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Yesterday's war stories help pave way for tomorrow's research

Hockey Hall of Fame great Gordie Howe, left, receives a playful elbow from a fan while taking part in the Pro AM for Alzheimer's charity event fundraiser in Toronto on Thursday, May 5, 2011. Gordie Howe's wife Colleen died in 2009 from Pick's disease, a form of dementia.


Theirs weren't new stories, by any means.

But NHL legends Johnny Bower and Bobby (Boomer) Baun were only too happy to tell them again for a captive audience on Thursday, regaling a group of former players and business professionals as part of Gordie Howe's annual charity hockey event this weekend.

Bower recalled the more than 200 stitches on his face, the result of playing goal without a mask for more than two decades. (He chuckled at how his scars had since "been covered up by wrinkles" some 40 years after his final game.)

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Baun's tale remains one right out of hockey lore: breaking his leg in the 1964 Stanley Cup finals only to return later in the same game and score the overtime winner for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Listening intently in the front row was Richard Scott, another former player with a very different story to tell about his own short, brutal and fight-filled career with the New York Rangers, which left him with a serious concussion at 25.

There are very different eras and different injuries at work here, but there is a connection, too, with Bower, Baun and even Mr. Hockey all in the same room to raise money for Alzheimer's research and to help finance a new study of former NHL players' brains.

Scott, meanwhile, was one of the first players to sign up for the study, curious to know more about why he suffers postconcussion symptoms more than seven years after his career ended.

"Anything I can do to help future players," he said. "Or research at all. I'm interested to see where I am compared to when I started, when I broke into the league and did baseline testing."

Like Bower and Baun, Scott was playing through an injury when he fought New York Islanders tough guy Eric Cairns in December of 2003, taking a few big blows from the bigger man and wobbling to the penalty box.

Four nights earlier, he was on the receiving end of a hit from Leafs captain Mats Sundin, a check Scott says left him with a concussion that he hid in order to keep playing.

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It's a decision he regrets to this day, as his symptoms still prevent him from doing manual labour, which includes working in the family beef farming business in Oro, Ont., north of Toronto.

"Concentration is hard," Scott said. "But every day is getting better, that's for sure ... I've just got to learn to live with it. It's hard. But there's so much more research and tools around to help now."

One of those tools will be the NHL alumni association's partnership with Toronto's Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest, which will conduct the testing on former players and compare their results to the rest of the population.

Some of the former pros entering the process are skeptical that blows suffered while playing will cause health problems later in life, with the likes of Bower, Baun and others in their 70s and 80s serving as living proof that it's possible to escape the wars of a long NHL career unscathed.

Which is where the scientific community comes in.

Baycrest senior scientist Brian Levine said his goal is to sort through the data gathered over the next few years and come up with more comprehensive conclusions about playing in the NHL and the impact on players' long-term mental health.

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"Our goal really is to get at the best version or the closest to the truth as possible," Levine said. "I know that there is skepticism [from some players] There's also groups that say there is a connection.

"I'm just a scientist that sees an interesting question and that gets me excited. Let's answer this question."

Scott hopes he'll have more answers, too.

"I'm sure there's going to be some effects," he said of what the testing will turn up. "You have that number of concussions, there's got to be some downfall."

The charity tournament is in its sixth year in Toronto and has raised more than $13-million.

The Gordie & Colleen Howe Fund is named in tribute to Gordie and in memory of his wife Colleen, who died in March of 2009 from Pick's disease, a form of dementia. Half a million Canadians have Alzheimer's disease or a related dementia, according to the Alzheimer Society of Canada's website.

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Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More

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