Researchers studying the brain of seven-time all-star Rick Martin found damage consistent with the trauma they found in other former NHL players. The difference is Martin wasn’t a fighter.
Martin is the first non-enforcer who has been diagnosed with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy by researchers at a Boston University brain bank.
Martin died of a heart attack at the age of 59 in March. All three former NHL players who have donated their brains for research so far have been diagnosed with CTE, a neurodegenerative disease linked to repeated brain trauma.
Martin played 13 NHL seasons for the Buffalo Sabres and Los Angeles Kings. He scored 382 goals as part of the legendary “French Connection” line with Gilbert Perreault and Rene Robert.
“Rick Martin’s case shows us that even hockey players who don’t engage in fighting are at risk for CTE, likely because of the repetitive brain trauma players receive throughout their career,” said Chris Nowinski, a founder of the Sports Legacy Institute at BU. “We hope the decision makers at all levels of hockey consider this finding as they continue to make adjustments to hockey to make the game safer for participants.”
Further details of Martin’s brain tissue analysis will be released in a medical journal. But the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy said his family wanted the initial findings publicized “to raise awareness of the dangers of brain trauma in sports and encourage greater efforts to make sports safer for the brain.”
Dr. Ann McKee, who studied Martin’s brain, had previously found CTE in the brains of former NHL tough guys Bob Probert and Reggie Fleming. CTE can only be diagnosed after death.
Martin’s case was considered Stage 2 — with Stage 4 being the most severe — a stage unlikely to significantly affect his cognitive abilities or behaviour. But researchers said it was significant because he did not fight and his only known concussion occurred in 1977 when his head hit the ice while not wearing a helmet, causing immediate convulsions.
Martin began wearing a helmet after that injury and wore it for his next four years before retiring.
“I think that day was a real awakening for everybody. But it was also all for the good of the game, too,” Robert told The Associated Press in March after a memorial service for Martin in Buffalo. “I think when you get into that situation you realize that before anything starts to happen I need to start wearing one.”
Dr. Robert Cantu said most 59-year-olds who have been studied had more advanced CTE. It was not clear why Martin’s case was less severe, he said.
“We believe that repetitive brain trauma is a necessary factor for developing the disease, but not a sufficient factor,” said Robert Stern, a co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. “We now must learn why some people get the disease and others don’t and why CTE progresses more quickly and severely in some individuals than in others.”
The CSTE brain bank was founded in 2008 as a collaboration between BU, the Sports Legacy Institute and the Department of Veterans Affairs. It contains 96 specimens, including the brain of former NHL enforcer Derek Boogaard, who died this year at 28; results of that study are pending.
McKee has analysed more than 70 former athletes, and more than 50 have shown signs of CTE, including 14 of 15 former NFL players along with college and high school football players, hockey players, professional wrestlers and boxers. More than 500 living athletes have committed to donate their brains.
AP freelancer Bob Matuszak contributed to this story from Buffalo, N.Y.