The brain researchers to whom Bob Probert donated his postmortem brain will announce Thursday that the late NHL tough-guy suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) when he died of a heart attack last summer. CTE is the condition in which concussion concerns from the NFL on down to youth sports are rooted.
The Probert findings mark the second case of a former pro hockey player found to harbor the degenerative disease. (Reggie Fleming was the first; both wielded fists regularly in their careers).
In his 40s, Dani Probert said, her normally laid-back husband may have begun to show some of the telltale signs of CTE, such as odd bouts of road rage and memory gaps.
"If he was playing blackjack, he could remember plays from years ago, and every player's hand and what the dealer had. But boy, if you asked him what he had for breakfast that morning … It definitely makes you think."
The Boston researchers said more brain samples will need to be studied before broad conclusions can be made about hockey's ramifications.
"CTE is now documented in National Hockey League players, but each of these players was somewhat unique in that they were both enforcers and had a lot of fights," said Robert Cantu, co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at the Boston University School of Medicine. "So whether this is more an indictment about their fighting, or their hockey, really can't be said."
The hockey world is grappling with growing scientific evidence of the debilitating effects of concussions and other head injuries. Those findings have ignited fierce debate about the need for rule changes and better concussion protocols at all levels of the sport, enflamed recently by high-profile examples such as star player Sidney Crosby being sidelined from the 2010 NHL season with concussion symptoms.
"At the highest level, unfortunately it's going to take these types of findings to really put the pressure, or have a sustainable drive to change," said Keith Primeau, a former teammate of Mr. Probert and also the first former professional hockey player to promise his brain to the Sports Legacy Institute in Boston, where Mr. Probert's brain was studied.