Bob Probert might have been the most feared NHL player who ever raised a fist, a wild brawler who often skated off bloodied and battered but to enthusiastic applause. He spent 16 seasons as an enforcer for the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings, avenging slights against teammates and energizing his team.
Decades of fighting on the ice and hard living away from it took a heavy toll though: He died of a heart attack last summer at 45. Probert’s contribution as a player was measured in penalty minutes, not in goals. But his posthumous contribution could redeem him — and lead to changes in the way the NHL governs itself.
Boston University researchers announced Thursday their examination of Probert’s brain found evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative disease found in the brains of former NFL players, high school and college football players, wrestlers and boxers.
Determining the presence of CTE can be done only on a deceased brain. The donation of Probert’s brain adds to the knowledge about injuries caused by blows to the head.
He was the second hockey player to get that diagnosis at the university’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. Former Chicago Blackhawks tough guy Reggie Fleming was the first. The center’s specimen bank also houses the brain of former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson, who committed suicide last month.
Fleming and Probert were fighters, though Probert could have sustained damage through drinking, drug use or an injury in a car accident. The results of the study were first reported by the New York Times and Canada’s Globe and Mail.
The announcement generated sad recognition from Keith Primeau, whose NHL career spanned 15 seasons and 1,541 penalty minutes. Concussions forced him to retire in 2005, but he had symptoms until four or five months ago.
“It’s certainly alarming, the Bob Probert situation,” Primeau said. “For me the results aren’t surprising. It’s really more of a reaffirmation of just how serious the whole issue really is.”
The findings come at a sensitive time for the NHL, which is striving to balance the game’s physicality with player safety while Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby begins a third month of suffering post-concussion syndrome. The report could lead the NHL toward altering its permissive policies toward fighting, which has been legislated out of other major sports.
Or maybe not.
The details of Probert’s brain tissue analysis, which were made public because of his family’s desire to enhance awareness of the problem, aren’t likely to spur the league to immediate action.
“Findings with respect to one particular player are not going to cause us to do anything that we are not already doing,” said Bill Daly, the NHL’s deputy commissioner. “We are evaluating the rules of our game constantly and, obviously, we use a lot of information as a basis to do that. These conclusions add to that universe of information, nothing more.
“There is no particular ‘next step,’ and certainly no ‘next step’ stemming from these conclusions specifically. Our efforts at evaluating and addressing head injuries in our game are longstanding and will continue.”
The center’s co-director, Dr. Robert Cantu, said Probert’s brain showed abnormal tau, a protein that can lead to impaired functioning and death of brain cells.
“I suspect that most of the trauma that caused him to have CTE came from his fighting instead of just plain ice hockey, but we don’t know how much ice hockey contributed,” Cantu said. “All of the checks that beat a player’s head up against the glass or boards can cause of violent shaking of the brain and contribute to CTE.”
The key, Cantu said, is “the total amount of brain trauma that you take in your sport.” That can include falls and hits that cause whiplash.
Donald Fehr, executive director of the NHL Players’ Assn., called the Probert study “an important piece of research that the players, along with everyone else interested in the safety and well-being of hockey players, should consider seriously, along with other relevant research and data. We look forward to reviewing the full results of the study once they are made available.”
Ducks enforcer George Parros, who holds a degree in economics from Princeton, said he will follow the issue closely.
“I’m still doing my job and I think at this point, it’s a tricky area,” he said. “I can say I don’t feel any symptoms now, but who knows what’s going to happen in the future?
“It’s too early to tell if Bob’s disease came on because of fighting, because of hockey, because of something else he’s done, but I still have my job to do. I’m still going to go about business my own way and if something comes around and says that’s definitely the cause and everyone’s going to get it if they do it, if they fight like I do, I’ll definitely re-evaluate and probably switch gears.”
John Scott, the Blackhawks’ incumbent enforcer, said a ban on fighting could backfire.
“If you eliminate fighting, guys are just going to go around hitting people with no regard for what’s going to happen to them,” he said. “If you take fighting out, there will be guys running people, taking head shots, using their sticks and it’s just going to increase the amount of concussions.”
Hockey has advanced past the old days of dismissing concussions as “having your bell rung” and pressuring players to play though impaired. The NHL has instituted concussion protocols that include requiring players to take baseline neurological tests during training camp for later comparison if they suffer head injuries. The league also adopted a rule this season to punish blindside hits and blows in which the head is the principal target.
Allan Walsh, a prominent player agent based in Los Angeles, said the new rule punishing blows to the head “has been largely ineffective and has not in any way contributed to more player safety on the ice or a decrease in concussions during play,” because it’s too subjective and the application of supplementary discipline is too inconsistent.
Commissioner Gary Bettman said during the league’s All-Star weekend that the number of concussions has increased this season but blamed them on “incidental” contact, rather than targeted hits.
Walsh, who praised Cantu’s work as “fantastic,” is an advocate of adopting the international rule that bans all hits to the head.
“It’s where the NFL went and I think it’s necessary for many reasons, foremost of them being player safety,” Walsh said. “You can have an aggressive, physical, intense and entertaining game without hits to the head, and I don’t care whether it’s incidental or accidental.”
For now players will continue to drop the gloves, though the consequences might not be apparent for decades. Scott said he won’t change the way he plays, though he is concerned.
“If you have any kind of symptoms, you have to stop playing and be careful,” Scott said. “The more information we get, the better it’s going to be and the safer guys are going to be.”
Chicago Tribune staff writers Chris Kuc and Judith Graham contributed to this report.