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Greg Wyshynski

Probert's brain donated to science as head injuries plague hockey

Greg Wyshynski
Puck Daddy

Bob Probert's family told A.J. Perez of FanHouse this week that the brain of the late Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks fan favorite was donated to a research project at Boston University, one that's studying head trauma for athletes and its link to other health issues. The timing of this revelation is uncomfortably appropriate.

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Marc Savard's(notes) comeback season with the Boston Bruins has been delayed by post-concussion syndrome. Paul Kariya(notes) is taking a year away from hockey for the same reason. Peter Mueller(notes), 22, of the Colorado Avalanche just suffered the third concussion of his career in the preseason, days before he was due to begin wearing the potentially safer "Messier Project" helmet.

None of these players have, or will, suffer the type of head trauma Probert did during his 20-year playing career, as one of the most frequent and feared fighters in the game. And Probert never had the publicity regarding any head injuries he suffered that modern-day players have. Concussions weren't reported in the media, and often weren't diagnosed. Tales of players like Probert turning to narcotics to "dull the pain" were commonplace.

After Probert died of a heart attack at 45 in July, his family made a tough call. From FanHouse:

"I believe that it was a very difficult decision," said Daniel Parkinson, whose daughter, Dani, was married to Probert. "I know Dani and Bob had spoken about (donating his body to science) prior to his passing. I know he wanted to advance the research."

When the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University School of Medicine diagnosed the late NHL great Reggie Fleming with the neurodegenerative disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, it was a game-changer. That Probert's family agreed to participate in the study reinforces its potential importance to generations of players.

Head injuries in the NHL are a thorny issue.

You have the old-school mentality that guards against overreaction, like fighting bans and draconian crackdowns on checking. You have the proactive mindset that wants changes in rules, equipment and standards through hockey culture.

Then you have a large swath of moderates between the extremes: Hockey people who both understand the need to study and reasonably prevent brain injuries, while also understanding that hockey is an inherently violent sport. We can seal up these guys in bubble-wrap and play every game on a padded rink; but if Lindros doesn't keep his head up, well...

Based on this preseason, the issue obviously remains front-and-center in the NHL. This 2009 quote about head-shots from Keith Primeau, the former Philadelphia Flyers forward who will be posthumously donating his brain to the Boston University study, still rings true:

"If there is going to be change, first it has to come from the players. If they are not going to show enough respect for one another then it needs to be administered by the league and my greatest fear is that it just becomes part of the playing norm. What I mean by that is, there was a period of time where groin injuries were front and center and knee injuries were front and center but they began to build it into their business model. They accepted the fact that players were going to miss time because of sports hernias and they just ploughed through it or knee problems, and they just ploughed through it.

"To me, the head is so much different then just a torn abdominal muscle or a torn knee, in that it can be life altering. I just do not want it to become part of the business model and therefore accepted as part of the framework of the game. I want it to be more then that because we are dealing with people's lives."

People, no question, chose to make a living playing a dangerous, unpredictable game. But people, hopefully, will one day have science identify the health consequences for doing so and ways to protect one's brain at 23 so they're not seriously affected at 43.

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