Brain Trauma Silently Stalks and Kills Hockey Stars

By Kerrie Spencer, staff writer – October 3, 2011

It has been a very bad year for the National Hockey League. Three of its top enforcers died within three months of one another as a result of committing suicide and accidental overdose. Besides playing hockey, these young players all dealt with repeated, hard hits to the head and also battled deep depression.

Enforcers are also generally referred to as tough guys, and it is their role on the team to fight, either spontaneously or according to a pre-determined plan. Fighting in ice hockey is a deeply entrenched tradition. When the subject of banning it comes up, often a tidal wave of protest emerges from fans and players alike. Crowds and athletes feed off the fights, and enjoy seeing blood spilled on the ice, heads bashed with reckless abandon, and high-sticking, cross-checking, elbow-driven moves. [1]

Many think fighting deters other kinds of rough play, although that defies most logic. Others think it protects their most valuable players and helps the team bond. Some feel the sport would be better off if hockey could get back to a civil game, without the potential of injuring someone so badly that they suffer from traumatic brain injury. These and other severe injuries often change a life forever and even cause fatalities.

Medical studies currently highlight the fact that repeated concussions, even when a player is still functioning, may cause deadly consequences. It is a mystery why the hockey league continues to allow fighting, particularly in light of the events of this past summer. Enforcers in particular have suffered concussions on a more frequent basis. It is typical in these types of male-dominated sports that players say nothing about how they feel so they do not risk losing their job. If they are feeling fuzzy, dizzy, disoriented or off-center, they will rarely admit it. As they continue to be a tough guy, the unseen and silent trauma of the concussion takes hold.

Three enforcers with lots of promise passed away this summer. Rick Rypien committed suicide at 27 years old. Wade Belak took his life by hanging himself at 35 years old. Derek Boogaard ingested a deadly mixture of drugs and alcohol at 28 years old. These revered enforcers had good stats and many years of notoriety in the game of hockey. They died before they had the chance to live their lives to the fullest. And now three more names in the sports world have fallen to a silent and stealthy killer – chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

The list of athletes affected by CTE includes Reggie Fleming, Bob Probert, Dave Duerson, Terence Tootoo, Roman Lyashenko, Trevor Ettinger, and Tom Cavanaugh. To be clear, not all of these deaths were exclusively caused by CTE. Some of these individuals committed suicide; yet the links between CTE and deep depression are becoming more evident. [2][3]

Hockey, football and soccer athletes deal with head trauma the most often. CTE is noted by atypical hyper-phosphorylated tau protein deposits that are located throughout the brain. Usually they are found in higher concentrations in certain locations such as the medial temporal lobe. [4][5]

This lobe controls impulses, memories, addictions, anxiety, emotions and depression. People who play sports are at serious risk of suffering from CTEs, and thereby depression. As depression and other emotions overwhelm a person, committing suicide, whether unintentional or intentional, becomes a greater concern. It is clear that when injuries affect this area of the brain, there are more problems that manifest themselves over time.

People with CTE can have a hard time handling their impulses, and struggle to deal with their emotions and lack coping mechanisms because of damage to their brains. What may happen next with these individuals has been very harshly demonstrated with the latest deaths. Even intense counseling they received from the league did not prevent them from taking their life.

If the NHL wants to keep its players alive and in top form physically and mentally, it is clear that fighting should be banned. If the rough play and deliberate fighting of players is banned, the presence of CTE would go down dramatically. This silent killer waiting to destroy the brain and person would not affect so many.

The fighting and resultant CTE is changing the way lawyers and the courts regard injuries. While there is the longstanding verdict of Vanvalkenburg v. Northern Navigation Co., in which the court said the victim died because he was the “author of his own misfortune”, there is the very real question of whether or not players honestly know what they are getting into today.

Just because they are provided with helmets does not mean they are protected from brain damage. Thus, a personal injury case that is predicated on the negligence of a person or company causing harm to another could become the possible negligence of league officials and teams letting players go out on the ice and fighting to the point of causing serious brain injuries.

Despite the evident risks, some players are still making the decision to continue to play, even after suffering serious concussions. For instance, Sidney Crosby is still recovering from the effects of a recent concussion and will not be taking part in training camp with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Crosby has been off the ice since January and even though he knows what the worst outcome could be for him, he does not think he will retire. [6]

After being hit on the head twice in consecutive games in January, Crosby displayed some of the classic signals that indicate the presence of concussion – namely fogginess, sensitivity to light, headaches and fatigue. He had trouble driving, reading, listening to music and watching videos.

While his doctors say he can recover from these hits, they do not mention the long-term outlook should Crosby continue to play and get hit in the head. If what happened to Rypien, Belak and Boogaard is any indication, he may have a difficult future ahead of him.

Unfortunately, it may take several wrongful death cases to find out how the courts view deaths brought on by CTE. When athletes consent to playing a lucrative sport that causes head trauma, the courts’ opinion of what role leagues, managers, and even agents have in a person’s fate will have a big impact on the future of the sports world.

Sources
[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fighting_in_ice_hockey

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_ice_hockey_players_who_died_during_their_playing_career

[3] http://www.sportslegacy.org/

[4] http://www.bu.edu/cste/

[5] http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0165017300000199

[6] http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/early-lead/post/sidney-crosby-penguins-captain-to-discuss-his-health-today/2011/09/07/gIQAcUEa9J_blog.html

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