Concussions are an unavoidable part of the Eric Lindros Story, in the sense that they determined the endpoint of that story long before it should have reached its finale.
We’ve covered at length the impact Lindros had in his brief reign as the NHL’s best player. How the immediate lament about his failing to meet inequitable expectations eventually flipped into an appreciation of his accomplishments, especially within the context of the Hockey Hall of Fame’s criteria. If Cam Neely’s in with those numbers, so is Eric Lindros. If Pavel Bure is in with that brief but magnificent impact on the game, so is Eric Lindros.
The only reason we have to make those arguments for Lindros is because he only played 760 games, and the last 202 of them were played by a Lindros-shaped cicada shell that had been bludgeoned into timidity about cutting across the middle of the ice.
Concussions ended him. But as we’ve seen as Lindros has made the rounds this weekend in the hockey media, concussions also define him.
His candor about them is refreshing, actually. The Hockey Hall of Fame likes to be the Jimmy Fallon of sports institutions, a controversy-free deviation from the politics of the game and important issues. Instead of talking about head injuries, we expect players to get their hair ‘mussed.
Perhaps because it’s unavoidable, concussions are in the conversation at the 2016 induction weekend.
“Concussions are going to happen. There’s no doubt about it. They happen in all aspects of life,” said Lindros on NHL Network Radio. “But when it comes to a sport, let’s try to clean them up as best as we can. Let’s get a proper protocol that everyone can agree upon.”
Lindros has been a fascinating poster boy for the NHL’s changing concussion culture. Unlike players like Pat LaFontaine and Paul Kariya, he wasn’t a guy getting pin-balled around the offensive zone – he was usually the guy working the flippers.
Hits like the Scott Stevens freight-training in 2000 have obscured the fact that Lindros dished it out more than he took it. Leaving Andreas Dackell concussed, face down in a pool of blood. Concussing Rob Niedermayer. Playing on the edge physically, exploiting the rulebook that, ironically, has been significantly redefined because of the hits administered to Lindros rather than from him.
“Should they take it much further? I’m not sure,” said Lindros this weekend. “The red line … maybe put that back. And if you’re going to do that, let’s widen the rink, too.”
So while players like Pat LaFontaine get attention when they talk concussions, and players like Kariya get sympathy for staying out of the spotlight, Lindros has always been in a weird purgatory of public opinion: He caused concussions with his hits, suffered concussions because of the way he played, and yet was a victim within an inherently violent sport that, at the time of his career, hadn’t put concussions at the forefront of player safety.
But the really interesting aspect of Lindros’s concussion advocacy is the fact that the despite his celebrity – and outside of Sidney Crosby, there isn’t another NHL superstar more synonymous with game-related brain trauma – he’s resisted the siren’s song of the concussion lawsuit against the league, declining to join the litigation.
“Concussions are going to occur,” Lindros told the Courier-Post. “They just are. There’s car accidents. There’s bike accidents. These things happen. And if we had a tangible solution to it, we’re helping all of society. I’m gonna go at it a different way.”
Lindros’s way has been through funding research – including $5 million of his own money to the London (Ontario) Health Sciences Center – and advocating for concussion awareness, especially for young athletes.
“I have three young kids, and I’m always asked if I’m going to let me kids play hockey. I’ve gotten some information on the number of kids playing hockey, and it’s not like the numbers are going up. I think there’s a fear of protecting your kid,” he said.
So he’s stepped up to try and better protect them. From the New York Times’ piece on Lindros:
The practice of returning too soon from head injuries galvanized Lindros to champion Rowan’s Law, named for Rowan Stringer, a 17-year-old who died in May 2013 after sustaining three concussions in less than a week while playing high school rugby.
The law established an advisory committee to work on the 49 recommendations that came out of the coroner’s report on Stringer’s death. The legislation was put forward by Lisa MacLeod, a provincial lawmaker in Ontario who met Lindros last year when she served as his coach at a celebrity hockey game in Toronto.
“After every single shift, he would come off and talk about Rowan’s Law with me,” MacLeod said.
Lindros made an appearance at the Ontario Legislature in April, and after the law passed in June, Lindros was named to the advisory panel and was invited to be a part of a celebration with the Stringer family.
“Eric became, for many us, a real part of Rowan’s team, and he took this awareness to another level,” MacLeod said. “We are now the first jurisdiction in Canada with legislation dealing with concussions.”
Lindros has the cache to approach this concussion issue from any manner he chooses. Had he joined the lawsuit headlined by well over 100 former players, he would have been its face. Had he gone after the NHL executives and physicians that didn’t address his concussion concerns as a player – Lindros said he’s basically letting bygones be bygones with the Philadelphia Flyers – he would have been justified. Had he railed against the NHL for inadequate rules and concussion protocols now and back in his day, his voice would have been perhaps the loudest.
(Although it’s a worthy debate on whether his tempered approach to the NHL’s role in the concussion crisis helped pave his way to the Hall of Fame. Squeaky wheels don’t get through the front door.)
(Ironic, then, that Lindros may have earned enshrinement by skating with his head down on this.)
Instead, Lindros is approaching this at the roots-level with young athletes and from a research level for pro athletes. The injuries that cut his career short have motivated him after retirement. The concussions that limited his playing days have fueled his unlimited dedication to reducing and treating them.
“Let’s look at some research and let’s thrown some money at it so we can have a tangible solution to a longtime problem that we seem to be skirting around on the outside,” he said.
Tonight at the Hockey Hall of Fame, they honor his legacy on the ice. Countless other athletes may one day thank him for his work off the ice.
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