This story first ran on SportingNews.com on September 13, 2017, and can be found here.
Former NHL player Jeff Parker died Monday in a Minneapolis hospital due to complications from an infection that attacked his heart and lungs. He was 53.
Parker, who was drafted by the Sabres in the sixth round in 1982, played 137 NHL games in five seasons, mostly in Buffalo. He also had a brief stint in the International Hockey League before retiring from professional hockey in 1991.
On Wednesday, Parker’s partner Melina Miller announced that his family's plans “to donate his brain to CTE studies in hopes that it can help prevent brain damage in others,” Miller wrote in an email to TSN , a development significant to the future understanding of the degenerative brain disease and its link to hockey.
Parker was among a group of former players involved in an ongoing class action lawsuit against the NHL. The lawsuit, first filed in 2010, is full of players who claimed that they have suffered concussions during their careers, and that the league did not and has not done enough to ensure their safety.
Several former NHL players have been diagnosed with CTE posthumously, and research suggests many more are living with the symptoms.
Miller suspects Parker may have dealt with those issues.
“Jeff just had a way with him,” Miller told TSN . “But dealing with the anger issues in the final years with him was so hard.”
Parker has been vocal about his health since joining the lawsuit.
In May, he told White Bear Press in Minnesota that his ears ring constantly, that he needs to spend days in the dark, and that it hurts worse when he thinks about it so he tries not to. While Parker said he doesn’t regret playing hockey professionally, he has no doubt that his health issues stem from concussions he sustained while playing.
One big hit in particular stuck with him for years.
"My head got caught in the glass and when I came to I thought I was playing for a different team," Parker told KSTP in Minneapolis about a hit during a game in 1991 . "My head went oblong."
Yet he said concussions were never something that was discussed while he played. If you were hit hard or “got a little bell ringer,” the team was just “looking for you to get back in the lineup.”
“These guys are so young when they go into hockey and there was no warning given to them about coming back after concussions and brain injuries,” Miller told TSN. “The treatment was nothing. You get a horrible concussion, you’re confused, and if you can skate you go back out there if you want to keep your job. I just felt like they used him and threw him away. After playing in the NHL, he wound up on a medical care program provided by the state.”
Boston University has been at the front of concussion and CTE research for years.
CTE, which can only be diagnosed after death, has been a growing concern for the NFL and other football leagues around the world.
Dr. Ann McKee, a concussion specialist at Boston University, released a report in July showing that 177 of 202 deceased football players’ brains had CTE. Of the 111 brains studied that were former NFL players, McKee found that 110 had CTE.
However, far less research has been done on former hockey players’ brains, McKee said.
“We’re not nearly as far in hockey (research) as we are in football because we just don’t have the same numbers,” McKee told ESPN.com last month .
By the end of August, only 19 brains from hockey players had been donated to Boston University’s CTE Center. Of the 16 brains where studies had been concluded, nine of them had CTE. All six of NHL players’ brains in that study also had CTE.
Stu Grimson, who played in the NHL for more than a decade, said he thinks it’s simply an awareness issue among former players as to why numbers are low.
"I think the guys are kind of recognizing the very simple but maybe courageous gesture of just kind of being able to donate the most important organ in your body could potentially benefit others down the road, be it through prevention, diagnosis or treatment or whatever the case may be,” Grimson told ESPN . “I think the awareness is really growing, but it's in its infancy.”
The lawsuit, which is still ongoing, isn’t an effort to find “a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” Miller said. They just want proper health insurance for players and to grow awareness to the growing issue of mental health in former players, something Grimson said would be a tremendous help.
“If you’ve played the game and need a new knee or shoulder or if you’ve smashed your elbow, or if you’ve had concussions, it would be nice to be taken care of,” Parker told White Bear Press in May . “You are only here a short time and you want to be able to enjoy life.
"It’s sad that they have not been able to settle. It’s just a matter of time.”