Family and friends will gather later today in St. Louis for a private funeral to celebrate the life of former NHL enforcer Todd Ewen. Some 800 miles away, Dr. Charles Tator is waiting for Ewen’s brain to arrive in hopes that it will provide some clues that will bring something positive from his suicide.
THN.com has learned that the Ewen family has agreed to donate Ewen’s brain to the Canadian Sports Concussion Research Project, where it will be examined for signs of possible brain degeneration or chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). It is an initiative spearheaded by Tator, which will now have the brains of 19 former athletes. Tator hopes to examine at least 50 brains of former athletes. The majority of the brains Tator has for his study are of former Canadian Football League players, but there are some hockey players, most notably Steve Montador, who died last February at the age of 35.
“We feel that in order to tackle this problem from a research point of view, we would like to examine 50 brains,” Tator said, “plus the clinical reports that go along with them. In each of the cases we try to examine, what was the clinical condition, what were the signs and symptoms of brain degeneration beforehand? That way, we can try to get a complete picture of why did these players come down with this condition while other players don’t?”
Ewen’s family has said he was depressed and the police report says that Ewen spoke of suicide in the past, but those who were closest to him are still expressing shock that Ewen took his own life last weekend at the age of 49. Terry Yake, who worked closely with Ewen in the board of the St. Louis Blues’ alumni association, said he and other close friends had never seen any signs of depression in Ewen. Yake, a former teammate and roommate when both played with the Anaheim Ducks, has been working closely with Ewen’s family on the funeral arrangements.
“There’s a lot of us who wish we could have done more,” Yake said. “There are questions that will probably never be answered. We’d all like that final closure that, ‘Oh, this was the reason,’ but unfortunately it’s probably going to be one of those things you wonder about for a long time. In one breath, I do wish for that closure, but in another breath, I don’t know that it would make much difference. The bottom line is, I can’t talk to him tomorrow, I can’t text him tomorrow, I can’t meet up for coffee next week and that’s probably what hurts the most.”
Some of those questions might be answered after Dr. Tator looks at the state of Ewen’s brain, which is due to arrive in Toronto later this week. Tator doesn’t know what he’ll find in terms of CTE when he examines Ewen’s brain because he’s unsure of Ewen’s concussion history and how they affected him. He points to one of the brains he examined, that of former football player John Forzani, who sustained repeated concussions during his career, but whose brain exhibited no signs of CTE or degeneration when it was examined after his death.
And there still has to be a definitive link between repeated blows to the head and CTE. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, whose league faces a class action lawsuit from former players and another individual lawsuit from Montador’s family, has insisted publicly a number of times that science has yet to establish that link.
“(Bettman’s) position is challengeable and it is gradually shrinking in validity,” Tator said. “Pretty well every month, there’s another notch in the research mounting up making the connection. I think he’ll change his mind eventually. I don’t know whether it will be tomorrow or in a year from now, but he will change his mind because the evidence is mounting.”