Ex-NHLers putting their brains together

NHL hockey legend, Gordie Howe, center signs autographs for John Viau, left and his son, Migel,...

NHL hockey legend, Gordie Howe, center signs autographs for John Viau, left and his son, Migel, right during the Scotiabank NHL Fan Fair at the Ottawa Convention Centre January 2012. (DARREN BROWN/QMI Agency)

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 5:46 PM ET

NHLers who used to get bones broken when taking one for the team are now putting their heads together for a ground breaking study.

Baycrest health centre in Toronto, an innovations leader in brain health and aging, has begun assembling 100 former players of varying birthdates to track brain functions in a three to five year period and compare it to males in mainstream occupations. Ex-Leaf defenceman Mike Pelyk, who is helping Gordie Howe and others launch this May’s Scotiabank Pro-Am hockey tournament for Alzheimer’s, will be in the first test group.

Hockey’s concussion ‘epidemic’ and the possible relation to behavioural changes, has put a new emphasis on the work Baycrest does,

“They’ll probably tell me ‘hey Mike, you’ve lost a few marbles,’” the 64-year-old Pelyk quipped on Thursday. “But it will serve as a benchmark for players who have these types of injuries, and are going through the aging process, versus someone who virtually sat in a chair for 50 years and worked at a desk.”

Brian Levine, a senior scientist at Baycrest’s Rotman Institute and a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, has already begun fairly intensive testing with five to 10 subjects.

“We’re looking at brain health and brain function,” Levine said. “We’re putting these guys through tests for memory, comparing their reactions, scanning their brains, looking at structural changes. We have a functional MRI that shows changes in blood flow and an EEG (for spontaneous electrical activity). Bottom line, it’s very thorough.”

When comparing the players to the average Joes, factors such as diet and exercise will be considered.

The Pro-Am tournament, which allows pick-up teams to draft NHL stars based on how much donation money they raise, hopes to contribute $2.8 million on top of $16 million already directed to Baycrest, through the Gordie and Colleen Howe Fund for Alzheimer’s.

Colleen died of Pick’s disease, a form of dementia, in 2009. The 84-year-old Gordie does not have the same condition but has been slowed by a ‘mild cognitive impairment’ according to son Marty, who says various concussions played a role.

“I can just about guarantee it,” Marty said. “It was his first year in the league, when he went head-first into the boards and they had to drill a hole in the side of his head to relieve the pressure off his brain. It’s like when you break your arm when you’re 12. At 30, it’s going to hurt you later. It’s the same thing with your brain.

“I know he’s had other concussions (a teammate once felled him in the back of the head with a hard clearing pass), You play 33 years at that level without a helmet and things are going to happen.

“I remember one concussion I had. A shot broke my cheekbone and I had the obvious signs,” Marty continued. “But you can get in a fight, have some damage to your brain and it won’t even show up for a couple of weeks. In the old days when Gordie played, you got hit (in the head) and you went back out there.”

Gordie Howe no longer gives live interviews but enjoys meeting old friends.

“He enjoys people and loves getting out,” Marty said. “He’ll be with us for a long time.”


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