Hockey player Derek Boorgaard suffered from degenerative brain disease associated with frequent blows to the head prior to his death. Boorgaard, once one of hockey’s toughest enforcers is not the only player found to have suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
“His demeanor, his personality, it just left him,” said Wild teammate, John Scott, of Boorgaard. “He didn’t have a personality anymore. He just was kind of—a blank face,” Scott added, said The New York Times. Fellow players and family described a man who drowsed during card games; passed out in the dressing room; began arriving late for meetings and workouts; didn’t respond to the on-ice fighting so typical to the game; and who suffered from periods in which he wouldn’t leave his apartment, would only eat junk food, refused to shower, and exhibited manic behavior, mood swings, memory lapses, and crying jags, said The Times.
Boorgaard’s official cause of death was ruled an accidental overdose of alcohol and oxycodone, said The Star; however, posthumous brain exams revealed a severely advanced case of CTE that would have likely led to middle-aged dementia had the 28-year-old lived. Scientists examining Boorgaard’s brain, which was retrieved with his parents’ permission, were stunned at the level of brain damage in such a young player.
Renowned Toronto neurosurgeon, Dr. Charles Tator, said Boorgaard’s CTE and death should serve as a warning to the NHL and that changes are needed in the sport, wrote The Star. “We’re ruining our great resources in hockey—and by that I mean star players,” said Tator, head of ThinkFirst, a group dedicated to preventing brain and spinal injuries in youth, wrote The Star. “We need to be much more vigorous in reducing hits to the head. The Boorgaard findings are another reason to ratchet up the campaign against hits to the head,” Tator warned, according to The Star.
Boorgaard’s brain, say experts, warns of similar possibilities for other NHL athletes, even if symptoms are not obvious; however, the NHL is reticent to consider the on-ice fighting-CTE link. “There isn’t a lot of data, and the experts who we talked to, who consult with us, think that it’s way premature to be drawing any conclusions at this point,” said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, wrote The Times. Boston University researchers say that CTE is known to be caused by repeated blows to the head and that the NHL is not taking the issue or data seriously, wrote The Times.
Nor does the NHL appear to have a desire to stop on-ice fighting. For instance, noted The Times, an elbow to the head is not allowed, but two players can engage in fighting that stops the game and involves bare punches to the head until one is knocked unconscious; clearly mixed messaging said The Times. According to The Star, three other NHL players’ brains indicated CTE signs: Reggie Fleming, 73; Rick Martin, 59; and Bob Probert, 45. The Times said the CTE evidence in Boorgaard’s brain was significantly more advanced than Probert’s, who played for 16 seasons and who suffered from addiction before he died of heart failure in 2010.
Tator pointed out that it is difficult to determine how Boorgaard’s drug abuse affected his CTE, said The Star; however, The Times discussed how Boorgaard received 11 prescription painkillers from eight different physicians in just three months during Minnesota’s 2009-2009 season. One prescribing physician worked for a different team. The Times also discussed players receiving four days advanced notice of drug tests said Boorgaard’s father, Len; former NHL enforcer, George Laraque, also told The Star about how notice was given on pending drug testing to “protect the players from themselves.”
CTE is known to be the result of continued blows to the head and is only diagnosable after death, said The Times. During life, sufferers may experience, said The Times, memory loss, impulsive desires, mood swings, and addiction. Over 20 now-dead former NFL players and a number of boxers have been diagnosed with CTE posthumously, said The Times, noting that the disease wreaked havoc on their final years. Since Boorgaard’s death, two other NHL enforcers died from alleged suicides.