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May we have your brain?

Bruins forward Marc Savard is one of several NHL players who have suffered concussions and missed...

Bruins forward Marc Savard is one of several NHL players who have suffered concussions and missed close to a season or more. (AFP/Getty Images)

CHRIS STEVENSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 3:51 PM ET

National Hockey League players receive many requests.

For autographs, for a stick, for their time.

Dr. Charles Tator has one now they have probably not heard.

One of Canada's foremost experts on concussions wants their brains.

Tator is heading up a new study at Toronto Western Hospital into chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or, basically, the long-term effects of concussions. Tator has rounded up about a dozen of Canada's foremost experts, neurosurgeons like himself, a neuropathologist, neurologists, a team physician and psychiatrist to grow the body of knowledge to treat what has become a crisis at all levels of the game.

"We're anxious to answer the questions we have and we want the players to know this study is up and running and examining this condition in Canada," said Tator, who founded ThinkFirst (thinkfirst.ca), a national brain and spinal cord injury foundation whose mission is to reduce the incidence of these catastrophic injuries in Canadian sport.

Tator and his group would like to explore the long-term effects of concussions in the hockey community. For that, they want hockey players to will their brains to the study.

A similar project at Boston University has been focusing largely on football, examining 17 brains of former NFLers and one NHLer, Reggie Fleming, revealing CTE is a degenerative disease similar to Alzheimer's. It can lead to personality changes and dementia.

Interestingly, the first brain donated to the Toronto Western study is that of former Canadian Football League player Jay Roberts.

Tator said he is hoping that as hockey players learn of this study, they will donate their brains so that those following behind will benefit from the information gleaned from the study.

Concussions have reached staggering proportions in the NHL and show no signs of abating. There have been 33 concussions sustained this season by NHL players as of Dec. 1, the same number as last year at the same time, according to Dr. Reuben Echemendia, the league's neuropsychologist. That's despite the introduction of Rule 48 this season, introduced to penalize and ultimately reduce the number of blindside hits where the principle contact is with the head.

There's also the chance there are players who have been concussed, but hid the symptoms and were not reported.

"Our track record is strong on this," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told the QMI Agency. "We don't have a problem with conservative treatment. We're focusing on being conservative in treating concussions and if the number of reported concussions is going up, I think part of it is our doctors are doing a better job of diagnosing concussions."

There is not a more potentially debilitating or potentially-life altering injury than a concussion. Long-term headaches, depression and -- as revealed in the Boston University study -- profound personality changes or even dementia can be the devastating result.

And, for the most part, no one can tell concussed players exactly what to expect from the experience, how long they will be out or how long they will suffer from the crushing symptoms.

The frustration for the player can be overwhelming because of the incredibly wide disparity in the severity of symptoms and recovery time, never mind contemplating those long-term ramifications.

"A study at the University of Montreal showed that even one concussion can have permanent, long-term effects," Tator said. "Other players can have five or even 10 without significant permanent effects. The susceptibility to getting permanent deficits varies terrifically."

San Jose Sharks defenceman Dan Boyle counts himself among the lucky ones.

He's heard the stories of players such as Boston Bruin Marc Savard, Minnesota Wild forward Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Florida Panther David Booth, players who all suffered concussions and missed close to a season or more. Paul Kariya, whose concussion issues are well known, is taking a season away from the game to try and recover. Colorado's Peter Mueller hasn't played a game this season as he grapples with post-concussion syndrome.

"I took a hit in Buffalo -- on a scale of 1-10, it would have been a 10 -- and I did not have a clue. I had no idea who I was, the time of day or the city I was in," said Boyle of the hit in December, 2003. "The short-term effects were awful, but I only missed four games. I look at that hit and wonder how I was able to come back."

Tator and his team want to answer that question and many others, but to do that, the members need to establish relationships now with the players who are willing to donate their brains for the study.

"There is a mechanism in place for people willing to donate...we would want to examine the patient and want the clinical research if they have already been examined," Tator said. "We would want the results of neurological tests, MRI tests and any neurological assessments that had been done. We want to make sure we have all the information we can get."

There has been a lot of progress in the understanding and treatment of concussions.

But getting a handle on concussions at ths point is like trying to hit a moving target.

"A concussion is an evolving injury," said Dr. Mark Aubry, the chief medical officer for the International Ice Hockey Federation and a member of the International Olympic Committee's Medical Commission. "It could be different in 12-24 hours."

But researchers have begun steadying their sights.

"Where we are now relative to where we were 10 years ago is night and day," Echemendia said. "I think that 10 years ago there was a lot of misconceptions and I think that it's beginning to change now. I think that people are beginning to realize how truly complex this injury can be."

"The precison of diagnosis and the guidelines for treatment in the acute phase have all been improved. If you go see a doctor in Vancouver now that doctor should be saying almost the same thing as a doctor in Dartmouth," Tator said.

He also pointed to ThinkFirst as an important resource for doctors, parents, coaches and players.

There has been progress.

But there's much more to be learned.

"The way I look at it, we are just at the beginning of a long-term study," Tator said. "It is not going to be over in a year or two, especially when we're talking about developing treatment. We are looking at 10 years on out."

But it's a start.

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