After the death of New York Rangers' enforcer Derek Boogaard from a toxic mixture of oxycodone and alcohol last spring, Boogaard's family donated his brain to the Sports Legacy Institute at Boston University. The results of the examination showed that Boogaard's brain showed surprisingly advanced signs of Chronic Traumatic Encephalophay, or CTE. Found in boxers, football players and hockey players, CTE is a degenerative disease similar to Alzheimer's. Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist at SLI who has examined the brains of over 80 athletes, tells the Times: "To see this amount? That a 'wow' moment."
The paper's series of films and articles on Boogaard document the player's rise from a hard-working fighter in Canada's Western Hockey League to a depressed enforcer for the Rangers, fighting an addiction to painkillers and struggling to live up to the reputation of the "most feared" player in hockey that he had earned. CTE "is believed to be caused by repeated blows to the head," and "scientists say it shows itself in symptoms like memory loss, impulsiveness, mood swings, even addiction." As an enforcer, Boogaard did little else other than get in bare-knuckled fights with other enforcers. Had he lived to grow older, doctors at SLI say "his condition likely would have worsened into middle-aged dementia."
Gary Bettman, the National Hockey League's commissioner, isn't convinced that there's a link between CTE and hockey. “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."
The league has banned blindside hits to the head and requires teams to examine concussed players in a "quiet room" away from the bench, but has no plans to end fighting. Betteman says, "If you polled our fans, probably more would say they think it’s a part of the game and should be retained." Two other NHL enforcers reportedly committed suicide in August.
Chris Nowinski, another director of SLI and a former Harvard football player, wants sports leagues to take action to protect their players from CTE. "They are trading money for brain cells."