By Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Four deceased players – Reggie Fleming, Bob Probert, Rick Martin, Derek Boogaard. Four dissected brains. Four cases of degenerative brain disease, according to Boston University researchers. They have sounded the alarm about the potential consequences of concussions and repetitive brain trauma in the NHL, while sparking a debate about what we know, what we don't know and what we need to do.
A new study hopes to deepen our understanding of brain trauma by studying hundreds of athletes over a broad spectrum of sports, including professional hockey.
Researchers plan to follow players from high school to college to the pros, measuring their exposure to traumatic forces and their brain function along the way. They will keep following them into retirement, all the way to death.
Eventually researchers will have detailed data to compare athletes to each other – both women and men; from non-contact sports like swimming to contact sports like hockey – giving a clearer picture of a still cloudy issue.
"That's the ideal, to pick up athletes when they're that young and follow them over time," said Jeffrey Kutcher, a concussion expert and a founder of the study. "The scope of this is that the other primary investigators and I hope that this study outlives us, that this will provide a clearing house for all questions regarding the effects of trauma from playing sports on human brains."
The NCAA has awarded a $400,000 grant to the National Sport Concussion Outcomes Study, a consortium led by experts from four schools – Michigan, North Carolina, UCLA and the Medical College of Wisconsin. The money will go to the study of more than 1,000 athletes in 11 college sports, including hockey.
But that's just the beginning. Kutcher said the NSCOS is much larger, has more money lined up and will "definitely include professional athletes." Part of the study will involve NHL, NFL and NBA players.
Kutcher is an associate professor of neurology at Michigan and the chair of the sports neurology section of the American Academy of Neurology. He is an advisor to the NHL Players' Association and the director of the NBA concussion program.
"It's more than just a concept," Kutcher said. "We do have other funding sources identified and waiting to be engaged."
How would researchers identify hockey players early enough? Kutcher said researchers have talked to officials from the USA Hockey National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., home of the University of Michigan. The program feeds teenagers to college and the pros.
"They've expressed their willingness to get involved," Kutcher said.
Kutcher said the study is unique in its approach to "the questions we can answer only via a long-term study." How common is chronic traumatic encephalopathy? What are the risk factors? What is the rate of progression? What is the relationship between pathological changes in the brain to clinical symptoms? How do you separate CTE from other diseases like Alzheimer's and the natural aging of the brain?
But the study also has short-term goals. One example: By measuring brain function before a season and after a season, whether or not players suffered a concussion, researchers can study the effects of simply playing a season of hockey and compare that data to other sports.
And while researchers at BU, the NSCOS and elsewhere continue to do their scientific work, the NHL and NHLPA doctors continue to fine-tune their current concussion protocol. More changes could be coming soon.
"Obviously we need to continuously take stock in how we're doing as far as monitoring concussions and doing baseline testing," Kutcher said. "There should always be a revisiting of the quality of any program."
One, although the NHL has not been able to close a sale of the team that it bought out of bankruptcy 2-1/2 years ago – and although some see that as evidence a deal can't or won't be reached – the league has kept trying and trying and trying.
This is personal for NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly, who have been battling for this franchise for a long time. The league does not want to lose another large American market, believes the ownership uncertainty has contributed to the lack of fan support, and has people who are interested in the team – at least under the right circumstances.
The Phoenix Business Journal reported the NHL is trying to forge a sale to a group led by former San Jose Sharks CEO Greg Jamison, which could include the purchase of Jobing.com Arena from the city of Glendale.
A source told the PBJ the sale could hinge on whether "Glendale is willing to sell the arena for its current market value and not roll city debt related to the arena's construction into that price."
That would make sense. That would make this a real-estate deal, allowing the new ownership group to make money off more than a hockey team that has been constantly in the red – and allowing the city to keep the Coyotes and their economic impact while getting out of the arena business. At a cost, of course.
Two, although Seattle and Quebec City are attractive locations, they might be more attractive as expansion cities that could bring more lucrative expansion fees. Seattle could build an arena to lure NBA and NHL teams. Quebec City is breaking ground on a new arena in September and expects it to be completed in 2015.
