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Sunday hockey notes

Probert continues to put a scare into people

By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / March 6, 2011

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The news out of the Boston University School of Medicine last week about Bob Probert and his damaged, diseased brain added yet another grave layer of concern about head injuries in hockey.

Probert was first and foremost a fighter, among the most menacing, even frightening, brawlers the game ever has seen. Even some of us who like the game served up with, shall we say, a burned crust, shielded our eyes slightly when the 6-foot-3-inch wild-eyed forward went all “Probie’’ on someone.

“In that era,’’ mused Bruins tough guy Shawn Thornton, “I don’t think anyone was more respected [as a fighter] than him. People forget, because he was tough, that he was actually an All-Star one year. He had 31 goals [actually, 29 with the 1987-88 Red Wings] and he was a pretty good hockey player, too. But scary, scary tough.

“I don’t know about [the BU study], but he was a great guy and I can’t say enough good things about him.’’

“He was a guy,’’ added Boston brawler Milan Lucic, “who went all-out every time.’’

For those who didn’t see Probert before his career ended with the Blackhawks in the spring of 2002, his line reads: 935 games, 384 points, and 3,300 penalty minutes. Without question, the PIMs reflect his greatest asset. He ranks fifth on the all-time list, behind Tiger Williams (3,966), Dale Hunter (3,565), Tie Domi (3,515), and Marty McSorley (3,381). Given where the game is today, no one ever is going to challenge that Mount Rushmore of maulers.

Concerned by the growing knowledge about sports-related head injuries, Probert arranged for his brain to be donated to BU’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. He died of a heart attack July 5, 2010, at age 45, and BU announced last week that his brain indeed showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy — believed to be caused, at least in part, by repeated brain trauma consistent with that in contact sports.

Probert and ex-Bruin Reggie Fleming (1,468 PIMs) are the only two NHLers on the BU Center’s ever-lengthening list of professional athletes to be diagnosed with CTE.

It’s fairly easy to connect the dots, right? Hockey players and other athletes who put their brains out there for the sake of competition and paycheck can be left to pay the piper. It is frightening and heartbreaking.

Your faithful puck chronicler grew up within walking distance of the VA Hospital in Bedford, where today the CTE brain bank is located. As kids in the early ’60s, we would see first hand the wounded soldiers from World War II and Korea and the many ways — brain injuries included — that combat had left them broken. Some of the athletes who have donated their brains to the BU study no doubt have suffered symptoms similar to those veterans.

There have been some 75-85 reported concussions per season in the NHL in recent years, and evidence, anecdotal and otherwise, suggests that lately there has been an uptick in the number of players who sustain concussions in fights.

Thornton, who has amassed 3,087 PIMs as a pro (AHL and NHL combined), is among the game’s most agreeable, approachable players, but on Friday he politely dismissed out of hand questions linking fights and concussions.

“I don’t want to talk about it,’’ he said, mumbling an expletive and then using his left fist to rap lightly on the wooden bench he sat on in the dressing room in Wilmington. “I really don’t.’’

And why not?

“It is something that I don’t want to think about — ever,’’ he said. “My job is tough enough as it is. I don’t need to be thinking about that stuff out there.’’

As for the story about Probert, he said, “I didn’t read it. I saw the headline on AOL when I checked my e-mail, and it said he had a degenerative brain disorder . . .

“Yeah, no comment.’’

Lucic, some 11 years younger than Thornton, is only 366 PIMs into his pro career, after 398 in his three seasons of junior. He is one of the game’s young fire-eaters, comparable in size (6-4/220) to Probert and, when triggered to fight in full rage, a Probie-like spectacle. Woe to the opponent who gets the full “Loonie Looch’’ treatment. Much like Thornton, he truly enjoys fighting, a breed that is vanishing in today’s game.

“I think it is known more because the focus [currently] is on concussions and that type of stuff,’’ offered Lucic, when asked about the perceived increase in fighting-related concussions. “But I think guys have been dinged [forever]. And I also think guys now are being more cautious [about reporting and treatment] because they know what can happen to them, you know?

