Keeping Score

Did Brain Disease Cause an NHL Player’s Demise?

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Derek Boogaard of the New York Rangers of the Toronto Maple Leafs during their game on October 15, 2010 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York

The tragic death of New York Rangers forward Derek Boogaard shocked the National Hockey League. Now, sports fans are left to wonder: did the violent nature of Boogaard’s game play a role in his demise?

Boogaard was found dead in his Minneapolis apartment. The cause of his death is unknown, and an autopsy is pending. Police did not immediately suspect foul play. Boogaard was an enforcer, a hockey tough guy more known for his pugilism that his scoring skills. In December, he sustained a concussion during an on-ice fight, the 70th in his six-year NHL career.

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While football’s concussion crisis has received a lion’s share of the media spotlight, hockey is also struggling with head trauma issues. A concussion sidelined the game’s biggest star, Sidney Crosby, in early January; he did not resume playing the whole year.  At the All-Star break, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said that concussions were up this season. And earlier this year, Boston University researchers diagnosed Bob Probert, like Boogaard an enforcer throughout his 16-year career, with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease.  Probert died in July, of heart failure. Symptoms of CTE, which can only be diagnosed post-mortem, include headaches, memory loss, and erratic behavior. CTE has been discovered in people who suffer repetitive head trauma throughout their careers, especially athletes.

Of the 15 brains of ex-NFL players examined by Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, 14 were diagnosed with CTE. Most recently Dave Duerson, the former Pro Bowl defensive back who committed suicide in February, was diagnosed with the disease. Before Duerson took his own life, he instructed his survivors, in a note, to donate his brain to the Boston University research center. He had been suffering from memory loss and lack of impulse control, telltale signs of CTE.

Boogaard’s family has decided to donate his brain to the Boston University center, for further research. The New York Post has reported that at this time of his death, Boogaard was receiving counseling in the NHL/NHLPA Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program. His agent, however, told the New York Times that Boogaard seemed to be in good spirits of late.

We still don’t know why Derek Boogaard died. But if his case mirrors that of Probert and Duerson, and doctors find that he suffered from CTE, contact sports will get a whole lot scarier.

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