Is Hockey the Next Sport with a Link to Dementia?

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • The news of professional hockey player Derek Boogaard, who died at the age of 28 of an accidental overdose of alcohol and oxycodone, could have easily been a footnote in the sports history book. But it’s probably not going to be because In an autopsy, Boogaard was found to have had a degenerative brain condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is related to Alzheimer’s disease. CTE can only be diagnosed after the person’s death during an autopsy. Boogaard is the fourth former hockey player who has been found to have CTE. The other three were Bob Probert (who died at 45), Rick Martin (who died at age 59) and Reggie Fleming (who died at 73).

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    Sports Illustrated reported that Boogaard had a history of being a very physical player. In fact, New York Times reporter John Branch told the PBS News Hour that Boogaard was identified as an enforcer. “The enforcer is a guy who maybe doesn't have the greatest skills, but he's usually a big guy. And he treats -- he's treated basically as a bodyguard for the other team members. When they have -- if they start to get roughed up by the other team, they send out the enforcer. And that's kind of their bodyguard.” During his career, Boogaard had only scored three goals, but had 589 penalty minutes and was involved in about 60 regular-season fights during his National Hockey League (NHL) career. It’s also believed that he took part in more than 100 fights while playing minor league hockey.

    After his death, Boogaard’s brain was sent to Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy for autopsy. The center also has done the autopsies on the brains of Probert, Martin and Fleming, as well as a number of National Football League football players who also had CTE.

    The center’s findings should serve as a warning to the NHL's leadership, but they seem to be taking a wait and see approach. According to Sports Illustrated, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said not enough data was available to draw conclusions about the link between concussions and a degenerative brain ailment that has been found in four dead hockey players. That response should sound very familiar to people who have followed sports and Alzheimer’s over the past few years. “It's actually very similar to what the reaction was from the NFL a few years ago from the same sorts of research from Dr. Cantu and the others,” Branch told the PBS NewsHour. “The NFL, I'm sure Dr. Cantu would say, is -- was pretty dismissive about the research for a long time as well. And it took a few more cases for the NFL to kind of come around and decide that this was a serious thing and needed serious attention. The NHL has not reached that point. I think the question floating out there is, how many more cases need to come forward before the NHL decides to take it a little bit more seriously?” As I mentioned in a 2009 sharepost, the NFL finally began to come around and is now taking proactive steps in learning more about the relationship between football and dementia through a partnership with Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy that encourages current and former NFL players to donate their brains after their deaths.

  • Even though the NHL leadership has blinders on about possible ramifications of playing the sport, one has to wonder whether the players started thinking about what may be happening to their brains every time they get into a bone-crushing fight? It doesn’t appear so. A story in The Globe and Mail out of Canada indicates that many players believe that fighting should remain a part of hockey. “I wouldn’t be in the league if I didn’t play that type of style,” said New York Devils forward David Clarkson. Another player, Derek Dorsett of the Columbus Blue Jackets, said, ““There’s a lot worse things I could be doing. There’s risks in every job, my brother works in an oil field with heavy machinery, there’s risks doing that. … I love what I do, I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

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Published On: December 08, 2011