“Whereas, back in the day, a guy got hit in the head, he’d have a little headache — and maybe that’s a concussion — and the guy says, ‘Ah, screw it, I’ll just play through it.’ Now guys are more cautious about it.’’

Such cavalier attitudes about KOs have been discouraged for years by neurologists, at all levels of sports. Awareness about brain injuries has become an increasing focus in the youth and amateur ranks, not only among doctors but also trainers, coaches, teachers, school administrators, and parents.

But some sports — particularly football, hockey, and lacrosse — are inherently more likely to expose athletes to blows to the head. Today, athletes who reach the pro level of their sports have been told of the risks about concussive and subconcussive hits for at least a decade.

Lucic got rocked in a fight only once in junior, opening night in his second year with the Vancouver Giants.

“I came out of the first period and I didn’t know what was going on,’’ said Lucic, who was then 18. “But it was the first game of the season and I didn’t want to be on the shelf. So I played through it and it eventually went away.’’

Would he do the same thing now as a 22-year-old, with nearly four NHL seasons on his résumé?

“Probably not,’’ he said, “considering that I’ve had a couple since I’ve been up here that have been kind of scary.’’

One of those concussions, he said, was delivered by defenseman Bryan Berard, who caught him with a shoulder, Lucic not looking as he was making a cut.

“To this day,’’ he said, “I still don’t remember the hit, and I don’t remember coming to the rink that day, or leaving the rink — nothing.

“But you know, it’s funny, because [trainer] Don DelNegro says I was worse off than Savvy [Marc Savard] was from the [Matt] Cooke hit. He says I was totally out of it.

“But for some reason, after four days, I had no symptoms. I was all clear.’’

His other concussion on NHL duty, said Lucic, came in a fight, via what he described as a “sucker punch’’ from Anaheim’s Mike Brown two years ago.

“I don’t remember that situation either,’’ he said. “He caught me right on the chin and I ended up missing a week.

“I am fortunate enough that I happen to have, for some reason — knock on wood — I recover from them [quickly]. But it is something you definitely want to be careful about.’’

None of it, said Lucic, is enough to warn him off the way he plays or fights. He acknowledges the risks, but refuses to be scared off, noting that playing scared can only lead to more injury. He has watched some of Probert’s best battles on YouTube, and like Thornton, is an admirer.

“He got hit and he hit guys,’’ said Lucic. “And it just goes to show that it doesn’t matter who you are — you can be the best fighter in the world and you are going to get hit. If you fight 100 times, you are going to get hit and one is going to hurt you. So, not much more to say.’’

The fight game is not going away, at least not soon, and not likely ever. Meanwhile, the fine work by BU doctors and other scientists continues at the Bedford VA, on the very grounds where for decades some of our country’s bravest went to be fixed. All too often, their war wounds couldn’t be mended. For all NHL players and fighters who put themselves in harm’s way, let’s hope the education and answers keep coming.

KID STUFF
Young ones get answers On a recent visit to Butch Stearns’s new venture, thepulsenetwork.com, one could view a hilarious clip from the Blackhawks website in which “Joey the Junior Reporter’’ probes Chicago players on all relevant topics.

Joey is only 5 years old, so “relevant’’ is a bit broad in scope, as revealed in this exchange with defenseman Brian Campbell.

Joey: “Let’s talk about women.’’

Campbell: “No, I have a fiancee.’’

Joey: “Does she like your money or your looks?’’

Try the bratwurst, Hawks fans, Joey Jr. is here all night.

Meanwhile, some junior reporters, Grades 6-9, visited the Bruins dressing room Friday, where they interviewed the ever-gracious Zdeno Chara on his life and times.

A couple of interesting nuggets were revealed when Chara was asked about his role models while growing up in Slovakia and what career he might have pursued if he hadn’t hit it big in hockey.

