Ex-NHL player who committed suicide in 2019 had CTE, tests reveal amid hockey’s worrying links to degenerative brain disease

The surviving family members of former NHL player Greg Johnson have revealed he was suffering from the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) at the time of his suicide five years earlier.

Johnson’s widow and daughters released the findings of his post-mortem brain tissue analysis, which Boston University CTE Center doctors say contained CTE. However, they have cautioned that the presence of CTE should not be considered a definitive cause for his 2019 suicide.

‘This diagnosis took my breath away,’ Johnson’s widow Kristin told the Concussion Legacy Foundation, which released the findings Wednesday. ‘Greg’s death shattered our world, and we never once thought this disease was something he struggled with.

‘He experienced very few symptoms that we knew of, but he spoke of his concussions often. I remember the exact moment he told me his heart condition forcing him to retire was a blessing because he couldn’t take another hit. He knew his hockey career had a profound impact on his brain.’

It’s unclear what stage of CTE Johnson had due to his manner of death, according to the Foundation. Police in Michigan reported at the time of his 2019 suicide that a firearm and single bullet were found near his body, suggesting he died by self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Greg Johnson died by suicide in 2019. His family is now releasing test results from brain scans

Johnson signs an autograph for a fan at a 2017 event in Nashville, Tennessee

Johnson signs an autograph for a fan at a 2017 event in Nashville, Tennessee 

NHL spokespeople did not immediately respond to DailyMail.com’s request for comment.  

Kristin, Carson, and Piper Johnson are declining interview requests about Greg, according to the Foundation’s press release.

CTE can only be diagnosed posthumously, making the disease difficult to study. BU researchers have long believed that ‘repetitive head impacts’ are the primary cause of CTE, which is defined by the accumulation of tau protein around the brain.

The brains of 17 of 18 NHL players studied have been found to contain CTE, although that statistic is not believed to be representative of the entire league. Those players include Ralph Backstrom, Henri Richard, Stan Mikita, Bob Probert, Steve Montador, and Bob Murdoch.

Unlike Probert, who was known as a fighter, Johnson was known as solid offensive and defensive player, wo ultimately served as a captain for the Nashville Predators.

Steve Rucchin (20) and Greg Johnson (22) (right) of Nashville battle for control of the puck

Steve Rucchin (20) and Greg Johnson (22) (right) of Nashville battle for control of the puck

Johnson played 785 career games, and won silver with Team Canada at the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer.

‘I had no idea what CTE even stood for when my dad took his life,’ said Carson Johnson, Greg Johnson’s eldest daughter. ‘Now understanding that the hits he endured throughout his hockey career damaged his brain, I want all athletes to understand the risks and I want the NHL to start acknowledging it exists and do more to protect its players so other daughters don’t have to lose their fathers.’

CTE was usually associated with boxing before former NFL and NHL players became linked to the disease.

Several notable NFL players who committed suicide were posthumously diagnosed with the disease, such as Junior Seau and Aaron Hernandez.

While CTE is often connected to concussions, many researchers like Lee E. Goldstein, MD, PhD, an associate professor at Boston University, now believe sub-concussive hits also play a major part in CTE.

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