Friday, December 18, 2009

You're Just Now Figuring This Out?

When former NHL player Reg Fleming, passed away, doctors noticed something:
Former NHL player Reggie Fleming, who died in July, had brain damage due to repeated head trauma, linking hockey for the first time to a condition usually found in boxers, the New York Times reported Friday.

Fleming, who spent 12 seasons in the NHL, was found by Boston University researchers to have had Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a disease that causes cognitive decline, behavioral abnormalities and ultimately dementia, the Times said. Fleming is the first hockey player known to have been tested for the disease, which was also found in several former NFL players recently.

"Boxing we've known for a long time, football we've recently become aware of - now hockey," Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist at Boston University who also diagnosed CTE in the former football players, told the newspaper. "Repetitive head injuries can have very serious long-term consequences, regardless of how you get them."

Deputy NHL commissioner Bill Daly told the Times the league would have no comment until it had a chance to review the report.

Fleming, who died at age 73, had 108 goals, 132 assists and 1,468 penalty minutes in 749 career games with the Montreal Canadiens, Chicago Blackhawks, Boston Bruins, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers and Buffalo Sabres. He helped the Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup in 1961 and also spent two seasons World Hockey Association's Chicago Cougars.

Fleming played his entire NHL career before the mandatory helmet rule was instituted in 1979. I don't know if Fleming ever wore a helmet, but he was an enforcer (I don't use the word goon, because that implies there is no skill behind being a team enforcer on an NHL team) who played an aggressive style of hockey that kept him in the league.

I would hope that this forces people to connect the dots and start looking at retired NHL players as potential sufferers of brain damage or brain injury. Perhaps this will compel the NHL to allot a little more money and a little more effort towards helping retired players with their health care needs. If you see the post below this one, I've got a handful of old time hockey fights from the 1970s and 1980s that ought wake people up. In many of these videos, all featuring Willi Plett, you see Plett playing part of his career without a helmet and you see multiple blows to the head with bare fists, you see head butts, and you see players being driven down into the ice.

By no means am I an anti-fighting nutball. Fighting is part of the culture and tradition of hockey. Taking care of retired players is an obligation of professional hockey, and not just in this country. I single out the NHL, but, really, anyone who played the game at any level needs to be screened or evaluated.

UPDATE: I wish I had seen this--it answers many of my concerns:

Some former N.H.L. players have expressed concern about the repeated blows to the head they took during their careers.

“My memory has gotten worse the last 10 years or so,” said Ron Duguay, who played helmetless for the Rangers and three other N.H.L. teams from 1977-78 through 1988-89 and who is taking a series of neurological tests as a result of his concerns. He agreed to share the results of his tests in an interview last month.

“I fail a lot of the memory tests,” said Duguay, 52. “I took a lot of hits to the head with no helmet, and if you’ve taken hits to the head you’ve suffered damage. Now I’m seeing what I can do to keep my health.

“I had fun as a New York Ranger,” said Duguay, who was known as a bon vivant during his playing days. “People say you should write a book, and I would, but I can’t remember.”

McKee said that because C.T.E. symptoms resembled those of Alzheimer’s disease — although they appear sooner, as early as the person’s 30s, and last longer — many athletes currently being treated for Alzheimer’s might have been misdiagnosed. She added that patients with C.T.E. appeared to show considerably more aggression and anger-management problems than patients with Alzheimer’s did, and could therefore be misunderstood as psychiatric.

“This is not a psychiatric disorder or a postcareer adjustment issue — the individual is struggling with a disease that is short-circuiting his nerve connections inside the brain,” McKee said. “That is compromising his ability to deal with the world as he used to. I can’t imagine the chaos that these individuals are suffering.”

The Boston University group is collaborating with the Sports Legacy Institute to collect brain tissue of athletes and nonathletes to explore and better understand the effects of sport-related concussion. A dozen hockey players are among 250 current and retired athletes who have pledged to donate their brains to the study.

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