Marty Howe has no doubt the concussions his father sustained during his legendary 32-year professional hockey career had an impact on his current mental issues, but says there are no plans for Gordie Howe to donate his brain to science.
“We haven’t,” Marty said Thursday, when asked if the family had discussed following the path of Reggie Fleming and Bob Probert – former NHLers who gave their brains to Boston University researchers after they died in 2009 and 2010, respectively.
The scientists discovered Fleming, Probert and another deceased NHL player, Rick Martin, all had the degenerative brain disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Fleming and Probert made their NHL livings as fighters but Martin, who died of a heart attack at 59 in March of 2010, was strictly a scorer during his career in the 1970s.
At this point, the Howe family is not interested in having the brain of the man known as “Mr. Hockey” tested for CTE. “My own opinion is it probably wouldn’t happen,” Marty said. “But that’s just my opinion.”
Gordie was in Toronto on Thursday to promote the Scotiabank Pro-Am hockey tournament, May 3-5, to will raise money for the Gordie and Colleen Howe Fund for Alzheimer’s, and Baycrest, a Toronto health sciences centre and leader in cognitive neuroscience.
Last month, the Howe family disclosed Gordie suffers from what one of his three sons, Murray, a radiologist, called “mild cognitive impairment.”
Both Murray and Marty said their father, who will turn 84 on March 31, is in good physical health but suffers from short-term memory loss, has difficulty finding words when speaking and disorientation in the evening. His symptoms became worse after his wife, Colleen, died in 2009 at 76 from Pick’s disease, a form of dementia similar to Alzheimer’s.
The elder Howe no longer gives interviews or speaks publicly, Marty said, because “he just doesn’t feel comfortable now getting in front of the camera. We don’t want to put him through the stress.”
But Gordie did chat with many of the people at Thursday’s press conference. There is also nothing wrong with his long-term memory, according to Marty.
“He can still remember Saskatchewan [his home province]and can talk about playing golf when he was 12,” he said.
There is no doubt in Marty’s mind his father’s many years playing in the NHL and the defunct World Hockey Association without a helmet were responsible at least in part for his current condition.
“I can just about guarantee it,” he said, recalling Gordie’s famous head injury in the 1950 NHL playoffs, when he fell so hard into the boards doctors had to “drill a hole in his head to relieve the pressure on his brain.”
Marty spoke of another head injury Gordie sustained in the 1970s, when they played together along with his brother, Mark, for the New England Whalers of the WHA. One of their teammates shot the puck down the ice while killing a penalty and hit Gordie on the back of the head, leaving him with a concussion.
“I’m sure there were multiple concussions,” Marty said. “You play 32 years of hockey at that level without a helmet and things are going to happen.”
Nevertheless, the elder Howe stays active. He divides his time between the homes of his four children and makes between 55 and 60 public appearances a year, usually with Marty at his side as spokesman.
“It gives him something to look forward to and keeps him active,” Marty said.