The NHL And CTE
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Several years ago, Charles Tator was in Vancouver for an NHL hockey game. He had a personal connection to one of the players. It was his friend Paul Montador's son, Steve, and Steve even scored a goal.
CHARLES TATOR: And after the game, Paul introduced me to his son. And he said, well, Doc, if you want my brain, you can have it. And, you know, that chilling episode came to pass because a few years later, he died. And his brain got sent to our center.
GREENE: Our center - Charles Tator, you see, is a neurosurgeon. And he studied the brain of his friend's late son, and it tested positive for CTE - chronic traumatic encephalopathy. This brain disease can be life altering. It can cause depression and violent behavior. CTE has been linked to concussions, and it's made news because so many deceased NFL players tested positive. It is not just football, though. Steve Montador and other hockey players have had CTE, as well.
Last year, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman denied the link between concussions and CTE and said he's not going to be guided by, quote, "media hype." But Dr. Charles Tator has joined others in urging the NHL to take brain injuries more seriously. Tator played hockey himself and says the sport's more violent than it used to be.
TATOR: The players are bigger. They weigh more. They're taller so that they can skate faster. They can run faster than we ever did. And so, the forces on the brain have increased over the years. And I think we have to make changes in those sports to account for these physical changes, or else we're going to kill our sports.
GREENE: So in football, I mean, the NFL has set new rules with fines and penalties for head-to-head collisions. A lot of people involved in football are studying new kinds of helmets. Are these the kinds of things that you're calling for the NHL to do?
TATOR: The measures that can be taken are many. Some are very easy like eliminating fighting. But fighting only accounts for a small fraction of the injuries, so we have to do other things. For example, we have to get rid of elbow shots to the head. Deliberate elbows and shoulders impacting on the helmeted head mean concussion.
GREENE: Gary Bettman, the NHL commissioner, has raised doubts about the link between concussions and CTE. Is there any room for doubt?
TATOR: For sure, we don't have all the answers. There is no doubt CTE occurs in NHL players. That is a fact. What we don't know is how many of them are going to get CTE. Just because you've been concussed, doesn't mean automatically that you are going to get CTE. We've learned that. And that's one of the mysteries of who's going to get it and who's not going to get it.
GREENE: Well, there are some people who would say that football without hard hits is not football. Hockey without the hits is not hockey. So what can the NHL do to remain relevant and popular and also protect its players?
TATOR: I don't think we have to see blood on the ice to attract fans. There are many fans who want to see hockey for the beauty of the sport, for the team play, for the speed. All of those things can be maintained without the violence that does lead to injuries like concussion.
GREENE: We've been talking to Dr. Charles Tator. He's a neurosurgeon and director of the Krembil Neuroscience program at the Canadian Concussion Centre in Toronto. Dr. Tator, thanks so much for your time.
TATOR: You're very welcome.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.