The results? Probert was suffering from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). What is CTE, you ask? Here's the quick and dirty from Wikipedia:
[CTE] is a progressive degenerative disease found in individuals who have been subjected to multiple concussions and other forms of head injury. A variant of the condition, dementia pugilistica, is primarily associated with boxing. CTE has been most commonly found in professional athletes participating in gridiron football, ice hockey, professional wrestling and other contact sports, who have experienced head trauma, resulting in characteristic degeneration of brain tissue and the accumulation of tau protein. Individuals with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy may show symptoms of dementia such as memory loss, aggression, confusion and depression which may appear within months of the trauma or many decades later.This is somewhat new and emerging science. CTE research is conducted using harvested brain samples (meaning that the subject needs to die first), so it will not be truly cutting-edge until a new means to detect and track the development of CTE is conjured up. The early results of this research, however, are chilling.
The New York Times article suggests that CTE is a much more significant problem (that they know of) in boxers and football players, but hockey is not immune:
Hockey’s enduring tolerance for and celebration of fighting will almost certainly be tested anew now that Probert, more pugilist than playmaker, has become the first contemporary hockey player to show C.T.E. after death. Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy had previously diagnosed the disease in a long-retired player, Reggie Fleming, a 1960s-era enforcer who played before the full adoption of helmets.
“How much is the hockey and how much is the fighting, we don’t really know,” said Dr. Robert Cantu, co-director of the Boston University center and a prominent neurosurgeon in the area of head trauma in sports. “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.”Learning this - and other information that has come out about CTE in recent months - shakes me on two levels.
When the late former Chicago Bear, Dave Duerson, committed suicide last month, he too asked for his brain to be examined at BU due to apparent fears that he had CTE. The reaction within the Notre Dame nation (Duerson was a Notre Dame alum) blew me away. The rabid football fans stepped back from their blind love of the sport and reflected upon themselves and their families. At the core of the discussion was this question: Is pushing your child to play a full-contact sport like football a de facto form of child abuse? I don't know the answer but am struggling quite hard with the question - if you can't tell. Would I put MY son out there, knowing that the risk of brain trauma is reasonably high? Would I be able to live with myself if he was hurt in such a way?
Beyond my familial role, I also look at myself as a hockey fan (and football fan, but let's stick with hockey for the purposes of this blog) and can only shake my head. You see, I'm really in both camps on this one. I honestly enjoy a great hockey fight. (Not like these guys like great hockey fights, but I do like them.) And there are too few great fights these days as most are glorified bear hugs. But when a top-notch fight breaks out, and the pistons are firing on both sides, I won't deny the visceral thrill. It's the exact same thrill I get when I stumble upon a fantastic boxing match. There is something about the man versus man conflict that is exciting. But that's speaking with my heart.
When I look at hockey fighting with my head, I see all of the many, many flaws of fighting in the sport. On a game-play level, NHL Rule 46.11 ("the instigator rule") has effectively moved fighting out of the realm of protecting one's teammate (as in, you cheap shot my teammate, so I drop the gloves with you) to the injection of "energy". Energy? Are you kidding me? If you want to provide energy to your team, throw a hit (and many do, often in regrettable cheap shots), take a shot, rush up the ice and demonstrate hockey skills that put the biscuit in the basket. But fighting for the sake of "energy," to me, is silliness more resembling a circus sideshow.
bum shoulder or bad knees (I know, football article...I looked hard for a similar hockey article and couldn't find one) after retirement. It's brain damage. And, in my mind, that's a game-changer. People who play these sports have to figure that their bodies are going to suffer after taking a beating in the pro game (as well as the years leading up to those professional years). But do they understand that their very essence might be punched right out of them before they are 30? Is the fighting and the hockey worth (worth being relative, as most fighters outside of Derek Boogaard don't make much in comparison to their "skill" teammates) 40-50 years of misery from which they can never escape? If you have a bum knee, you can get a knee replacement. But what about a brain replacement? Not happening any time soon, I don't think.
So here I sit, mulling over the personal paradox that is fighting in hockey. I love it, yet I'm growing more and more repulsed by what it means to the sport and the people who drop the gloves. And I genuinely don't know how to reconcile myself with this.
(Yet, at the same time, I'm trying to figure out whether wearing my new Jon Mirasty Blue Jackets jersey - the pride of my hockey jersey collection - will bring better tough-guy mojo against Edmonton or Calgary. Because I can't wear it for two straight days, you know.)