Bob Probert's Brain Donated to Researchers by Family
"I believe that it was a very difficult decision," said Daniel Parkinson, whose daughter, Dani, was married to Probert. "I know Dani and Bob had spoken about (donating his body to science) prior to his passing. I know he wanted to advance the research."
Probert died at age 45 from a massive heart attack in July. He ranks sixth all-time in penalty minutes, a good chunk of that from picking up fighting majors during an NHL career that spanned 16 seasons spit between the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks.
Chris Nowinski, co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE) at the Boston University School of Medicine, told FanHouse that the university has received three brains of former hockey players. Citing privacy policies, Nowinski said he could only release the identity of one: former NHL player Reggie Fleming, who died in July 2009 at age 73.
Researchers in December disclosed that Fleming, who had suffered through cognitive decline and eventually dementia, died of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative brain disease caused by repetitive head trauma. Like Probert, Fleming was an enforcer during his 12 seasons in the NHL and two in the World Hockey Association.
CTE can lead to problems with impulse control, depression and in latter stages can mirror amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig's Disease.
Unlike several NFL players who battled through psychological impairments due to repeated concussions, Parkinson said he couldn't recall any such issues in his son-in-law.
"I've known him from the 17 years he was with my daughter and I didn't notice a change in character," said Parkinson, the police chief in Cornwall, Ontario.
Probert did struggle for years with drug and alcohol abuse, even serving a three-month jail term after a 1989 arrest when he was caught entering the U.S. from Canada with cocaine. Probert also had been arrested for scuffles in bars and even had one incident where police need a Taser to subdue him.
Nowinski said elite hockey players -- especially now that fighting is rarer than it was just a couple decades ago -- aren't exposed to the amount of hits to the head as football players, but dangers still persist.
"There are some clear differences," Nowinski said. "Hockey players may not take as many hits overall as football players, but it seems like more hockey players are taken out of action for longer stretches of time or retire from concussions more than football players. That's probably because they can take bigger hits since they're moving so fast on the ice."
Concussions forced stars Eric Lindros and Pat LaFontaine to cut their careers short. Free-agent winger Paul Kariya announced last month that he would forgo the 2010-11 season due to post-concussion syndrome and Boston Bruins center Marc Savard has missed all of training camp and will be out at least part of the upcoming season.
The hit Savard absorbed from Pittsburgh Penguins forward Matt Cooke in March was a major reason why the NHL took the unusual step of adding a rule to govern blindside hits to the head during the season. (Cook wasn't penalized for the hit.) The league and the players' union toughened the rule over the summer and players can now be subject to a major penalty and ejected for a hit to the head of an unsuspecting player.
From youth hockey on up, players are taught to be aware of their surroundings and strides have recently been made in head protection. The NHL also was the first league to mandate neuropsychological baseline testing.
"We've been actively involved in this process -- in a leadership role -- for years," NHL spokesman Frank Brown said in an e-mail.
The NHL has accepted an invitation to tour CSTE, although no firm date for the meeting has been established.
"They are going to make a presentation and we are going to evaluate its content," Brown said. "We have had a concussion program with the NHLPA since 1997. We have a well-defined -- and revised -- protocol for concussion evaluation and management (including Return To Play guidelines). Our study is extensive and it is on-going."