Tator said intently. “They can ban fighting. They can be stricter with respect to protecting the brain. For example, they can make penalties for elbowing to the head and shoulders to the head much more severe. And players who repetitively cause brain damage should be eliminated from the game. They have stopped having designated enforcers, so I’m happy that that has happened. But they haven’t gone far enough in making the game safer.”
While I don’t play hockey professionally, I have seen friends of mine suffer concussions while on the ice.
I’ve witnessed one of friends take an elbow to the head and ended up stumbling all over the ice just to get to dressing room. I’ve witnessed one of my closest friends have his head bash on the ice as a result of a fight because of the stupidity of another player on the opposing team. Today, they’re fine. Tomorrow, who knows what’ll happen. I don’t know if they’re already feeling the same effects and complications of CTE that plagued the likes of Boogaard and Montador.
When asked about a link to mental health issues such as depression and addiction, Tator and his team are still trying to find an answer to that question.
“We don’t know the answer to that. That is a question that the entire world is investigating. In other words, why do some players show CTE and some players who may have had just as many concussions don’t show CTE? We don’t really understand why that is happening.
“Some people recover quickly from concussions, other people recover very slowly and we don’t know why there is that individual variation and that’s one of the areas where we’re doing research in. It may be genetics or it may be other factors, like drugs, and if it is we don’t know if it it’s drug A or drug B that may be involved. So those answers are only going to come from more research.”
This is probably why Gary Bettman is still unconvinced because of these outside factors, which is understandable. But, he shouldn’t be constantly denying it and brushing it off. He should be investing in the research so that physicians, such as Dr. Tator can find the answer. CTE could’ve played a role in their death. Whether it was minor or major, it still played a part.
It’s factors like these that demonstrate that more money should be invested into concussion and CTE research. Tator has collected a few million dollars from donors who support their research into CTE. With the growing need of answers, the studies and research is not where it should be. The NFL has made significant contributions in concussion research, yet the NHL seems to be way behind them in that department.
In an online post by Ken Campbell of The Hockey News, Tator makes a statement about Bettman’s stance and how his validity is fading as the case progresses.
“‘(Bettman’s) position is challengeable and it is gradually shrinking in validity,’ Tator said. ‘Pretty well every month, there’s another notch in the research mounting up making the connection. I think he’ll change his mind eventually. I don’t know whether it will be tomorrow or in a year from now, but he will change his mind because the evidence is mounting.’”
The brain is a fragile organ. Even the slightest bump can create a serious injury that can leave a significant negative impact for the rest of your life.
Like smoking leading to lung cancer and excessive drinking leading to liver damage, everything that happens in your body has a cause and effect. In this case, repeated blows to the head could lead to serious head trauma and diseases such as CTE that can be linked to other mental health issues such as Alzheimer’s. It’s all common sense.
While it is a contact sport, the players should be aware of the consequences that come with playing a physical sport such as hockey and football. Some may believe that they shouldn’t have to have the league provide a warning, since they’ve been playing the sport with contact since when they’re in their mid-teens.
However, the league should still do whatever it can to provide the proper medical care after their career is over should anything arise, instead of just turning a blind eye. There’s the notion that the league is essentially using these players for their own gain and entertainment. They’re leaving them to suffer.
The Ontario Hockey League recently brought in the “blindside hit rule” and changed the threshold rule of 10 fights to three fights per player. They will be given a two-game suspension every time they go past the three game limit.
Since the 10 game threshold was implemented in 2012/13, “the league has seen the number of fights in the league decrease by 49.5% and for the last two seasons have not had a single player with more than 10 fights based on the threshold criteria established.”
Even though the OHL is taking steps to try and address the issue, Tator says that it’s not enough.
While there needs to be further research into this disease and how it actually develops, there is no doubt that evidence is starting to emerge when the resources are given. With each brain that is donated to doctors like Dr. Tator, it’s another step to the answer that can be a breakthrough in the medical and science industry.
“We have evidence that some players with repetitive concussions get CTE, but it is not enough,” Tator said. “We would like to have about 50 brains. We would like players to donate their brains or their families to donate their brains to our centre, so that we can do the research required to figure this out. We need more research.”