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Blackhawk Great Reggie Fleming Cause of Death: Preventable

Jane Rickard

I'm nuts just ask anybody.

When Reggie Fleming died last July the cause of death was not announced. Instead, his son, Chris Fleming, sent his father's brain to Boston University for study. Throughout his life, Reggie Fleming had been dogged with mysterious ailments.

He was manic depressive in his 40's. There were short-term memory losses in his 50's. There was an inability to control his temper throughout his life.

The medical team's findings were chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE, a neurodegenerative disease with symptoms of cognitive decline, behavioral abnormalities and ultimately dementia. All of this may have been caused by concussions; so many during his 15-year professional hockey career that they are impossible to count. Fleming becomes the first hockey player to have been diagnosed with the disease, a diagnosis which can only be found through autopsy. It is certain he will not be the last.

Fleming's diagnosis of CTE opens the door for the National Hockey League and the players

association to have a serious look at the league's protocol for players returning after concussions. These protocols has been in place since 1998. In 1998 they were the first concussion protocols in professional sports. However, given the strides in neurological research a new look at the protocol is certainly in order.

Rules changes are also being looked at in the effort to reduce concussions as many are the result to back checks and shoulder hits. Last month a committee was formed to study the issue. A report from this committee is expected before the end of the season.

It is a good beginning but only a start, the issue of CTE and traumatic brain injuries is the elephant under the table in hockey. In order to address an issue as complex as this one in a sports culture as opposed to interventions as hockey, many studies will be needed to produce change.

The Messier Project founded by legend Mark Messier, is working with Cascade Sports, a helmet manufacturer, to reduce head injuries. Cascade's engineering combined with Messier's vision and experience to produce a helmet that features chambers that give upon impact, much like shock absorbers, then resume their previous shape.

Messier made a presentation of the Messier Project and the helmet to the General Managers of the National Hockey League recently. High school and junior teams are buying into the design and equipping their teams, according to the web site. And although the AHL and the NHL teams are still not on the lists of purchasers, enforcers Kip Brennan of the Springfield Falcons and Kevin Westgarth of the Manchester Monarchs are listed as having purchased the helmet.

We don't have to fundamentally change the sport of hockey to make it safer. But attitudes must change or there will be another generation of Reggie Flemings, dying by inches to what are at least partially preventable injuries.



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