The determination that the hockey enforcer Derek Boogaard had a degenerative brain disease linked to repeated hits to the head when he died in May at age 28 has fueled a debate among medical experts over whether the sport should ban fighting.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has played down the findings announced last week by Boston University researchers that Boogaard had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a close relative of Alzheimer’s disease known as CTE. He said data on the causes of brain trauma were insufficient to warrant stiffer penalties for fighting.
Ruben Echemendia, a former president of the National Academy of Neuropsychology, advises Bettman as the director of the concussion working group formed in 1997 and operated jointly by the NHL and the players union. He agreed with Bettman’s position, saying there is not enough scientific evidence to justify rules changes that would curtail or end fighting in the NHL.
“I think it’s an opinion based on limited data,” Echemendia said about the conclusion by scientists at Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy that hits to the head suffered in hockey might lead to CTE. “My perspective is, we should not make wholesale changes until we have more than opinion and speculation.”
However, some independent experts say ample evidence exists.
“We in science can dot the line between blows to the head, brain degeneration and all of these other issues,” said Charles Tator, a neurosurgeon and researcher at Toronto Western Hospital who directs programs to reduce head and spinal cord injuries in sports. “So in my view, it’s time for the leagues to acknowledge this serious issue and take steps to reduce blows to the brain.”
Those steps, he said, included “getting fighting out of the game.”
Boogaard played six seasons in the NHL with the Minnesota Wild and the New York Rangers, scoring three goals and totaling 589 penalty minutes. At 2.03m and 118kg, he established himself as one of the game’s most feared fighters, regularly receiving and delivering bare-knuckled blows to the head. The last several months of his life were marked by injuries and an addiction to prescription drugs. On May 13, he was found dead from what was ruled an overdose of alcohol and painkillers.
After his death, Boogaard’s brain was examined by the Boston University researchers. The disease can be diagnosed only posthumously, but scientists say it manifests itself in symptoms like memory loss, impulsiveness, mood swings and addiction. They said they found striking evidence of CTE in Boogaard’s brain.
The Boston group has examined the brains of four former NHL players — all four have been found to have had CTE and three of them fought regularly in their careers. Boogaard was the youngest.
“There is evidence at this point in time to speculate about a link between repetitive blows to the head and CTE,” Echemendia said. “However, we are not sure at this point in time how strong that link is, or what the parameters are that would lead to CTE.”
Over the past two seasons, the NHL has banned most checks to the head and stiffened penalties for those and other rule violations through its new department of player safety. Those steps were taken primarily out of concerns for players’ health, to reduce concussions.
The NHL’s data from last season indicated that 8 percent of concussions resulted from fights. Still, Bettman said the league and the players are not inclined to enact measures that would limit fighting.