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the game changer

Ryan VandenBussche, left, tangling with Alex Henry in September of 1997, is one of about 25 retired NHL players taking part in a brain study at Toronto’s Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest. ‘I’m in the Baycrest study because I want to stay on top of the knowledge that is coming out,’ VandenBussche says.GENE J. PUSKAR/The Associated Press

Ryan VandenBussche suffered more than a few concussions during his nine seasons in the NHL. He caused some too, like the career-ending one Nick Kypreos suffered in 1997, when a fight between the two tough guys ended with a VandenBussche left-hook that knocked Kypreos down face-first and unconscious, blood spilling out on the ice.

Today VandenBussche is one of about 25 retired NHL players taking part in a brain study at Toronto's Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care, one of the leading groups studying the aging mind. The researchers are about 15 months into their study involving NHL alumni and other men from the general population, who serve as a control group.

The study involves brain scans and cognitive tests, but that's not all. Their lifestyles are examined from health conditions to concussion history, drug and alcohol use and genetics. Even samples of their blood and cerebrospinal fluid are examined. It's all part of a thorough study that's tracking the brain health of retired NHL players over several years to identify factors that could lead to cognitive decline as they age.

Known for his physical play in the NHL, most notably with the Chicago Blackhawks, VandenBussche remembers resting after hitting his head on several occasions, but he also admits there were times when he hid his dazed symptoms, too. Now 40 with his own children playing hockey, he has become an outspoken advocate for concussion education.

"Today, we're learning a lot more about the effects of head trauma in later years, and I'm in the Baycrest study because I want to stay on top of the knowledge that is coming out," VandenBussche said. "I want to help myself, and if I can provide information that others in the future can use to learn, I really want to do that."

VandenBussche was roommates with enforcer Bob Probert in Chicago, and says the two had discussed donating their brains to science after death. He even signed a card saying so back then. VandenBussche's brain will go to Boston University after he dies, the same place Probert's brain went after his death in 2010, and researchers there discovered it had evidence of a progressive degenerative brain disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

"BU is going in with certain expectations about the link between CTE and head injuries, and they may be right, but our approach is to be more comprehensive," said Brian Levine, a senior scientist with Baycrest's Rotman Research Institute and expert in head trauma and dementia. "We're at a very early stage of knowledge about the relationships between head injury and later brain findings. We don't just want to test people with complaints about symptoms; we want to test everybody. You can't just focus on the segment of people with complaints because that's biased. We are asking everyone to volunteer."

The researchers at Baycrest hope to study some 100 men throughout the course of the study, so they hope for more volunteers, both retired NHLers and healthy men from the public between the ages of approximately 30 to 70.

Mark Napier is another participant in the Baycrest study. The speedy forward played 17 seasons in the NHL in the 1970s and '80s, winning Stanley Cups with the Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers. While he says he was never diagnosed with a concussion, he's certain he suffered a few. In the 1985 Stanley Cup finals for instance, he took a stick to the face in the first period, lost three teeth and was out cold on the ice for over a minute. He got stitches and was back on the ice to play the third period.

Now 56, he's the executive director of the NHL Alumni Association, which is working with Baycrest on this study, eager to contribute to research that will help illuminate the factors that influence dementia. The association sent an e-mail to all of its members asking for volunteers.

"There were some guys who said they would rather not find out about what's going on in their brains now, while there were others who were very eager to participate – everyone is different, and we respect that," Napier said. "It's nice to take some positive steps toward finding some answers through research."

The study has been financed in part by the Scotiabank Pro-Am Hockey Tournament, in which retired NHL players play with amateur adult hockey teams to raise funds for Alzheimer's care and research. The eighth annual tournament takes place May 2-4 at York University. The Canadian Institute of Health Research is also helping to finance the study.

Levine believes they could have some initial results to report within a few months, but their study will continue. They plan to re-test participants in about three to five years to observe any changes in their brains. The researchers are also hoping that some participants will commit to donating their brains to the Rotman Research Institute after they die, so the brain could be studied before and after life.

"When we have a former player in the lab, we want to do everything we can with him to take full advantage," Levine said. "We're doing the most comprehensive possible brain evaluation that anyone could do."