If the potential owners in Quebec City want a team badly enough to build an arena now, imagine how badly they will want it after their arena is under construction – or when it is built and sitting empty. Imagine what they will pay for a team then. Imagine the leverage the NHL would have … well, assuming the league doesn't have another team to relocate.
Alexander Radulov has had little trouble adjusting to the NHL, despite spending the past four seasons in Russia and rejoining the Nashville Predators down the stretch. He had three goals and six points in six games entering Tuesday night, and though he didn't post a point against the Minnesota Wild, he scored the lone goal in the shootout and gave the Preds a 2-1 victory.
"He's been one of our best players," said Nashville GM David Poile.
When Radulov arrived last month, coach Barry Trotz went over how the NHL had changed since he had left. The forecheck is harder than before. The defensemen pinch more than they did before. Systems are less passive and more aggressive about taking away time and space.
"I see that all the time," Radulov told Trotz.
He had been watching the NHL, the Predators in particular. He had to tweak some things, like not coming so deep on the breakout on the smaller North American ice surface. He had to click with his teammates, telling them where to be when he makes little saucer passes around the net. But that's about it.
"It's small, small things," said winger Patric Hornqvist. "It's no problem at all."
Said Trotz: "He's pretty bright when it comes to the game and understanding what he can do and what he can't do. And he's one of those gifted guys. He's made some plays where you go, 'Wow. That's [Pavel] Datsyuk-like.' His vision and his hands and stuff like that. He's transitioned quite well actually."
Radulov was 22 when he left. He is almost 26 now. He's bigger and stronger. He's more patient and confident, having blossomed into a two-time MVP in the KHL. He's comfortable in a front-line role.
"He's four years older," Poile said. "Just like all other younger players, you always hope that they're going to get better and mature both as hockey players and people. For me, he's both. He's certainly a more mature player, understands the team game a lot better. He's got high-end talent, so it's a real bonus for us to get him this late in the year."
Ringing around the Detroit dressing room, high above the players' stalls, there are black-and-white photos of Red Wings legends. Every so often one of those legends will show up in the flesh and insert himself into the current picture – Alex Delvecchio, Ted Lindsay, Gordie Howe.
"They've got a tattoo on them for life," said Wings coach Mike Babcock. "They're proud Red Wings, and they should be."
One story: A few years ago, Howe, who turned 84 on Saturday, attended a game the Wings lost. He came down to the room afterward and saw Babcock.
"Coach, I don't know if you know this," Howe told him. "During the game, someone was laughing on the bench, and you guys were down, 3-2."
Babcock started to ask who it was. Howe cut him off.
"No, don't worry about it," he said. "I already looked after it."
Babcock smiled at the memory.
"I thought that was good enough," Babcock said.
Well, not exactly.
Asked who it was, Babcock just smiled again, kept quiet and walked away. But then he said back over his shoulder, "They're not here anymore."
Now that the playoffs are nearly upon us, we're shaking up the format for NHL Power Rankings. No more top six, bottom six. It's time for the top 10.
1. Vancouver Canucks: They had won seven straight entering Thursday night, and they might be better prepared for the playoffs than they were last season when they ran away with the Presidents' Trophy and came within a game of the Stanley Cup. Roberto Luongo will – and should – start Game 1 in goal. But Cory Schneider is a terrific Plan B.
2. New York Rangers: Good sign for the playoffs: Big center Brian Boyle, a third-liner with 10 goals this season, has scored four times in seven games. For the Rangers to make a long run, they're going to need secondary scoring to support Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards.
3. St. Louis Blues:Alex Steen looks fully recovered after missing 39 games with a concussion. He's physical. He's engaged. And he can add offensive punch in the playoffs. He has 14 goals in 41 games this season – a 28-goal pace – and is plus-25.
