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Fighting's effects pose tough questions

The late Bob Probert (left) was found to have developed a degenerative brain condition associated with hits to the head, but the role his frequent fighting played in it is still unclear to researchers. (AP Photos)


By Stu Hackel

The finding reported in the The New York Times that Bob Probert had the degenerative brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) raises highly important challenges for the NHL and its players. Some are new challenges, some are not, but they cannot be ignored and they could impact the character of the sport going forward.

The two stories, one by Alan Schwarz and one by Jeff Z. Klein, detail the second finding of CTE in the brain of a deceased former NHL player. The first was Reggie Fleming, which The Times reported in December 2009. The research is being conducted by Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, which is exploring the link between repetitive head injuries and CTE, a condition known to cause cognitive decline, behavioral abnormalities and ultimately dementia. Schwarz has been reporting on the problems posed by football concussions and the findings of CTE in the brains of deceased players for a few years.

Fleming played during the '60s and '70s. Probert played from 1985 until 2002. Both were frequent fighters, considered among the best, if not the best of their eras, although Probert was also a good multi-dimensional player who contributed to his teams with 29-and 20-goal seasons for the Detroit Red Wings. In four other seasons, he reached double digits. (Schwarz's characterization of Probert as "more pugilist than playmaker" leaves a somewhat unfair impression of his abilities, although he did produce 384 points during his career and almost 10 times as many penalty minutes).

The unmistakable inference in Schwarz's story is that fighting played a major role in Probert and Fleming developing CTE. He writes "Hockey’s enduring tolerance for and celebration of fighting will almost certainly be tested anew" because of this finding, although he also quotes one of the doctors involved in the study who takes a more cautious approach.

“How much is the hockey and how much is the fighting, we don’t really know,” Dr. Robert Cantu, co-director of the Boston University center and a prominent neurosurgeon in sports head trauma told Schwarz. “We haven’t definitely established that the skills of hockey as a sport lead to a certain percentage of participants developing C.T.E. But it can happen to hockey players, and while they’re still relatively young.”

Both NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly and NHLPA Executive Director Don Fehr reacted to the finding with concern, but as Daly said, "To the extent that the science itself starts to suggest certain conclusions, obviously we’re open to accepting that and addressing that moving forward. But we can’t take steps tomorrow based on what we’re finding out today.”

Should a more firm connection between fights and CTE in hockey's willing combatants be established -- and it's hard to think that day isn't coming -- the NHL will have to seriously examine fighting's place in the game. That role is the subject of Klein's story.

“You’re punching each other in the face,” Dr. Michael Stuart of the Mayo Clinic told Klein. Stuart is the chief medical officer for USA Hockey and an expert on head trauma. His sons Mark and Brad play in the NHL for the Thrashers and Red Wings, respectively.  “The objective of boxing is to cause traumatic brain injury — to knock your opponent out. So when big, powerful people fight on skates, it’s not unexpected that somebody may sustain a concussion.”

Variously described as a safety valve for pent-up frustrations and a corrective measure to keep opponents from taking liberties with less physical players...

...fighting remains integral to the sport. NHL players value its continued existence, as shown by the Hockey Night in Canada poll earlier this season that found 98 percent of NHLers opposed removing it

Fighting also occupies a large part of the sport's appeal, which is obvious to anyone who has ever watched the crowd react during fisticuffs, a point not lost on ownership. It may have been decades ago that Maple Leafs owner Conn Smythe famously said of fighting, “We've got to stamp out this sort of thing, or people are going to keep on buying tickets,” but every challenge that has been mounted in NHL Board of Governors meetings to abolish it has failed. (Instead, the game itself has changed to emphasize speed and skill while rules to prevent massive brawls, once common, have been implemented. The old-time one-dimensional "goon" is becoming extinct. The result has been that the number of NHL fights has been cut in half over the past two decades.)

The NHL has been something of a leader among the major pro sports leagues when it comes to concussions. It was first to form a working study group that included the NHLPA, physicians and team trainers. It was the first sports league to mandate neuropsychological baseline testing. It also mandated changes to the rules, equipment and rink to reduce concussions. Sometimes the changes are not implemented as well as they should be and the penalties for violations could and should be more strict (more on that in a related post later today). Still, the league's concern and action have been there.

But examining how to deal with fighting in light of a growing body of knowledge about brain trauma means going to the core of the sport. It's going to take a huge effort by hockey people who have a broad outlook to examine what science is revealing and suggest ways for the game to evolve that will work for the players, fans and owners. It's not going to be easy.