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Brian Burke’s candid skepticism on concussion research

Over the last decade, concussion diagnosis and prevention has been a matter of extreme importance and consistent controversy for the NHL. Rules, protocols and equipment have changed because of those concerns. The deaths of player, current and former, have been given a depressing new context thanks to research into brain injuries.

That research has been spearheaded by the Sports Legacy Institute, founded  in 2007 by former WWF wrestler Christopher Nowinski and Dr. Robert Cantu, which partners with Boston University on the study of athletes' brains. The focus has been on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease that's been detected posthumously in the brains of former NHL players Reggie Fleming, Bob Probert and Rick Martin.

[Read Now: Nick Cotsonika on the NHL concussion debate.]

The documented effects of CTE are harrowing: impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and, eventually, progressive dementia.

They've been well-publicized; but have they been sensationalized?

That's one of the questions Yahoo! Sports NHL columnist Nick Cotsonika tackles in two in-depth and eye-opening pieces about the concussion issue: "Brain disease claims divide hockey docs, researchers" and "Primer: What you need to know about CTE." It's a great look at the science and the politics of brain injury research, including whether the hysteria over CTE is making young players (and their parents) think twice about playing the game.

We wanted to highlight one aspect of the story and Cotsonika's reporting: Brian Burke, the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and his candid thoughts on chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the player safety debate and young athletes playing contact sports.

"I can't imagine there's a hockey player on the planet that doesn't realize there's risk associated with a full-contact sport," Burke told Yahoo! Sports. "Every stitch they took out of my face, every surgery I've had, is linking to contact sports, and again, I chose them and I would not change any of those choices, what they have added to my life, how they've shaped my life. I wouldn't change a thing."

From Cotsonika's story, an interesting exchange between Nowinski and Burke:

Nowinski said he was trying to make the point that there could have been severe consequences in the future that no one could control.

"And I had this exchange with a senior hockey person who said, 'What's the big deal about Stage 2?'" Nowinski said. "I couldn't believe it. I'm like, 'Because it becomes Stage 3! That's why [it's a big deal]. It started at Stage 1, and then it became Stage 2. Therefore, there's a chance it becomes Stage 3.' And if people can't get that, then they'll never take this as seriously as it deserves."

Nowinski declined to name the person. But Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke identified himself as that person, and he recalled the conversation differently. Burke said he told Nowinski, a former Harvard football player and pro wrestler who retired because of concussions, that he probably had what Martin had. Burke said he didn't know enough to get into the specific stages of CTE but that none of this is really news.

As you might imagine, Burke had plenty to say about the concussion issue and everything surrounding it, and a lot of it didn't make the final cut for the articles. We've decided to run excerpts of his interview with Yahoo! Sports here on Puck Daddy.

From Cotsonika's interview with Brian Burke, here's the Leafs GM talking about his history with head injuries and discussion with Nowinski:

"Let's start with the conversation that this guy alleges to have had with a senior executive. That was me. And I have a very different recollection of that conversation. And we weren't talking about Stage 1 and Stage 2 and Stage 3. He was pointing out that Richard Martin had shown some signs of CTE and what I said to him was, you, Chris Nowinski, likely have signs of CTE. You played college football. You were in WWE. You probably have that. And I said, and I've had several concussions playing sports. That was part of the risk I assumed when I signed on for those sports.

"This isn't news to anyone … I played high school football. I was playing Grade 10 football. I hit a guy. We both went down and stayed down. I went to the sidelines, and the coach came over and put his arm around my shoulders and said, 'How you feeling son?' And I said, 'Fine.' He said, 'Then why don't you go over and stand on your side of the field?'

"I walked off the wrong side of the field. So all I said to him was, these are choices athletes make when they play contact sports. It certainly can't be news to anyone that there's risk associated with them, and that was the sum total of the conversation.

"It wasn't saying this issue isn't important, that players shouldn't be informed as to the risks. It wasn't making light of this at all, and I resent bitterly that he has cast this in this way. I'm all in favor of making sure all athletes know all the risks of the sports they played. But I played contact sports because I wanted contact. I wasn't a swimmer or a golfer or a tennis player. I picked contact sports knowing there was a risk associated with that."

While he supports continued research into brain injuries, Burke is critical of the work Nowinski's group is doing, wondering "how much of this is about generating headlines for Boston University." He also told Cotsonika about an email he received from Nowinski after the death of Wade Belak(notes):

"He couldn't wait to e-mail me, and I said, 'Do you think this is the time? Can't we let his family grieve for a few days before we start analyzing these things?' I was really sour about it, and I think this phone call followed that. I don't know enough about the science. He's talking about Stage 1 and Stage 2. I don't even know what those are. I suspect that the science doesn't back up their claims, but I'm not a scientist and that's an uninformed opinion. But certainly it appears to be gaining momentum in Canada."

As far as the links the researchers are trying to establish between concussions, CTE and depression, Burke told Cotsonika:

"If that link exists between CTE and depression, then we should have a much higher incidence of these types of episodes than we have. That's my sense as a layman, and I don't want young athletes not playing contact sports on the basis of research that's not properly documented.

"It's too early to say. This can't be a revelation. It absolutely can't be a revelation to athletes who play full-contact sports that there's risk. It can't be. I mean, I've had both my shoulders operated on, by right knee twice, I had at least four concussions I know about. I'm not surprised. If they say to me in my advanced years that there's signs of this contact in my brain, I wouldn't be surprised at that. I also wouldn't trade the experiences those sports have given me in how they've shaped my life."

Burke said he's an advocate for continuing the research into CTE and other brain injuries "so that athletes know the risks they're taking when they step onto an ice surface."

But clearly, for him, competitive sports were worth that risk.

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