Simon's family says ex-enforcer died by suicide, 'strongly believes' CTE played role

Chris Simon's family says the late NHL enforcer died by suicide.

And it "strongly believes" a progressive and fatal disease associated with repeated traumatic brain injuries is to blame.

Simon killed himself Monday night at age 52, his family confirmed in a statement provided by the player's former agent, Paul Theofanous.

Once one of hockey's most feared tough guys, the bruising forward from Wawa, Ont., compiled 1,824 penalty minutes — including more than 100 fights — in 782 games with seven NHL teams across 15 seasons.

Simon's loved ones believe chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) played a significant factor in his suicide.

"The family strongly believes and witnessed firsthand, that Chris struggled immensely from CTE which unfortunately resulted in his death," the statement read. "We are grieving with the loss of our son, brother, father, partner, teammate and friend."

The family added it won't be releasing further details at this time.

"The entire Wawa community is sharing in our grief," the statement continued. "We appreciate everyone who shares in our tragic loss."

CTE is associated with repeated traumatic brain injuries, including concussions and continued headshots. Deaths by suicide and drug overdose are common among athletes in CTE cases. The NHL has repeatedly downplayed any links between hockey and CTE.

A study of former NHLers published last year showed enforcers lived significantly shorter lives than their peers.

Researchers at New York's Columbia University came to that conclusion after analyzing data from more than 6,000 players from 1967 through the spring of 2022.

The study found enforcers died on average a decade younger than comparable peers drafted at the same rank, similar height and weight, and at the same position.

The researchers did not find more deaths among the NHL enforcers than in the control group.

"However, being an enforcer was associated with dying approximately 10 years earlier and more frequently of suicide and drug overdose than matched controls," the study read.

Simon is the latest former NHL tough guy to die at a young age, joining the likes of Bob Probert, Derek Boogaard, Wade Belak and Rick Rypien. Probert and Boogaard were both confirmed to have CTE following their deaths.

Ex-enforcer Chris Nilan, who had more than 300 fights in the league, met Simon in the early 2000s.

"Terrible," Nilan said of the suicide. "It's a horrendous thing."

Nilan didn't want to comment on potential links to CTE, but is part of a study at Boston University that has included a battery of cognitive tests and will see researchers examine his brain when he dies.

Nilan was convinced to take it by Probert's wife, Dani, in hopes of helping future generations of players.

"I didn't do it because I want to know if I have CTE," he said. "It's not something I think about every day or at all."

The 2023 study found striking differences in causes of death between the enforcers and their fellow players.

Two neurodegenerative disorder deaths, two drug overdoses, three suicides and four vehicular crashes were attributed to the 331 players identified as enforcers/fighters, compared to just one car crash death among the age-matched control group.

Commenting on Wednesday at this week's NHL general managers meetings in Florida, commissioner Gary Bettman called Simon's death "tragic," but refrained from directly addressing the family's charge it's linked to CTE.

"We extend our deepest condolences to his family and friends," Bettman told reporters in Manalapan, Fla. "On all these matters we wait to see what the medical experts tell us.

"Having said that, I think it's well-documented all the progress that we've made over the last couple of decades to make the game as safe as possible."

Once a staple in the NHL, fighting has seen a steep decline as the sport has become faster and more skilled — but it's certainly not gone, with fisticuffs coming roughly every four or five games.

The league has seen some big tilts this season, most notably involving hulking six-foot-seven New York Rangers rookie Matt Rempe, who dropped the gloves four times in his first seven contests.

The NHL suspended Simon eight times during his career for a combined 65 games. He was hit with a 25-game ban with the Islanders for a March 2007 cross-check to the face of Rangers forward Ryan Hollweg.

Simon was then forced to sit 30 games for stomping on the leg of Pittsburgh Penguins winger Jarkko Ruutu that December.

Selected with the 25th pick at the 1990 NHL draft, Simon won the Stanley Cup with Colorado Avalanche in 1996 before making the final with the Washington Capitals in 1998 and Calgary Flames in 2004.

"For all of us who played the game, and certainly for guys who played the game like Chris did, it's sad," Nilan said. "It's really sad."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 20, 2024.


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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press