On Thursday, New Jersey Devils defenseman Ben Lovejoy became the first active NHL player to announce he’s donating his brain to concussion research, making the announcement with the Concussion Legacy Foundation in an effort to find treatment for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
“If announcing this gains awareness, I’m very excited,” Lovejoy told ESPN on Thursday. “The reaction has been very positive. I didn’t think this was going to be a big deal, and I’ve gotten so many congratulatory texts.”
Concussion Legacy Foundation is the outreach arm of the VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank, a partnership with Boston University and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and is led by Dr. Ann McKee. More than 460 brains have been donated, resulting in 285 diagnoses of CTE, a degenerative disease linked to head trauma that has been found posthumously in the brains of countless athletes.
“We are honored by Ben Lovejoy’s brain pledge,” said Chris Nowinski, Ph.D., co-founder and CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, in a statement. “Brain donation is critical to developing methods to prevent and treat neurologic disorders. Professional athletes can create better outcomes for themselves, their teammates, and their children by pledging their brain or raising funds, and we hope Mr. Lovejoy’s pledge encourages others to join him in support of the Concussion Legacy Foundation.”
Lovejoy has played 432 games in the NHL with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Anaheim Ducks and Devils. He won the Stanley Cup with the Penguins in 2016. We spoke with Lovejoy about what motivated him to posthumously donate his brain to CTE research; the reaction of his family to the decision; and the future of contact sports in a world more aware of concussions.
ESPN: What motivated you to do this; why now?
Lovejoy: Science. This is my way of giving back to hockey, because hockey has been just awesome to me. I have spent 30 of my 33 years on earth living and dying hockey. Everything I do in my life has revolved around hockey, and hockey has been so good to me. It’s taken me all over the world, gotten me into high school and colleges, and given me an awesome job for the last 10-and-a-half years.
I think the game has gotten safer and safer, even in those 10-and-a-half years. This is my way of giving back and hoping that the doctors at BU can someday study me, and help cure CTE and make the game safer.
I hope I live until I’m 90 years old and the people at BU have cured CTE long before I die and they get my brain. I’ve been told, and from the research I’ve done, they think there will be a cure, that they think they’ll be able to figure out a way.
So this is me, doing my part. I’m not a scientist. I haven’t been in a lab since college. But these guys are at the forefront of the research, and this is something I’ve been passionate about for a long time.
ESPN: How long?
Lovejoy: I told my wife three or four years ago that if something were to happen to me, I wanted my brain donated to the Brain Bank. I thought that was good. I thought that when I was done, she could give them a call and donate my brain.
I read an article this past summer that said that no current NHL players had pledged their brains. It’s something I wanted to do for a long time, and found out how to do it, and this has been planned for a while.
ESPN: What’s the reaction from your family?
Lovejoy: I told my wife, I told my parents … I guess I just forgot to tell my little brothers I was doing this. And I got a text from both of them, asking how they can donate their brains. They’ve already filled out the online paperwork. They’re not NHL players, but maybe someday studying their brains will help, too.
ESPN: Do you think being the first will encourage other players to do this?
Lovejoy: I would love if hundreds of people signed up. That would be great for the doctors at BU. But I’m not here to tell people what to do with their bodies. It’s a very personal choice. It is one that I made very easily. I think this is what I can do to help CTE and help concussions. I’m bringing awareness, but I’m not going out and recruiting.
This is a very personal decision for me — on my driver’s license, I’m an organ donor. It just so happens that I’m also a professional hockey player, and BU would like my brain.
ESPN: How often do hockey players talk about CTE, and what’s the nature of these conversations? Is it a verboten topic?
Lovejoy: It comes up. Not a ton. Concussions are obviously a serious topic of conversation. They come up a lot. They are unfortunately a part of contact sports, and guys have become very knowledgeable about them.
ESPN: You mentioned in the Concussion Legacy Foundation release that you’ve had ‘very little head trauma throughout my career.’ How many concussions have you had in your career?
Lovejoy: Zero. I am lucky.
ESPN: Wow. You haven’t gone through it, but you mentioned “high profile teammates” that went through this. You spent many years in Pittsburgh. How much did Sidney Crosby‘s ordeal with head injuries affect you?
Lovejoy: I’m not comfortable talking about that. He’s a great friend and an awesome hockey player. That’s his story to tell.
ESPN: OK, let’s take the focus off one player: When you were making the decision to donate your brain, how much did seeing what your teammates went through with concussions influence it?
Lovejoy: Absolutely. I have seen plenty of concussions through high school hockey, college hockey and other sports that I grew up playing. They’re prevalent and they’re serious. Seeing what guys go through, everyone is different. And it absolutely played into my decision process.
ESPN: What do you want to see from the NHL and the NHLPA regarding CTE and concussions?
Lovejoy: I think we’re all continuing to learn. Getting smarter, getting educated. And that’s what my decision is about. It’s about medicine. It’s about learning. I think the game continues to get safer and safer, and my decision is all about that.
ESPN: Finally, seeing how hockey and football have gone, with the prevalence of concussions, are you worried about the future of contact sports?
Lovejoy: I am not worried about hockey. I can’t speak to football — I never played. I grew up playing soccer and lacrosse and hockey. Two of the three are contact sports. I think the game has turned to speed and skill. It’s not nearly as physical anymore. The game continues to get safer. As we all become more educated, I think hockey will continue to get safer.
Individuals with sports or military backgrounds of any kind can pledge their brain to research at ConcussionFoundation.org/pledge.