October 5, 2011


Contact: Gina DiGravio, gina.digravio@bmc.org ; 617-638-8480;
Kristin Pressly, Public Affairs, VA, kristin.pressly@va.gov, 978-855-2321



First Non-Enforcer Diagnosed with CTE, 3RD Former NHL Player Overall


  • Rick Martin’s brain was donated for study after his death from heart disease at age 59.

  • Martin is the third former NHL player diagnosed with CTE post-mortem by Dr. Ann McKee at the VA CSTE Brain Bank, but the first who did not regularly engage in fighting.

  • CTE is a degenerative brain disorder caused by repeated brain trauma, including concussions and multiple subconcussive blows to the head, such as those found in contact sports.

(BOSTON) – Researchers at the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (BU CSTE), a collaboration with the Sports Legacy Institute (SLI) and the Bedford (MA) Veterans Administration (VA) Medical Center, announced today that former National Hockey League (NHL) star Rick Martin was suffering from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease linked to repeated brain trauma, when he died at age 59 of a heart attack last March. All three former NHL players to have their brains studied post-mortem at the BU CSTE have now been shown to be suffering from CTE, but Martin is the first who did not play an “enforcer” role and regularly participate in on-ice fights.

Martin was a seven-time All-Star in 13 seasons in the NHL, nearly all with the Buffalo Sabres before finishing his career with the Los Angeles Kings, scoring 382 goals and 701 total points as a left wing. Martin was part of the fabled “French Connection” line with Gilbert Perreault and Rene Robert, scoring 52 goals for the 1974-75 team that lost to the Philadelphia Flyers in the NHL Finals.

Martin was diagnosed with CTE by neuropathologist and CSTE co-director Ann McKee, MD, the director of the largest CTE “brain bank” in the world, located at the Bedford VA Medical Center. CTE can only be diagnosed by examining brain tissue post-mortem. Previously Dr. McKee had diagnosed former NHL players Bob Probert and Reggie Fleming with CTE. Probert died at the age of 45 from heart disease. Fleming, who died in 2009 at the age of 73 with dementia, displayed 30 years of worsening behavioral and cognitive difficulties.

Martin had stage 2 of 4 (4 being the most severe) of the disease, a stage unlikely to significantly affect his cognitive abilities or behavior. Martin did not suffer known brain trauma outside of hockey, did not engage in fighting, and his only known concussion occurred in a game in 1977 when his head hit the ice while not wearing a helmet, causing immediate convulsions. Martin only wore a helmet for the four years he played after that injury.

“Rick Martin’s case shows us that even hockey players who don’t engage in fighting are at risk for CTE, likely because of the repetitive brain trauma players receive throughout their career,” said BU CSTE Co-Director and SLI Co-founder and CEO Chris Nowinski. “We hope the decision makers at all levels of hockey consider this finding as they continue to make adjustments to hockey to make the game safer for participants.”

“It is scientifically interesting that Mr. Martin only had stage 2 disease at 59 years old, as by that age most cases in our brain bank have advanced to stage 3 or 4. There are a number of variables that we don’t yet understand that could account for this finding, such as lower lifetime exposure to brain trauma, later onset of the disease, genetic risk factors, among others,” said Robert Cantu, MD, a leading concussion expert and a CSTE co-director. Research at the BU CSTE is currently underway to further understand the risk factors for CSTE.  “We believe that repetitive brain trauma is a necessary factor for developing the disease, but not a sufficient factor.  We now must learn why some people get the disease and others don’t and why CTE progresses more quickly and severely in some individuals than in others,” said Robert Stern, PhD, a CSTE co-director.

The VA CSTE Brain Bank contains more brains diagnosed with CTE than have ever been reported in the world combined.  There are 96 specimens, including the brain of NHL player Derek Boogaard, who died earlier this year at 28 years old.  Results from that case are pending. McKee has completed the analysis of the brains of over 70 former athletes, and more than 50 have shown signs of CTE, including 14 of 15 former NFL players, as well as college and high school football players, hockey players, professional wrestlers and boxers. More than 500 living athletes have committed to donate their brain to the BU CSTE after death, including over a dozen former hockey players.

The details of Martin’s brain tissue analysis are embargoed pending submission to an academic medical journal. However the Martin family requested that the diagnosis be made public at this time, believing that Rick Martin would have wanted to raise awareness of the dangers of brain trauma in sports and encourage greater efforts to make sports safer for the brain. The Martin family is not ready to make any other comments at this time.

The CSTE (www-test.bu.edu/cste/) was founded in 2008 and is the leading center in the world studying the long-term effects of repetitive brain trauma in sports and the military. The CSTE was created as a collaboration between Boston University (BU), Sports Legacy Institute (SLI) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Co-directors of the BU CSTE include Robert Cantu, MD, clinical professor of neurosurgery at BUSM; Ann McKee, MD, professor of neurology and pathology at BUSM and director of the VA CSTE Brain Bank at VA; Chris Nowinski; and Robert Stern, PhD, professor of neurology and neurosurgery at BUSM. The mission of the CSTE is to conduct state-of-the-art research of CTE, including its neuropathology and pathogenesis, the clinical presentation, biomarkers, clinical course, the genetics and other risk factors for CTE, and ways of preventing and treating this cause of dementia. The BU CSTE has received grants from the National Institutes of Health and the National Operating Committee on Standards in Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE), and has received an unrestricted gift from the NFL.

Sports Legacy Institute is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation founded in 2007 to advance the study, treatment and prevention of the effects of brain trauma in athletes and other at-risk groups. SLI partnered with Boston University School of Medicine to form the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy in 2008. (www.sportslegacy.org)

CSTE co-directors Cantu, McKee, Stern and Nowinski serve on the NFL Players Association Mackey/White Traumatic Brain Injury Committee, which includes, and is chaired by, CSTE registry member Sean Morey.  In addition, Cantu serves as a senior advisor to the NFL Head, Neck and Spine Committee.