Dead Hockey Hulks' Brains Contain Addiction Clue

By Jed Bickman 09/07/11

The brains of recently-deceased NHL "enforcers" show a link between repeated beatings to the head and fatal addiction and depression.

Bob Probert had 246 fights on the ice. Photo via

This summer saw the tragic early deaths of three National Hockey League "enforcers": Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak. Their role was to dish out—and take—big hits on the ice. Boogaard, who played for the New York Rangers, died of a fatal combination of painkillers and alcohol, both of which were addictive problems for him. His brain went to a neurosurgeon at Boston University, Robert Cantu, who has studied the brains of other athletes who took repeated beatings in the head. Although the results from Boogaard’s brain aren’t ready, Cantu has found evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in almost all his deceased subjects who suffered from addiction, depression and anxiety, including Bob Probert, who was rated the best enforcer in hockey history in 2007. CTE is a degenerative brain disease caused by blunt impacts to the head and—because it affects the relevant areas of the brain—it can cause addiction and depression. “Anytime I hear of an athlete who has had a lot of head trauma who commits suicide, I am immediately concerned that chronic traumatic encephalopathy may have played a role,” Cantu said. CTE is a growing concern in both the NHL and the NFL. The NFL announced in 2009 that it would collaborate with Cantu’s program at the Boston University School of Medicine. Since then, another researcher at BU, Ann McKee, has found CTE in all eleven autopsies of NFL players that she has performed: “I have only seen this unique pattern of change with this severity in individuals with a history of repetitive head trauma.”


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Jed Bickman is a journalist and copywriter living in the greater New York City area. He is the associate editor at The New Press. You can find him on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.