Hockey is famed for its rough-and-tough brawling, but most of the recent conversation about the perils of high-impact sports on the brain have centered around NFL players. That might change. Researchers at Boston University this week announced that they noted chronic traumatic encephalopathy in the brain tissue of Bob Probert, a 16-season player who, the New York Times notes, won most of his 246 fights. That's the same degenerative disease that's been observed, postmortem, in more than 20 NFL players. Probert, who died last summer of heart failure at 45, is the first modern-day hockey player whose brain showed CTE.
The NHL has made some efforts—like banning blindside hits to the head—to reduce brain trauma, but the sport's trademark fighting is still permitted and rewarded, as teams continue to employ tough "enforcers." "How much is the hockey and how much is the fighting, we don’t really know,” said BU researcher Dr. Robert Cantu. “We haven’t definitely established that the skills of hockey as a sport lead to a certain percentage of participants developing CTE." Cantu also notes that Probert's case is a complicated one to interpret: The player drank heavily, used cocaine, and found himself in bar fights and altercations with police. Probert's wife adds that the BU team told her his CTE wasn't as developed as that of football players of a similar age.