Hockey's relationship with CTE must change

09:00 AM EST
min - read
Amanda McGee
09:00 AM EST
min - read

Hockey and CTE walk side-by-side

Hockey is renowned for being a fast-paced, physical game. However, the physicality of the game has increased concerns over the possible linkage between hockey and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

CTE is a brain disease that is associated with repetitive head impacts and brain injuries. It is often linked to athletes who play high-contact sports. CTE is known to progressively deteriorate one’s memory and cognition functions, decision making, impulse control, in addition to increasing risk-taking behaviour, depression, suicidal behavior, and aggressiveness.

In a 2022 Boston University study that involved evaluating the brains of 74 hockey players, CTE had been detected in over half of the participants. All of the participants aged between 13-91 had played hockey at various levels.

The participants had agreed to donate their brains for research, as CTE can only be diagnosed after death during an autopsy, and 40 out of the 74 people examined had CTE.

Researchers concluded that the odds of developing CTE increase by 23 percent for each additional year of playing hockey.

“While the absolute risk for ice hockey players of developing CTE is still unknown, it may be concerning to athletes and their families that we found each year of ice hockey play may increase the odds of developing CTE by 23 per cent,” said Jesse Mez, Boston University Director of Alzheimer’s Disease Center Clinical Core and CTE Center Investigator.

“I think there should be a desire to help to address the health and safety of players," said Mez.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has made statements in the past that deny the suggestion that NHL players can develop CTE by playing.

“We listen to the medical opinions on CTE, and I don't believe there has been any documented study that suggests that elements of our game result in CTE,” Bettman told NPR’s Morning Edition host A Martinez in April.

NHL agent Allan Walsh is widely known for advocating for players on matters of player safety. Walsh is currently a member of the Concussion Legacy Foundation’s National Advisory Board, a volunteer-led team that consists of sports, business, and medical leaders.

While it may be nearly impossible to eliminate head contact in the sport entirely, Walsh encourages the NHL to enforce stricter rules on hits.

“We need to make the game safer for players by reducing the amount of blows to the head,” Walsh tweeted on May 22.

While Bettman continues to maintain his belief that there is no definitive link between CTE and playing professional hockey, players will continue to be at risk of sustaining serious injury.

During the 2022-23 regular season and playoffs, Nicolas Aube-Kubel, Jamie Oleksiak, and Michael Bunting were fined for illegal checks to the head.

For the safety of hockey players at all levels internationally, it is crucial that they are educated on player safety and aware of the potential risk of attaining CTE during their careers.

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