Hockey Parents Should Take Note of News about NHL Player's Dementia

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up in a place where football was king! I even went to the high school that served as the basis of "Friday Night Lights” (the book and the movie) and served as the concept for the well-received television show. I remember those  years of going to games, cheering for players as they made crushing tackles in an effort to continue their string of state championships. But I always wondered what the aftermath would be from those tackles. Yes, bruises,  sprains and other injuries come with the territory, but what about really terrifying illnesses that arise after the accumulation of bodily blows.

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    The same now can be wondered about hockey. Recently, professional hockey player Derek Boogaard, age 28, died of an accidental overdose of alcohol and oxycodone. However, the big news is that an autopsy found that Boogaard had a degenerative brain condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is related to Alzheimer’s disease and which I wrote about on HealthCentral's Alzheimer's site. 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. According to Sports Illustrated, Boogaard scored only three goals during his career, but  was considered an “enforcer” which is illustrated by the fact that he 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. Boogaard is the fourth former NHL player who has been found to have CTE during an autopsy.

    So why should parents of young hockey players take note? Well, admittedly, it’s only four hockey players who’ve been found to have CTE, but that’s how the worry about dementia as a result of football started. A New York Times story in 2007 had brought up the concerns of several NFL families that their husbands had dementia and the NFL decided to create 88 Plan, a joint effort between the league and the NFL Players’ Association to support former players’ care and treatment financially. Then, as I wrote in a 2009 sharepost, the NFL commissioned a study by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research that found “that Alzheimer’s disease and other similar brain diseases appear to have been diagnosed at a much higher rate in retired pro football players than in the U.S. population.” Later in 2009, the NFL took proactive steps in learning about football’s relationship with dementia by creating a partnership with the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE) at Boston University. In this partnership, the NFL encourages current and former players to donate their brains after death to the center so researchers can further study the possible link between football and dementia.

    I tell you this because the National Hockey League appears to be repeating this pattern. 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. Sound familiar? “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 (the director of the CSTE) and the others,” New York Times reporter John Branch told the PBS News Hour.  “The NFL… 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?”

  • Unfortunately, the NHL players, who serve as role models to young players, aren’t taking the danger too seriously. “I wouldn’t be in the league if I didn’t play that type of style,” said New York Devils forward David Clarkson told Canada’s newspaper, The Globe and Mail.

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    So what should parents of young hockey players do? I’d suggest starting to express your concerns about concussions and eventual dementia to the officials of your local leagues. Admittedly, it may take a while to get them to make important rule changes, but you need to be vocal about your concerns. Also, encourage your young hockey player to avoid participating in any fights; instead, focus on building the skills and skating ability to be able to play the game without resorting to fisticuffs. Finally, make sure that the team coach knows that you don’t want your child to be put back in the game if a concussion is suspected. If your child does suffer a head injury, be sure to seek proper medical attention and have your child take the time needed to heal.

Published On: December 09, 2011