Concussions and Todd Ewen’s Suicide

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: This was written for The Broad Street Bully, a blog and podcast my friend Drew and I started based off of our mutual interest in the Philadelphia Flyers. See it on]

Former NHL enforcer Todd Ewen was found dead Saturday with, what police are ruling was, a self inflicted gunshot wound.  Ewen played 518 games throughout eleven NHL seasons.  Ewen began his NHL tenure with the St. Louis Blues and spent time with the Montreal Canadiens, Anaheim Ducks (when they were the Mighty Ducks), and the San Jose Sharks.  During his time in Montreal, Ewen was a member of the Stanley Cup winning team in 1993.  Ewen retired after the 1996-1997 season to end a career that included 146 regular season fighting majors and 1,911 total penalty minutes.

And now Ewen is another player added to the case against the NHL on the long term effects on player’s brains as a result of jarring hits, physical play, and fighting.

Ewen is the most current former NHL player to have taken his own his life in his post playing career.  Recently, former defenseman Steve Montador was found dead last February.  Montador’s brian showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, according to Torontos’ Krembil Neuroscience Centre, who received Montador’s donated brain to study after his death.

Before Montador, former enforcer Bob Probert died in 2010 of a heart attack.  His brain was donated to the Sports Legacy Institute where it was determined that the researchers found evidence of CTE in his tissue samples.

In 2011, three enforcers met untimely ends.  Derek Boogaard died due to an accidental overdose of painkillers and alcohol.  A study on Boogaard’s brian showed a more advanced CTE than Probert’s brain.  Researchers believe that Boogaard would’ve suffered from dementia by middle age if he had not taken his own life.   Rick Rypien was found dead in his home during August of that same year, as well.  His cause of death was confirmed to be suicide.  At 27, Rypien took a leave from hockey due to his battles with depression.  Later the same month, Wade Belak was found dead in a Toronto hotel room.  He was only thirty five.  Belak’s cause of death was never confirmed but it was believed to be suicide caused by his ongoing depression.

Based off of these prior cases, Dr. Charles Tator, a leading neuroscientist and concussion expert, has made a plea to Ewen’s family.  He hopes that Ewen’s family will consider donating Ewen’s brain to the Krembil Neuroscience Centre.  Tator, in relation to being able to study Ewen’s brain to determine the effects of years of NHL play, is quoted as saying:

“One of the problems we face is not enough people in this country know we are doing this work … We’ve been at this for five years and we only have 18 brains.”

Tator is convinced that Ewen can help advance science, and has told Ewen’s family as much in his request for Ewen’s brain.

“It’s important to find out why a person would take their life, or why a person shows signs of mental deterioration … Very often with our brain donation project, the majority (of donors) have shown during their lives some evidence of brain degeneration, and so to try to help families deal with what they have observed, it’s important to exam the brain to see what it was. Was it Alzheimer’s or a tumour, or something else?

These scientists are doing their best to understand CTE so they can better determine how to treat it in players after their NHL careers have ended.

For a point of reference, Tator mentions a former Canadian Football League player named John Forzani who had concussions throughout his career, but no sign of CTE in his brain.  Scientists currently don’t have an answer why some players develop CTE and some do not.

Tator wants to attempt to draw real conclusions after he is able to study at least fifty brains.  By researching as many brains as possible, it’s the only way that Tator believes he can make progress.  He is also not worried that Ewen took his life via a self inflicted gunshot wound.  The gunshot wound doesn’t necessarily mean Ewen’s brain can’t be studied.  CTE appears in the frontal lobe of brains first.  Dr. Robert Stern, from Boston University,

“It depends on the extent of the damage from the gunshot,” Stern said. “It’s quite possible his brain can still be examined.”

Like Tator, Stern has also studied multiple brains as part of his research, but BU has a policy of not commenting on deceased athletes who have donated their brains for research.  BU does have this statistic, though: 87 of the 91 former NFL players’ brains they studied did show evidence of CTE.

Concussions, and the long term effects of CTE, have become a hot button issue throughout all of pro sports but have been most notable in the NFL and the NHL.  The NFL has already reached a settlement of $765 million over concussion related brain injuries among 18,000 retired players.

Most famously, former NFL players Dave Duerson and Junior Seau both committed suicide by shooting themselves in the chest so they made sure their brains could be studied by scientists.

Ewen’s family has yet to decide what they want to do with his brain.  Ewen does have the chance to help people in the future if his family chooses to donate his brain to science.  It’s just disappointing that no one could help him before he made the decision to take his own life.


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