Bob Probert's Death May Spark Safety Changes in the NHL

Russ GodekContributor IIIMarch 3, 2011

Bob Probert
Bob ProbertJim Prisching/Getty Images

Bob Probert was one of the toughest players to ever lace 'em up and was a fan favorite to many.

Last year, on July 5th, 2010, Probert collapsed on a boat and did not regain consciousness. The former NHL player suffered from heart failure. Probert was 45.

Probert’s family donated his brain, per his request, to science after his passing in hopes of finding answers.

Probert's wife, Dani, said she hoped scientists would be able to analyze his brain. She was hoping to learn what, if anything, they could find on what impact concussions may have had on his brain and what role they may have played in his death.

Researchers at Boston University who studied Probert's donated brain said Thursday that Probert had the degenerative brain disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).

Probert is the first current era player to be diagnosed with CTE. The Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTSE) had previously diagnosed former player Reggie Fleming with CTE.

Fleming was a 1960s enforcer who played before helmets became mandatory.

This discovery will put even more focus on the current safety standards in the NHL and put heavy pressure on Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHL Vice President Colin Campbell.

With the recent injury to Sidney Crosby, and a year filled with more head injuries than usual, the NHL must take this matter seriously. Currently, the NHL is not letting this information impact any decisions they make.

"The findings are interesting and certainly something we'll add to a much broader body of knowledge," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told the Associated Press in an email. "But we're not going to react or make changes based on findings related to one player, especially when it's impossible to identify or isolate one of many variables that may have factored into the conclusions reached, and when there is no real 'control group' to compare his results to."

That statement seems to be a bit ignorant. Sure, Probert's passing and the recent diagnosis of CTE should not automatically mandate an entire overhaul to the game of hockey, but it should make the NHL do something.

Injuries, specifically head injuries, are on the rise. There has been much debate on whether the NHL should ban fighting and hand out stiffer penalties for players who deliver reckless, dangerous hits. This is not an issue that is going away anytime soon.

Should stiffer suspensions be given out to players who deliver these hits? Should fines be implemented in addition to the suspensions? Also, what constitutes an illegal hit to the head?

There seems to be a gray area right now regarding the head shot rule. The NHL must clarify the rule and set into place tougher sanctions.

An example of this is what the NFL did this past season. Hits to the head, as well as other injuries, were on the rise—most notably, concussions. The NFL starting handing out hefty fines and, in some cases, suspensions.

While the NFL did not take the best route in handling the matter, the effects spoke for themselves. Fewer players were being injured, and more players were holding up on their hits when they saw defenseless players.

We have seen some of this in the NHL since the head shot debate took center stage, but more still needs to be done. The news of Probert's diagnosis is sure to get the ball moving on changes that will be made, if any.

There is a NHL general manager's meeting occurring this spring, and the major topic of discussion will be head shots and the recent increase in injuries. Let's hope some progress is made from those talks.

"Bob told me he wanted to donate his brain to Boston University after learning about the research on 60 Minutes," his widow, Dani, said in a statement released by the institute. "His sole motivation was to make sports safer for our children. Bob was a great husband and father, and we miss him every day."

Probert was a feared hockey player who played the game tough, piling up 3,300 penalty minutes—fifth on the league's career list. Ultimately, he paid for this tough style with his life, much too early.

While fighting and hits to head may not have played any part in Probert's untimely passing, one thing is certain: The NHL needs to address the gigantic elephant in the room that is the concussion issue.