The brain disease known as CTE was not discussed by the late Jeff Parker, at least not with his family.
However, when more became known about Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a condition leading to the suffering and early demise of many pro football and hockey players, Parker’s younger brothers Scott and John took notice.
“Jeff never talked about CTE with us, but I’m sure he did with other people, when he joined the lawsuit,” said John, referring to action by former players against the National Hockey League.
“But my brother Scott started looking into it, and he said one day, ‘You know, I betcha Jeff has this.’ And when Jeff passed, they called and told us the CTE Foundation wanted to talk to us about donating Jeff’s brain.”
Last Thursday, medical researchers confirmed that Jeff Parker, White Bear Lake native whose NHL career was cut short by a dreadful concussion in 1991, and who died last September at age 53, was suffering from CTE, which can only be detected after death.
“It was worse than we thought,” said Scott Parker. “We knew all along that he was suffering, but he masked it pretty well. He must have been suffering a lot more than we knew.”
Parker had one of the most severe cases of CTE, according to medical records provided exclusively to 5 Eyewitness News and The New York Times.
Researchers at Boston University’s CTE Center announced that Parker had Stage 3 (out of 4) CTE, the same level of the disease that was found in the brain of former NFL star Aaron Hernandez, who was convicted of murder in 2015 and committed suicide in prison in 2017.
"Jeff Parker’s brain was at such a stage – the disease was taking over his brain,” Dr. Ann McKee said in a phone interview from Boston, as reported by Eyewitness News.
“It was just going to get worse and worse — It’s very substantial brain damage. The nerve cells weren’t working,” stated McKee, chief of neuropathology at Boston's VA hospital and director of the CTE Center.
Scott Parker, after viewing photographs that showed how massive the damage was, told the White Bear Press, “It was pretty sad for me and my brother John to see that. Pretty hard to fathom.
“Jeff rarely talked about it, only in his darkest times, but his head hurt. He compared it to a freight train going through his head.”
The Parker family — Scott, John, and parents Charlie Parker and Linda Wenzel — donated Jeff’s brain to the CTE Foundation, after getting a call from Brad Maxwell, president of the Minnesota NHL Alumni Association, who had relayed the request to them.
Besides Parker, at least six other NHL players have been found to have had CTE, according to the New York Times. They are Reggie Fleming, Rick Martin, Bob Probert, Derek Boogaard, Larry Zeidel and Steve Montador.
Parker was among approximately 150 former players who filed suit against the NHL, claiming that the league thrived on the violence but did little to warn players of the long-term effects. The NHL’s counter argument is that nobody understood the impact concussions could have back in those days, and that the players were given reasonable care given what was known at the time. At this stage, both sides are waiting for a federal judge to rule whether the lawsuit can proceed as a class action.
“When he joined the lawsuit, I’m sure he had conversations,” John Parker said. “When he went to Washington, I remember him saying how it affected him, the stories about other players who died before him, how hurt he felt about that. The reason he joined the lawsuit was to help the next guy. With Jeff, it was always about helping the next guy.”
Jeff Parker’s death was attributed to infection that attacked his heart and lungs. He had been suffering from pulmonary hypertension.
Hockey gave Parker a charmed life for the first half of his time on earth. He helped White Bear Mariner reach the state championship game in 1982 and was a leading player on Michigan State’s run to the 1986 NCAA championship. After some minor league time he moved on to the NHL, spending three seasons with Buffalo before being traded to Hartford.
His playing days ended with a gruesome hit in Hartford 1991, when his head struck the stanchion holding the glass to the boards, after a violent check by a 230-pound Washington defenseman. That was his second concussion in 15 days. There had been other concussions, including in the minor leagues, said Scott Parker.
The second half of his life, post-hockey, was a struggle. Parker reported suffering from constant ringing in the ears, headaches from bright lights, and decreased hearing and sense of taste. John Parker said that when Jeff tried to take classes, he had to give up, unable to read and concentrate. In his last few years, the former NHL player worked as a bartender in St. Paul, partly to avoid bright light.
All three brothers played high school and.college hockey, and all three won NCAA championships. Scott got his at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, John at UW – Madison.
Scott Parker, a longtime high school hockey coach in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, was asked how he views player safety, in light of what happened to his older brother.
High school players are “watched very carefully,” he stressed, and their readiness to play after a hit is decided by team trainers, not coaches. He said players are repeatedly taught technique to avoid checking from behind. And above all, they get immediate attention from a trainer at any sign of trouble.
That last part is what haunts Jeff’s brothers, after what they learned about the aftermath of the severe hit in Hartford that night.
“They just put him down on the floor of the locker room,” Scott Parker said. “He did not receive any medical help. When he finally snapped to, he thought he was still playing for Buffalo. That’s how hard that hit was, and there was no immediate help.”
Scott Parker stressed that he and John still love hockey, and “Jeff would do it all over again” if he could.
“But that doesn’t mean I love the NHL. I’m sure the NHL has made changes, but they were not soon enough for my brother …. The NHL needs to take care of their boys; they’re the ones who made their owners a lot of money.”
John Parker was asked to talk about the old Jeff Parker again. He was happy to oblige.
“He was a big-hearted guy. People were attracted and drawn to him. For Scott and I, he was the golden boy. We wanted to be him. I would always hear about how kind he was to people, always with a big smile, a good guy, but tough as nails when he needed to be.”