A posthumous study of Stan Mikita’s brain shows the hockey Hall of Famer suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy at the time of his death a year ago.
Dr. Ann McKee, the director of the BU CTE Center, announced the findings during the Concussion Legacy Foundation’s Chicago Honors Dinner on Friday night at the request of Mikita’s family.
CTE is a degenerative brain disease associated with repeated blows to the head. It is known to cause memory loss, violent moods and other cognitive difficulties. It can only be diagnosed after death.
Mikita is the eighth former NHL player diagnosed with CTE at the VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank, a list that also includes Derek Boogaard, Bob Probert and Reggie Fleming.
“The NHL is nowhere on this,” McKee said. “They have completely denied a link. They have denied any responsibility, and it’s clear that they are just protecting the bottom line.”
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has consistently denied there is a conclusive link between repeated blows to the head and CTE. A message was left late Friday night seeking comment from the league about Mikita’s diagnosis.
The NHL formed a concussion study group in 1997, cracked down on certain hits after the 2004-05 lockout, instituted a formal protocol and a rule against head contact in 2010, and added spotters in 2015.
McKee said she feels the concussion spotters are being too lax in having players examined.
“They need to really, really just be very conservative about what represents a hit,” she said, “because what looks like a minor hit to you or me when we’re looking at it can be a devastating hit to the player, and we need to keep these players safe. That’s how these leagues got to be what they are.”
Mikita, who helped Chicago to the 1961 Stanley Cup title, died last August at age 78. He had been in poor health after being diagnosed with Lewy body dementia — a progressive disease that causes problems with thinking, movement, behaviour and mood.
McKee said Mikita had Stage III CTE and Lewy Body Disease.
“What was interesting was he didn’t just have CTE, which we know is associated with contact sports,” she said, “but we’re finding out that there are other neurodegenerative diseases, in particular Lewy Body Disease, which is a Parkinson’s sort of disease that spreads through your brain, believe it or not, that’s associated with contact sports.”
Mikita spent his entire career with the Blackhawks, beginning with his NHL debut in 1959 and running through his retirement after playing 17 games in the 1979-80 season. He is the franchise’s career leader for assists (926), points (1,467) and games played (1,394), and is second to Bobby Hull with 541 goals.
He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1983. He also was the first player to have his jersey retired by the Blackhawks in 1980.
Mikita’s family declined to speak with the media at the dinner. Mikita’s daughter, Jane, accepted the 2019 Courage Award on behalf of the family.
“While my dad’s professional hockey accomplishments were many, we are most proud of his legacy of giving back and caring for others,” Jane said during her speech.