The late Bob Probert, toughest of the National Hockey League's tough guys, fought 200 times in his career. He destroyed his brain in doing so. His brain tissue has been found by researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine to have had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a preventable form of dementia.
This discovery should concern more than just the NHL. It is an alarm bell that needs to be heard by hockey players, parents, coaches and team and league executives at all levels. It shows the lifelong damage that those who specialize in fighting are at risk of.
The risks to those who fight regularly in hockey have been almost completely ignored. One type is catastrophic, as exemplified by the death two years ago of a 21-year-old amateur player, Don Sanderson of Ontario, who had his helmet knocked off by a punch and struck his head on the ice. But there's a more habitual risk faced by those who fight 10, 20 or 30 times a season. These fighters may rarely be flattened by a punch. Even so, they regularly absorb direct (not merely glancing) blows to the head from experienced fighters (today's fighters take boxing lessons) weighing 220 to 260 pounds.
A fighter's fists turn to mush after striking a skull repeatedly; hence teams carry two fighters, so that one can fight when the other can't. And yet where is the concern for the fighter's brain turning to mush?
Mr. Probert, who died last year at 45 from a heart attack, is not the first hockey player whose brain tissue decayed from CTE. Reggie Fleming, who played helmetless in the 1960s and 70s, also had CTE. It has been found in more than a score of football players in the United States, including traces in an 18-year-old high-school player. Tough guys in any sport, even hockey, have soft brains like anyone else. Is it worth it?
The debate over fighting in hockey should no longer be about whether it is good or bad for the game. That is far too esoteric. The debate is over whether the supposed entertainment value justifies the risk of brain damage to the young men and teenagers who engage in it.
What possible excuse is there for exposing the teenagers who play major junior hockey in Canada to that risk? The NHL won't ban fighting until the fighters themselves wake up and decide it's not worth the fame and the $750,000 a year. Until then, the league should immediately institute a protocol to protect fighters from returning to play after a concussion.
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