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Probert suffered from degenerative brain disease, scientists find

Bob Probert of the Chicago Blackhawks played in 16 NHL seasons and had as many as 200 fights during that time.

B Bennett/The Globe and Mail

Six months before he died of a heart attack at age 45, former National Hockey League enforcer Bob Probert was flipping television channels when he stumbled upon a documentary about scientists analyzing the brains of dead professional football players.

Their findings so intrigued the former NHL tough guy that, when the researchers lamented how few hockey players had volunteered to help them understand the aftermath of multiple hits to the head, he vowed to do his part.

"It was just me looking at Bob, and saying, 'Well, your brain would be a fine specimen,' " his wife of 17 years, Dani Probert, recalled in a phone interview from her home in Windsor, Ont.

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On Thursday, Boston University researchers will release findings that show Mr. Probert had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) when his heart gave out during a fishing trip last summer. The diagnosis makes him the second former professional hockey player to be found with the degenerative disease after Reggie Fleming, who died in 2009 at the age of 73 with dementia after three decades of worsening behavioural and cognitive problems.

Like Mr. Fleming, Mr. Probert was a fighter who banged his way through more than 200 fights during 16 seasons with the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks. He had suffered at least three concussions and struggled with substance abuse. And in his 40s, Ms. Probert said, her normally laid-back husband may have begun to show some of the telltale signs of CTE, such as odd bouts of road rage and memory gaps.

"If he was playing blackjack, he could remember plays from years ago, and every player's hand and what the dealer had. But boy, if you asked him what he had for breakfast that morning … It definitely makes you think."

The Boston researchers said more brain samples will need to be studied before broad conclusions can be made about hockey's ramifications.

"CTE is now documented in National Hockey League players, but each of these players was somewhat unique in that they were both enforcers and had a lot of fights," said Robert Cantu, co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at the Boston University School of Medicine. "So whether this is more an indictment about their fighting, or their hockey, really can't be said."

The hockey world is grappling with growing scientific evidence of the debilitating effects of concussions and other head injuries. Those findings have ignited fierce debate about the need for rule changes and better concussion protocols at all levels of the sport, enflamed recently by high-profile examples such as star player Sidney Crosby being sidelined from the 2010 NHL season with concussion symptoms.

"At the highest level, unfortunately it's going to take these types of findings to really put the pressure, or have a sustainable drive to change," said Keith Primeau, a former teammate of Mr. Probert and also the first former professional hockey player to promise his brain to the Sports Legacy Institute in Boston, where Mr. Probert's brain was studied.

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Of the 40 brains studied so far, CTE has been found in more than 30 former elite athletes - several of whom committed suicide - including boxers, professional wrestlers and more than a dozen former National Football League players. Since CTE can only be diagnosed post-mortem, the athletes died unaware that protein deposits and damaged neurons in their brains that are typical of the condition may have contributed to symptoms including memory loss, erratic behaviour, depression and eventually dementia.

Dr. Cantu said of Mr. Probert's results: "They're not nearly as severe as we've seen in a number of other athletes in other sports like boxing or football, but nonetheless it's unequivocally there."

CTE can result from what Dr. Cantu called "total brain trauma" - which includes concussions but also hits to the head that cause the brain to rattle off the skull, something that doesn't always result in a concussion.

"In football, the number of blows to the head is much greater than in hockey," he said, but added: "When they do happen [in hockey] they can be equally as great as the big blows in football - if not greater - because the speeds are greater."

Mr. Primeau said hockey players are hesitant to discuss brain donation. "It's still a tough topic of conversation."

Which is why Ms. Probert has decided to reach out to the Boston researchers and make her husband's results public, she said. "Having Bob's name attached to that can show other athletes, and especially the hockey players, that they need to get involved."

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Ms. Probert had other reasons, too, she said. They included the couple's four children: three daughters and a son, now ages 10 to 16. They are all athletes and avid hockey, lacrosse and volleyball players.

"I remember leaving the hospital and coming home [after Bob died]" Ms. Probert said. "It was the following morning that I looked at my aunt and asked her to take care of getting the numbers for me. I didn't know who to contact, I just knew that it was in Boston.

"It's so surreal, even looking back now. I just knew with such certainty when I was doing the [funeral]planning that that was the only thing I knew that he wanted, because he was so young."

She paused to collect herself. "That was the one thing I knew that had to be done for him."

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