Glenn Healy, the former Toronto Maple Leafs goalie, says he sees player after player struggling with post-hockey mental health issues after a career of “going into the corners.”
Healy, head of the National Hockey League Alumni Association (NHLAA), says many of these players suffer in subtle ways that are often hard to identify.
“It’s never the player who calls [for help],” he tells me in an interview. “It’s always the wife. Or the kids.”
So when Milwaukee-based NEEKA Health, which boasts some of the world’s top neurology researchers, approached the NHLAA about using ex-NHLers as part of a double-blind clinical study on the potential benefits of cannabinoids in managing the mental health challenges that contact athletes face when their careers are finished, Healy says they jumped at the opportunity. After a year of searching, they linked up with Canada’s largest Licensed Producer Canopy Growth, which will be helping out with some of the health scientists on its team who understand the intricacies of the cannabis plant by providing the CBD formulations.
While this kind of research can’t undo the damage already done to athletes who played before much was known about concussions – “We just didn’t know,” says Healy. “We had no idea” – Healy says there’s definitely a lot of enthusiasm around the project, especially on the hockey side. He says it’s the first program on concussions that he’s been involved in that gives “hope and help for every player.”
Can cannabinoids improve the post-professional lives of competitive athletes shell-shocked after years of hits to the head?
Amin Kassam, who leads the research team handling the medical side of the undertaking, says the study is potentially paradigm-shifting in the field of post-concussion care.
“We consider this a legacy study,” says Kassam.
About a year and a half ago, his research team discovered a series of fibres on emotional, motor and visual connectors that are very important in how the brain processes information. “And we have reasons to believe that cannabinoids may have a very strong and positive role in that brain-signalling pathway,” says Kassam.
Kassam believes he and his team understand something novel about concussion care.
“A big portion of the last decade was focused on finding individual biomarkers, looking for a specific marker that would herald vulnerability or would determine severity,” he says. “That’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.”
His focus will be less on figuring out what factors predispose someone to suffer more from prior concussions and instead look to the need for concussions to be treated like a mental health issue.
In other words, when it comes to concussions, Kassam’s paradigm is to see them as something requiring ongoing support, rather than focusing solely on preventative therapies or reactive treatments.
Assam says, “‘Concussion’ is a very nebulous term, and it’s really hard to understand what concussions actually represent.”
Around 100 ex-NHL players will take part in the year-long study expected to start this summer.
For its parts, Canopy’s chief medical officer Mark Ware says “This complex and multidimensional study will give us an unprecedented understanding of the interaction between CBD and the brain and behaviours of former NHL players living with post-concussion symptoms.” Ware adds that the partnership “speaks to the need for alternative medical therapies to treat the long-term and often devastating effects of concussions.”
If the study with ex-NHLers goes well, the plan is to explore the effects of cannabinoids on the brains of the general population. “The goal is to bring this back to people who don’t play sports,” says Kassam.
For Kassam, who grew up in East York, it’s also a chance for him to work with people he grew up watching on TV – and potentially give back to them. “These guys were all our childhood heroes,” he says. “They’re our heroes again.”