One of the doctors who examined former NHLer Steve Montador’s brain after his death in February said the damage to Montador’s brain was “extensive” and “florid.” And those findings will undoubtedly be used as key evidence in the lawsuit Montador’s family plans to file against the NHL within the next month.
Dr. Charles Tator, the project director at the Canadian Sports Concussion Project, to which Montador agreed to donate his brain, said the damage was not the worst he’s seen in the 16 brains of former athletes who had multiple concussions the project has examined, but the chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) found in Montador’s brain was extensive and would have gotten worse had Montador lived longer. Montador was found dead in his Toronto home Feb. 15 at the age of 35, but an official cause of death has not been determined.
“It was in several locations in his brain and it was extensive,” Tator said. “In other words, there wasn’t just a touch of this problem. He had definite CTE.”
Tator said there were a number of areas in Montador’s brain where there was the presence of an abnormal protein called phosphorylated tau. The tau protein is normally present in nerve cells, but this form of tau only exists when there has been trauma. It gets deposited in nerve cells and supporting cells in the brain. Tator said this does not happen to everyone who receives multiple concussions, but when it occurs, it always appears in multiple parts of the brain.
“It does explain some of the symptoms he had experienced,” Tator said. “Some people who have the frontal part of the brain affected or the memory brain affected have specific symptoms like depression and difficulties with recent memory and some inconsistency in behavior. Those features of CTE he had clinically.”
William Gibbs, the lawyer for Montador’s family, confirmed that a lawsuit will be launched against the NHL, but he is not certain yet whether it will be an independent one or part of the consolidated lawsuits that have been filed against the NHL already. Gibbs’ law firm, Corboy & Demetrio in Chicago, is also representing the family of former NHLer Derek Boogaard, who died of an accidental overdose in 2011.
But unlike Boogaard, no official cause of death has been determined yet for Montador. Boogaard’s family is suing the NHL for wrongful death, claiming the brain damage Boogaard suffered while playing in the NHL led to his addiction to painkillers. Tator said CTE, in and of itself, does not cause death. Nor does it directly lead to any other things that would cause death, such as a heart attack or stroke. And while the results of the autopsy have not been made public, police said at the time of Montador's death that foul play was not suspected and he appeared to have died of natural causes. So what exactly will the Montador family be alleging in its lawsuit?
“I’m not prepared yet to talk about the specific allegations,” Gibbs said. “I guess, stay tuned.”
In a statement released by Gibbs’ office, Montador’s father Paul said: “The finding of widespread CTE in Steven’s brain helps us all better understand that his brain was ravaged by disease and he was unable to control it. Through hard work and dedication, Steven achieved his big dream of playing professional hockey in the NHL. He always knew that there might be black eyes, broken bones and soft tissue injuries – but he never anticipated that playing the game he loved would result in such devastating impairment of his brain function. CTE changed everything.”
Gibbs said the damages Montador’s family are seeking “are significant, obviously,” but have yet to be determined. It has also not been decided whether or not the lawsuit will be filed in Canada or the United States. But he said the losses both to Montador and his family have been substantial.
“For (Steve Montador’s) son, it’s a lifetime of never having met his father (Montador's partner gave birth to a boy four days after Montador's death) and for Steve’s father and siblings, it’s a lifetime of grief and loss of a loved one,” Gibbs said. “It’s horrible. It’s a really horrible, tragic case.”
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in a statement that the league is not responsible for Montador's death. “The NHL family shares in the sorrow of one of our own losing his life prematurely, and our thoughts, condolences and prayers remain with Steve’s family and friends," Daly said in an email to thn.com. "However, we do not agree that the reports and allegations made today establish any link between Steve’s death and his NHL career.”
While the allegations have not yet been made public, Montador’s case is expected to be centered around how Montador’s concussion problems were managed by the teams for which he played and how teams should have taken more care in treating them. It’s believed one of the family’s contentions will be that Montador felt he was pressured to play, thereby keeping his place in the lineup, when he was still suffering from the effects of a concussion and was not healthy enough to play.
Both Gibbs and Tator said Montador’s death is another wake-up call for the NHL when it comes to preventing and managing concussions. “It should be another notch upward in our level of concern about concussions in hockey,” Tator said. “There’s a lot that could be done that needs to be looked at more carefully. There’s a whole range of prevention issues that this case indicates needs to be attended to.”