NHL’s Rick Martin Had Repetitive Brain Trauma Disease When He Died at 59

Former Buffalo Sabres left wing Rick Martin, who died of a heart attack at age 59 in March, is the first National Hockey League non-enforcer diagnosed with the brain disease found in dozens of professional athletes.

Martin, who played on the Sabres’ “French Connection” line in the 1970s, was diagnosed with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, said yesterday in a news release.

He is the third former NHL player diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disease, which is linked to repeated brain trauma. Martin is the first who didn’t routinely engage in the fighting that’s common among NHL enforcers, who are responsible for protecting their own team’s stars and intimidating other teams’ players.

Former NHL players Bob Probert and Reggie Fleming previously were diagnosed with CTE. Probert was 45 when he died last year from heart disease following a 16-year NHL career that included 3,300 penalty minutes. Fleming, who died in 2009 at 73 with dementia, displayed 30 years of worsening behavioral and cognitive difficulties, the center said.

“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,” Chris Nowinski, a co-director of the center, said in a statement. “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.”

Nowinski is co-founder and president of the Sports Legacy Institute, which advocates for sports rules to reduce the risk of concussions. A football player at Harvard, he went on to World Wrestling Entertainment before a concussion forced him to retire in 2004.

Repeated Brain Trauma

CTE is a degenerative brain disorder caused by repeated brain trauma, including concussions and multiple blows to the head such as those in hockey and other contact sports.

The NHL has focused this preseason on penalizing players for hits to the head.

Martin’s brain was donated to the center after he died following a one-car accident in a suburb of Buffalo, New York. CTE can only be diagnosed by examining brain tissue post-mortem, and the center, which was founded in 2008, has accepted 96 specimens, including some from hockey players, football players, professional wrestlers and boxers.

Martin was selected by the Sabres with the fifth overall pick in the 1971 draft and set a then-NHL rookie record with 44 goals in his first season. He played on a line with center Gilbert Perreault and right wing Rene Robert that became known as the French Connection.

Over 11 NHL seasons, nine in Buffalo and two with the Los Angeles Kings, Martin scored 384 goals in 685 games. His only known concussion came in a 1977 game, after which he wore a helmet for his four remaining seasons. Helmets are now mandatory in the NHL.

‘Number of Variables’

With stage 4 CTE being the most severe, Martin had stage 2, which was unlikely to significantly affect his cognitive ability or behavior, the center said in its release.

“By that age most cases in our brain bank have advanced to stage 3 or 4,” said Robert Cantu, a center co-director and a clinical professor of neurosurgery. “There are a number of variables that we don’t yet understand that could account for this finding, such as lower lifetime exposure to brain trauma, later onset of the disease, genetic risk factors, among others.”

Among the specimens the center possesses is the brain of former New York Rangers enforcer Derek Boogaard, who died in May at age 28 of an accidental overdose of prescription drugs. Results from that case are pending.

With analysis of more than 70 former athletes completed, the center says it has found that more than 50 have shown signs of the disease, including 14 of 15 players from the National Football League.

To contact the reporter on this story: Mason Levinson in New York at mlevinson@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Sillup at msillup@bloomberg.net

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