A career cut short because of multiple concussions has led former Philadelphia Flyer Keith Primeau to make a big decision: he will donate his brain to science when he dies in the hope it helps others avoid the pain he suffered.
Primeau, 37, told Sportsnet’s Arash Madani in an exclusive interview he has agreed to posthumously donate his brain to the Massachusetts-based Sports Legacy Institute (SLI), a renowned clinic that studies the effects of concussions and other sports-related brain injuries.
“It’s the most important organ in our body, yet the most ignored,” Primeau said in a lengthy interview at his home in Voorhees, N.J. “At the end of the day, it wasn’t any different than donating my organs to those in need post-mortem. I’m just donating my brain to science.”
Watch for the full interview on Friday’s primetime edition of Connected and Hockeycentral Saturday.
While there are many who might be squeamish about such a decision, Primeau hopes any information learned from his experience will prevent another player from undergoing the same pain.
“If the knowledge is discovered, and scientific examination proves that post-concussion leads to serious deterioration of brain function, then medically someone needs to step in and tell a player they can no longer do what they love to do,” Primeau said.
“If I can in any way be of any assistance or be a guinea pig, I’d be happy to do that.”
The SLI has already received other commitments from high-profile donors, including former NHLers Steve Heinze and Ryan VandenBussche and current Tampa Bay Lightning defenceman Noah Welch.
The institute also examined the brain of Chris Benoit after the Canadian-born WWE star murdered his wife and son before hanging himself in 2007. The SLI discovered Benoit had suffered from a type of brain damage called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), which might have triggered his deadly behaviour.
Primeau traces his first head injury back to 1997, while in Hartford, and the concussions continued throughout his career. He missed 21 games of the 2003-04 season with a concussion, then played 18 games in the post-season despite suffering two more head injuries.
NHL players whose careers were cut short by concussion(s):
The final blow came on Oct. 25, 2005 when Primeau, then 34, was concussed again after a hit from Montreal’s Alexander Perezhogin. He missed the rest of that season and in September 2006 was finally forced to retire.
“I think the beginning of my demise goes back to the playoff situation back in 2000. I got laid out at centre ice and I got carried off the ice on a stretcher,” Primeau told Sportsnet. “I stayed overnight in the Pittsburgh hospital, only to return two nights later against New Jersey. And that was ultimately the beginning of my demise.
“I can’t say I would have done anything differently. But certainly on reflection, it wasn’t the right decision for my health.”
A father of four, his long-term health is now of paramount concern.
Sports Legacy Institute at a glance:
Mission: Study the effects of concussions to maximize the safety and vitality of athletes who participate in contact sports
President: Chris Nowinski, Harvard alumnus and former WWE wrestler
Co-founder: Robert Cantu, medical advisory board chairman
Founded in: June 2007
“I hope that I’m here to experience their milestones and milestones occurring 50 years from now and I also understand the possibility that I may not,” Primeau said. “I think my greatest fear is a quick deterioration. I hope I live a full and promising life and none of this is relevant until I’m 85 or 90 years old.
“I think my biggest fear is the day I notice a change and the change will be rapid and that scares me.”
The Sports Legacy Institute was founded in 2007 by Chris Nowinski and Robert Cantu.
While Cantu is an expert in neurology, Nowinski is a Harvard sociology graduate who also happens to have performed as a WWE wrestler earlier this decade. However, his career was also ended because of a concussion, prompting his interest in studying injured brains.