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Sports medicine

NHL prospects screened for life-threatening heart disease

By Neil Zeidenberg

TORONTO – NHL Combine is an annual event giving hockey insiders and media a first-hand look at the future stars of tomorrow. The week-long affair is designed to test an athletes’ physical health prior to the draft. They endure rigorous testing of their physical abilities, and new this year, specialized physiological testing.

In late May, the athletes challenged their physical strength, equilibrium and lung capacity in a variety of activities. Afterwards, physicians using state-of-the-art iC33 echocardiogram (ECG) machines, supplied by Philips Healthcare, checked the athletes.

“The goal is to screen high-performance athletes for Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM), a genetic defect that some athletes are pre-disposed to,” said Dr. Kwan-Leung Chan, cardiologist and professor of medicine at University of Ottawa Heart Institute. “If undetected, it can lead to sudden cardiac death (SCD).”

Using the Philips iC33, a unique device that operates in 3D, volunteer medical staff tested a total of 110 athletes at the event. It’s the first time the National Hockey League (NHL) has used ECG to test its high-performance athletes for potential life-threatening conditions. HCM is said to occur in roughly five of every 1,000 high-performance athletes.

HCM is a thickening of the heart muscle which restricts proper blood flow, leaving athletes at risk of dying suddenly. In November of 2005, Jiri Fischer, a defenseman with the Detroit Red Wings, suffered cardiac arrest on the bench during a game against the Nashville Predators. Luckily, his heart was restarted, thanks to timely CPR and the aid of a defibrillator. Further testing showed he likely suffered from ventricular tachycardia or fibrillation, a type of arrhythmia that, left untreated, could lead to SCD. Fischer is alive today and working for the Red Wings organization.

In October of 2008, while playing for Avangard Omsk of the Russian KHL (Kontinental Hockey League), 19-year old Alexei Cherepanov, a highly-touted first round prospect of the New York Rangers (2007), collapsed on the bench. With CPR not started immediately and no working defibrillators on site, he could not be revived and was later pronounced dead at hospital. HCM was a likely diagnosis which doctors say can easily be spotted with an echocardiogram.

“Our goal here is to save lives,” said Dr. Norm Gledhill, professor of Kinesiology at York University, and the man responsible for organizing the screening of this year’s future stars. “There are athletes who have died suddenly on the ice, the basketball court and on the field. If tested for HCM, it’s possible they might still be alive today.”