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Ex-NHL player Mark Napier (L) fights for the puck against singer Sam Roberts (R) at the Juno Cup hockey game on March 30, 2007 in Prince Albert, Canada. (Jim Ross/2007 Getty Images)
Ex-NHL player Mark Napier (L) fights for the puck against singer Sam Roberts (R) at the Juno Cup hockey game on March 30, 2007 in Prince Albert, Canada. (Jim Ross/2007 Getty Images)

NHL alumni lending brains to science Add to ...

With concern over hits to the head and concussions more prevalent than ever in the NHL, they are questions that players who played the game years ago would like to have a better handle on.

Did their playing careers cause long-term damage? Are they more at risk of developing symptoms such as dementia because of the blows to the head they suffered on the ice?

It turns out they may soon have an answer.

The NHL's alumni association announced on Wednesday that it has formed a partnership with one of the world's top neuroscience centres, the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest in Toronto, to study up to 100 former players for signs of mental health changes as they age.

The study will involve analyzing former NHLers' brains with in-depth cognitive tests and magnetic resonance imaging, a process that will be completed for every participant every three years.

NHL Alumni executive director Mark Napier, whose 12 years in the NHL included stints with the Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers, hopes the testing can determine whether former players have signs of declining health because of concussions suffered when they played.

"Obviously until a real thorough study is done, we'll never know," Napier said. "Baycrest approached us four months ago or so and we thought it'd be a really good way to find out what really does cause this awful disease."

The association put out the call for volunteers early Wednesday and already has several interested alumni, including former New York Rangers tough guy Richard Scott, whose career ended because of concussion problems seven years ago at 25.

Napier, Mark Osborne and Mike Pelyk are others already signed up to take part.

"I don't think we'll have a lot of trouble finding that many guys to take part," Napier said.

Napier was never diagnosed with a concussion during his 767-game career but now believes he suffered four or five and simply continued to play through the injuries.

"Back when I played, they put the sniffer under your nose until you could get back out there," he said. "Now I think they're really taking some great steps."

The study will also have a control group that goes through the testing in order to compare the former players to the general population.

"In head injury, teasing apart the contribution of genetics and other health factors to aging and brain function is a great challenge," Baycrest senior scientist Brian Levine said.

"By comprehensively assessing both the players and matched comparison subjects, we hope to better understand this process."

Napier said the current talk of concussions and future health concerns isn't something that keeps him up late at night, but he added that he and his peers would like to have more information about the potential link between the two.

"There's not a higher percentage in our members that have Alzheimer's or dementia, compared with the general population," Napier said. "So it hasn't been a huge concern. But with all the talk and everything going on, this was a way just to rule it out one way or the other.

"There are certainly some of our members that have early onset [of the disease] Whether that's just the typical aging process or they're one of the population that this struck, we really don't know."

The alumni association hopes the study can help current and future players as well by letting the league know exactly what the risks involved are.

"If it does come out that it's concussions [causing health issues]then I think the NHL would definitely act on it," Napier said. "But we don't know. Let's just find out first and then you can take steps later."

Some of the proceeds from the Scotiabank Pro-Am hockey tournament in Toronto next week - which is dedicated to the Gordie and Colleen Howe Fund for Alzheimer's at Baycrest - will help fund the study.

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