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On anniversary of his death, wife of former NHLer Marek Svatos says he had CTE

Marek Svatos Marek Svatos - Getty Images

Marek Svatos, who played parts of eight NHL seasons and skated for Slovakia in the 2006 Olympics in Torino, had the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) at the time of his death in 2016.

Svatos’ wife, Diana, confirmed his posthumous diagnosis in a series of recent interviews with TSN. Diana – who said the date of her husband’s death has been misreported on the Internet – wanted to speak publicly about Svatos’ life and death because she says it was more complicated than media reports have portrayed.

Svatos died Nov. 4, 2016, at the age of 34 in his home in Lone Tree, Colo. A coroner reported Svatos had codeine, morphine and anti-anxiety medication in his system when he died, The Denver Post reported at the time. His official cause of death was an accidental overdose, Diana said.

Diana shared how her husband suffered through at least a half-dozen documented concussions and at least as many surgeries during his NHL career, after being drafted by Colorado in the seventh round of the 2001 entry draft.

“I wanted to get my kids to a good place before talking about this, but I want people to know that Marek was a good person who loved his family and made decisions because of CTE, not because he was a bad person,” Diana said. “I don’t know how many times I heard him say ‘the lights went out’ after he had had a concussion. I heard it enough times to remember that phrase.”

Diana and met Svatos in 2004 during his NHL rookie season in Denver and married in 2007.

“Marek was never comfortable being the centre of attention,” Diana said. “He hated the spotlight. If he had a great game, he’d basically beg the media to interview anybody else but him. He was the kind of guy who loved to laugh and loved to play a practical joke, usually on me. He would say goodbye and leave the house to go to the rink for practice, then drive around the block and park before coming back inside to try to scare me to death. He was always observing, always with his signature mischievous smirk on his face.”

After donating her husband’s brain to researchers at Boston University days after his death, Diana was provided with a three-page pathology report on Nov. 12, 2017, that showed Marek had Stage 2 CTE. (There are four stages.)

Marek Svatos and his family
“One of the main reasons I want to tell this story now is I want to help other NHL families."

“Although Stage 2 is considered to be a mild form of CTE, it is often characterized by striking mood and behavioural changes, and sometimes memory loss,” Boston University neuropathologist Dr. Ann McKee wrote in an email to TSN. “Mr. Svatos suffered from severe depression and memory loss that began at age 25 and worsened over time...”

Svatos’ posthumous diagnosis of CTE is noteworthy because he was known as a scorer and playmaker. A winger, his career high for penalty minutes in a season was 60.

Researchers believe CTE not only comes from concussions that might be suffered during a fight on the ice, but also from the repeated blows to the head and jarring bodychecks that occur routinely during a game.

CTE can only be diagnosed posthumously. The degenerative brain disease is linked to symptoms like personality changes, memory loss and impulsive outbursts. It has been discovered in athletes, military veterans, and others with a history of repeated hits to the head.

Diana said the CTE diagnosis has helped her to understand some of her husband’s behaviours. She said he would become easily agitated and forgetful.

“I’m not talking about forgetting to take out the garbage,” she said. “I’m talking about having a conversation with him and him coming back five seconds later saying, ‘What were we talking about?’ That would happen three times in a row. It was to the extreme.”

Marek Svatos
“He had concussions and all of this pain and everything kind of all fell perfectly together in a horrible storm for him.”

At the same time as he navigated symptoms connected to repeated brain trauma, Svatos formed an addiction to the Oxycodone he was given by both team and independent doctors to help him recover from a string of injuries, his wife said.

“He formed a habit,” Diana said. “He had concussions and all of this pain and everything kind of all fell perfectly together in a horrible storm for him.”

Diana said a few months before his death, Svatos shared with her that he had used heroin to try to mute his pain and that he had tried to take his own life. Svatos went to rehab three times to try to break his dependence. 

“He didn’t choose to do this to himself or to his family and people need to know that. They need to know his full story,” Diana said. “One of the main reasons I want to tell this story now is I want to help other NHL families.

“I’m saying this from a place of love, but the league can do more for players during and after their careers. When guys go to rehab, the league can follow up with them and with their wives to see how things are going. And they can still try to do a better job helping players be prepared for what happens after their hockey careers. These guys train their whole life to be a pro hockey player, then it’s over, and then they and their families start to have problems. Being honest about how big a problem this is would be a good first step by the NHL.”

Svatos also played for Slovakia in world junior tournaments in 2000 and 2002 and played in the 2010 world championships. He scored 100 goals and had 72 assists in 344 NHL games. He played with the Avalanche, Nashville Predators and Ottawa Senators before finishing his pro career in Slovakia. 

Of the 14 former NHL players whose brains have been studied by researchers, 13 have been found to have had CTE.

Marek Svatos with his son Marek
 “I don’t know how many times I heard him say ‘the lights went out’ after he had had a concussion. I heard it enough times to remember that phrase.”

McKee, director of Boston University’s CTE Center, said she is currently examining the brains of other former NHL players and will have more updates to share publicly about the prevalence of CTE in hockey players within about six months.

NHL players diagnosed with CTE include Ralph Backstrom, Stan Mikita, Steve Montador, Todd Ewen, Bob Probert, and Rick Martin. Former Toronto Maple Leaf Kurt Walker is the only former NHL player who tested negative.

If CTE can eventually be diagnosed in living patients, researchers would be able to begin medical trials to learn whether certain drugs are effective at slowing or stopping the damage caused by the disease.

The NHL has not publicly acknowledged a link between head injuries sustained while playing hockey and long-term cognitive disorders. A league spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

The NHL in November of 2018 announced an $18.9 million (U.S.) settlement with 318 former players who joined a lawsuit accusing the league of downplaying the long-term dangers of repeated brain trauma.