Niagara Gazette


October 5, 2011

Sabres' Martin suffered from neurological disease

BUFFALO — Sabres legend Rick Martin had Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative disease linked to repeated brain trauma, when he died of heart disease at age 59 in March, researchers at Boston University have determined.

All three former NHL players to have their brains studied post-mortem had the condition, although the other two — Reggie Fleming and Bob Probert — were rugged enforcers. Martin, a skill player with 384 career goals, rarely fought.

Martin had Stage 2 of the disease — 4 is the most severe — which likely didn’t affect his cognitive abilities or behavior, the University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy found. CTE can only be diagnosed by examining brain tissue after death.

His only known concussion came in a 1977 game in which he hit his head on the ice and went into convulsions. He played his final four seasons with a helmet.

“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, the CSTE co-director and CEO of the Sports Legacy Institute, said in a statement. “We hope decision makers at all levels of hockey consider this finding as they continue to make adjustments to hockey to make the game safer for participants.”

All three players were diagnosed by Dr. Ann McKee, the director of the world’s largest CTE Brain Bank in Bedford, Va.

Fleming, who played on the Sabres’ inaugural 1970-71 team, died at age 73 in 2009. He suffered from dementia, and had shown worsening behavioral and cognitive difficulties for 30 years, the university reported. Probert died of heart disease at age 45 last year.

Martin, a two-time 52-goal scorer and a beloved winger on the Sabres’ famed French Connection line with Gilbert Perreault and Rene Robert, only accumulated 477 penalty minutes in 685 NHL games. By comparison, Probert had 3,300 in 935 games and Fleming 1,468 in 749 contests.

Dr. Robert Cantu, a concussion expert and CSTE co-director, said it was “scientifically interesting” Martin, whose brain was donated after he died, had only developed Stage 2 at age 59.

“By that age most cases in our brain bank have advanced to stage three of four,” Cantu said in a statement. “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.”

The CTSE Brain Bank has 96 specimens, including the brain of former NHL enforcer Derek Boogard, who died earlier this year at age 28. His case hasn’t been completed.

McKee has studied the brains of over 70 former athletes, and more than 50 have shown signs of CTE, including 14 of 15 former NFL players. High school and college football and hockey players, boxers and professional wrestlers have also been examined.

More than 500 living athletes, including over a dozen former hockey players, plan to donate their brains to the university.

The Martin family went public with the findings because they believed Rick Martin would’ve wanted to raise awareness of the dangers of brain trauma in sports.

Martin died suddenly on March 13 while driving in Clarence, a few weeks after the French Connection reunited to surprise Terry Pegula before his first game as Sabres owner.

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