Over the course of his 16 seasons in the National Hockey League, Bob Probert gained a reputation as an aggressor. He took part in nearly 250 on-ice brawls, and he racked up 3,300 penalty minutes along the way.
Probert died of a heart attack last year at the age of 45. Since then, researchers at Boston University have found that the constant hits he took to his head may have been a factor in why he developed a degenerative brain condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
Brain trauma caused by hockey is a condition that hits close to home in Boston; earlier this season, the Bruins lost stars Patrice Bergeron and Marc Savard to concussions.
Chris Nowinski, a co-director of Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, spoke with WBUR's All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer about what the NHL is doing to reduce head injuries among its athletes — and whether the culture of fighting in professional hockey is contributing to brain trauma among players.
SACHA PFEIFFER: This disease, this dementia-like degenerative brain disease, was first found in boxers and wrestlers, then in NFL players, then college football players, then high school football players, and now we see it in professional hockey players. Does that tell us we really don't understand the full extent of the problem yet?
CHRIS NOWINSKI: I think so. I think it tells us that we haven't had an appreciation for what brain trauma can do, and brain trauma has negative effects no matter where it is. And so it doesn't surprise me at all to find it in hockey, and it won't surprise me when we find it in soccer, and we find it in lacrosse, and anything else where you're hitting your head a lot.
In the case of hockey, some people believe that the head injuries we're seeing are not caused so much by the sport as by the fighting that comes with sport — whereas football is a game that, just by the nature of the game, involves a lot of combat and contact. How much do you think the hockey concussion problem has to do with the fighting that goes along with the game?
I'm confident that hockey has a concussion problem, regardless of the fighting issue. There's the fact that Sidney Crosby has been out for over 20 games for the Pittsburgh Penguins. In Boston, you have Marc Savard and Patrice Bergeron out for a very long time with concussions. And so that's very clear. The fighting issue is kind of a separate issue and it's a professional issue. If players are paid millions of dollars to get in fights, that's something we can let adults do for entertainment. The big picture in all this research is focused on helping prevent this in children.
So if there's a concussion problem, whether it's caused by the sport itself or by the fighting in sports, what's the solution?
Part of the problem with concussions in hockey is that coaches and athletes didn't understand that these are serious injuries, and so players would try to play through them and coaches expected them to play through them. Now, players are reporting concussions more, and so resting concussions is going to contribute to the overall brain health of these players. But the rules — that's another area where we can make enormous growth. Only recently did we start penalizing blind-side hits to the head. When you're on skates, you can go over 20 miles per hour and if someone doesn't see you coming and you throw an elbow to their skull, you're going to knock them out. Congratulations. But now that we've banned that and now that that's a big penalty, we're going to see fewer concussions and less egregious concussions.
The NFL for years resisted and even denied the idea that playing football caused brain injuries. Now it's come around. It's encouraging players to donate their brains to science. It's giving money to the cause. But do you think the NHL is taking this problem seriously?
You know, I do feel the NHL is taking this problem seriously and they have made progress. And, in fact, they did send a group of their researchers to our lab to look at the brains and meet with us in September. I think when the NHL general managers meet in a month, looking very closely at banning all hits to head — whether you're doing it for player safety or whether you're doing it to keep the exciting players like Patrice Bergeron and like Marc Savard on the ice. Whatever you're doing, we need to do better at preventing hits to the head.
You say you believe the NHL is taking this seriously. On the other hand, the NHL has said that it considers this brain research "interesting." That's its word: "interesting." That sounds a little evasive. And an NHL spokesman said, "We can't take steps tomorrow based on what we're finding about today." Why not? Why can't it?
I'm not quite sure. Until we show them a brain of a guy who didn't get in any fights and has the disease, people aren't going to consider this a hockey problem. And that was kind of the same way with football: until you showed them enough cases and actually laid the brains in front of them and said, 'This is somebody who didn't do anything crazy; they just played football and got the disease,' then you saw the movement. We always talk about how some people are going to get this and some people won't. Well, the reality is that among the people who've taken a lot of brain trauma, there haven't been people who don't have the disease. Nobody is invulnerable to this. And so it does raise enormous concerns for the generations of mostly men — but now also women — who have played contact sports, who had no idea this was happening, and were reckless with their brains.
This program aired on March 3, 2011.