Chara on role models: “I really enjoyed watching Michael Jordan. We had some footage from NBA games and he was my idol as I was growing up. Once I got older, and started to get into bicycling, it was Lance Armstrong. Now, when I got to know Dick Hoyt from Boston, he is also inspiring and influential. Just his story, the way he competed and the way he sacrificed for his family and his son, it was just unbelievable.’’

Chara on the career he would choose: “Oh, I would be a bodyguard. I don’t know what it is about it, but I would probably enjoy the whole exercise of being sharp, being always on your toes, being always ready.

“Even the training for it, to be able to read personalities or situations in a crowd, or traveling, or taking different routes or even you know, some skills, fighting or shooting. I think it would be very, very fun.’’

Joey the Junior Reporter and the 6-foot-9-inch Big Z have to meet. Done correctly, it plays big — and small — in each of the Original 30 rinks.

GETTING HIS HANDS DIRTY
A little fight in star rookie Edmonton rookie Taylor Hall is all done for the season (22-20—42 in 65 games) after sustaining an ankle sprain Thursday during a dustup with Blue Jackets forward Derek Dorsett (one of those little shift disturbers via the Western League). Hall, the top pick in last June’s draft, has looked like the real deal since opening night but had been especially “there’’ of late, going 5-3—8 in his last eight games. Oilers president Kevin Lowe said in a team-issued release Friday that he would prefer Hall not fight, but noted, “Very few players go their careers without the odd dustup, including Wayne [Gretzky], Mario [Lemieux], Sidney Crosby. Heck, even Jean Beliveau.’’ The 24-year-old Dorsett, in his third NHL season, has had 41 NHL fights (to Hall’s sole bout) and he had 25 in 2007-08 with AHL Syracuse. “There’s nothing in your contract,’’ said Hall, “that says you can’t fight and defend yourself.’’

More help on the way Even more good news for the red-hot Devils, who have gone an incredible 19-2-2 over the last two months and just may inch themselves into the postseason. Star winger Zach Parise, out since cartilage surgery on his right knee Nov. 2, skated Thursday. “Baby steps right now,’’ he told the Newark Star Ledger. If he can get in the lineup for, say, the last three weeks —perhaps for New Jersey’s visit here March 22 — Parise would have 10 games to get playoff-ready. Had they had even a mediocre start to the season, the Devils right now would have to be considered among the favorites to win the Cup. Crazy as it sounds, they might still win it.

Not a person of interest Word around Colorado is that the Bruins did not sniff around on Matt Hunwick’s availability in the hours leading up to Monday’s trade deadline. The ex-Bruin got off to a rocky start in the Rockies, but has played better of late (0-4—4 in nine games prior to last night).

Loose pucks Ex-Flyer Scottie Upshall was one of the household names moved Monday, dished from Phoenix to Columbus. Upshall is headed to the July 1 free agent market and is likely to get a hefty boost on his $2.25 million salary, although perhaps not from Columbus. He is only 27, and while not a big point producer (167 in 343 games), he has enough overall game that he should have numerous clubs looking to lock him in for three or four years. Watch Florida target him. But the better guess would be Los Angeles . . . Phil Kessel, 4-5—9 in his last five games, now looks like the key to the Leafs making a late surge to the playoffs. Of course, he was the key to all that when he arrived in TO in September 2009. But no question he has been at his NHL best the last couple of weeks and yesterday stood 27-22—49 in 65 games (a near mirror to Lucic’s 28-19—47 in 61 games). The turnaround? Coach Ron Wilson attributes it merely to confidence, but it looks more like chemistry. Kessel is paired again with center Tyler Bozak and winger Joffrey Lupul, acquired from the Ducks when the Leafs shipped defenseman Francois Beauchemin back to Anaheim . . . Great video clip out there of ex-Bruin Dennis Wideman, unable to gain entry back into the Washington dressing room upon finishing a TV interview. Wides briefly raps on the door, Fred Flintstone-like, then turns back to the camera, shrugs, and smiles. Can’t make it up.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com; material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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