4. Pittsburgh Penguins: Call him a goody two shoes. Call him a punk. But Sidney Crosby has 34 points in 20 games this season, amid two long absences. He has posted multiple points in more than half of his games. Sticks and stones …
5. Detroit Red Wings: Not only did the Wings rally to beat the Blues on Wednesday night – scoring two late goals against the league's stingiest team, then swiping a 3-2 shootout victory – some key players looked good coming off of injuries. Pavel Datsyuk was passing like a wizard. Johan Franzen was scoring big goals. Jimmy Howard was doing the splits in the crease. Just in time.
6. Philadelphia Flyers: Amazing that the Flyers failed to pick up a single point in six games against the Rangers this season (0-6-0). Just as amazing: Entering Saturday's season finale, the Flyers haven't lost in Pittsburgh since the opening of the Penguins' new arena last season (5-0-0).
7. Nashville Predators:Pekka Rinne didn't dress Tuesday night against the Minnesota Wild because of an undisclosed illness. Whether he was actually sick or not, he needed the rest. He has started 71 games this season, four more than any other goaltender going to the playoffs.
8. Boston Bruins:Tim Thomas has needed his rest, too, and he has gotten it even with Tuukka Rask recovering from a groin injury. Marty Turco filled in for four starts. Anton Khudobin was scheduled to start Thursday night against the Ottawa Senators, and he will be the backup in the playoffs until Rask returns.
9. New Jersey Devils: Riding a four-game winning streak, the Devils had every reason to lose entering their final two games. They could finish no worse than sixth in the East, pitting them against a third seed from the weak Southeast Division. Why try to pass the fifth-place Flyers so they could face the Penguins in the first round?
10. Chicago Blackhawks:Patrick Kane continues to excel at center, so it will be interesting to see what the Blackhawks do when captain Jonathan Toews returns from his concussion. Why not keep Kane at center and create matchup problems for their playoff opponents?
PLUS: The NHLPA is close to finalizing its negotiating committee for collective bargaining. Each team will have a mini negotiating committee. Then there will be the main negotiating committee of about 30-35 players. That is in addition to the executive board, comprised of the player reps from each of the 30 teams.
MINUS: The best guess is that collective bargaining won't start until June 1 – maybe late May, maybe early June, somewhere around there – when more players will be available to participate. That seems to cut it close, with the current labor agreement expiring on Sept. 15. But both sides have insisted they have plenty of time, and these things are deadline-driven, anyway.
PLUS:Hal Gill's size never slumps. The defenseman will stand 6-foot-7 and weigh 241 pounds throughout the Predators' playoff run. "I think the great thing about being big is, you're big every shift, not once in a while," said Wings coach Mike Babcock. "You're not always good, but you're big every shift."
MINUS: Opponents can use Gill's size against him, though. That's a lot of mass to move. "He's a good player without the puck, and he defends well," said an NHL scout. "But every shift he was on the ice [one night], the puck was in his end the whole time and he spent the whole time defending. The reason being, he couldn't get to loose pucks, and he couldn't get the puck transitioned going the other way."
PLUS: Wouldn't it be sweet to see Tampa Bay Lightning star Steven Stamkos score twice Thursday night to reach 60 goals in his hometown of Toronto? Even Maple Leafs fans should enjoy it. He's a local boy. They haven't had much to watch at the Air Canada Centre lately, and the Leafs are better off falling into the draft lottery.
MINUS: Now that the Calgary Flames have missed the playoffs three years in a row, it's time to make some hard decisions. See if Jarome Iginla will accept a trade. Same with Miikka Kiprusoff. Keeping this core together is not going to get it done, and the Flames badly need to restock their system.
"Bertuzzi is the one of the best arguments for shootouts. Always fun to watch."
Even if you're opposed to shootouts on principle, you've got to love the tension when the Red Wings' Todd Bertuzzi picks up the puck at center ice – sometimes going waaaaay wide, sometimes going oh-so-slooooowly – then uses his quick hands to beat the goalie. Pavel Datsyuk is all about imagination. Todd Bertuzzi is all about anticipation.