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Avalanche forward Steve Moore lies on the ice after being punched by the Canucks’ Todd Bertuzzi, March 8, 2004.

CTE Case Spotlights Challenges Faced by NHL

December 18, 2009 04:00 PM
by Sarah Amandolare
While NHL officials work to improve players’ safety equipment, hockey has now been linked to brain damage caused by head injuries. How can head trauma be prevented?

Fleming’s Injuries Added Up

The New York Times reports on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), and its post-mortem diagnosis in National Hockey League (NHL) defenseman Reggie Fleming. According to the Times article, written by Alan Schwarz and Jeff Z. Klein, CTE is “a neurodegenerative disease known to cause cognitive decline, behavioral abnormalities and ultimately dementia,” and is caused by “repeated head trauma.” No other hockey player has been tested for CTE.

The Times’ article features comments from former NHL player Ron Duguay, who admits that his memory has worsened over the past decade, a problem he attributes to playing without a helmet and taking countless hits to his head during his career.

Former Flyers center Keith Primeau, who was forced to retire in 2006 due to repeated concussions, has suffered light-headedness and depression, two early signs of CTE. He is one of 12 NHLers who have pledged to donate their brains to the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, an organization that studies the brains of athletes and non-athletes to understand the effects of sports-related head trauma.

Mark, Dominic and Steve Moore are three brothers whose story illustrates the dangers of NHL head injuries. Steve’s NHL career ended after he was slammed headfirst into the ice, while Mark’s career ended before he could reach the NHL. Despite attending Harvard University, both bothers have had trouble finding regular work due to the resulting mental effects stemming from their injuries.

The Effect of Equipment on Head Injuries

Hall of Fame player Cam Neely is one of many who have spoken out about the dangerously hard padding worn by today’s players, specifically shoulder pads. Neely spoke with the Boston Globe’s Kevin Paul Dupont about the rash of head injuries among NHL players over the past few years, questioning whether older padding is any less effective. “I’m not sure harder is necessarily better,” said Neely.

The NHL is considering making “soft cap” shoulder pads mandatory in an attempt to decrease the number of head injuries, reports TSN’s Darren Dreger. Earlier NHL safety measures include the addition of extra half-inch of padding to elbow pads in 2003, which “led to a decrease in concussion related injuries due to elbow-to-head incidents,” according to the Toronto Star.

Mouth guards and chinstraps on helmets are also an issue of contention, as Jane Rickard explains in an editorial for Chicago Now. Rickard, who photographs NHL games, recounts a discussion of mouth guards with a rink-side orthopedist, who said helmets’ effectiveness is undermined by chin straps that aren’t tight enough. Fixing that issue is a “first step,” the doctor noted.

The Effect of Hitting and Fighting

NHL players and executives have are looking for a way to reduce dangerous hits to the head without compromising the physical nature of the game. As Dupont writes, “Here’s the conundrum: The GMs must balance the players’ health and welfare against the fan base’s thirst, if not lust, for body checks and big collisions.”

The role of fighting in the game has also been questioned
, particularly after the death of 21-year-old amateur player Don Sanderson last January. Sanderson died after three weeks in a coma, having hit his head on the ice during a fight in a Dec. 12 Ontario Hockey Association game. The Ontario Hockey League, a major junior league, responded by forbidding players to remove their helmets before fights.

Related Topic: NFL head injuries

CTE has thus far been diagnosed in 17 deceased former NFL players. In September 2009, a study commissioned by the NFL, which has questioned the accuracy of prior findings, found that retired players are being diagnosed with dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and other memory-related diseases at a drastically higher rate than the general population. Players aged 30-49 are diagnosed with memory diseases at 19 times the normal rate.

In a recent article for GQ, Jeanne Marie Laskas chronicled the NFL’s attempts to intimidate neuropathologist Bennet Omalu and discredit his research.

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