"Not so crazy now, am I?"
In 1998, Eric Lindros challenged hockey's play-through-it culture
ONLY ONCE since his retirement in 2007 has Eric Lindros worried about the damage that a lifetime of hockey may have inflicted upon his brain.
It was late last summer, and he and then-fiancée Kina Lamarche had flown to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where they turned off their cellphones and motored 1,250 miles around the coast in a 34-foot rented RV they nicknamed Peggy.
The trip was very much what it seemed: an adorable, old-fashioned premarital test-drive to gauge just how well the couple would fare while roughing it at $18-a-night oceanfront campsites, where the biggest decision each day was who had to connect Peggy's nasty blue hose to the toilet pump-out station.
On the second day of the adventure, the couple were in a rented canoe in the middle of breathtaking Kejimkujik Lake when a thunderstorm rolled in off the coast. In an instant, the skies darkened and torrents of rain began filling up the canoe. Lightning crackled just overhead. Lindros glanced at Kina in the front of the boat, then down at the metal-lined canoe underfoot and the metal paddle in his hands. Are we freaking nuts? he wondered. For a moment, Lindros feared that his decision-making skills had indeed been dulled.
Just then, Kina turned around, lifted the soaked brim of her baseball cap and, through the rain, yelled back to him the classic line from Caddyshack: "Oh, I don't think the heavy stuff's gonna come down for quite a while."
The tension left Lindros' body, and he lifted his paddle out of the water. For maybe the first time in his life, he didn't feel the need to battle tooth and nail against the forces of nature.
Since he appeared on the cover of our premiere issue in 1998, dressed in all black alongside Kobe Bryant, Alex Rodriguez and Kordell Stewart, Lindros has experienced the kind of pressure, success, scrutiny, injury, vitriol and vindication that few other athletes have. And if there was a true launching point to what he hoped was the peaceful, posthockey part of his life, this moment was it. Lindros let the wind and current take the boat. Then he paddled them safely back to shore, convulsing with laughter.
"I wasn't able to completely appreciate everything until I was done playing," he says. "So it was just a moment there of great appreciation for how fortunate I've been. In a life-and-death situation, my future wife is quoting Caddyshack? Just how lucky of a guy am I? Life's pretty damn good over here, ya know?"
BACK IN TORONTO, inside the shelf-lined foyer of Lindros' home, the area where you'd most expect to find piles of hockey memorabilia is instead decorated with a series of exquisite Beatles lithographs. The current status of his often tumultuous relationship with hockey is still very much on display in this space, though. For starters, he and Kina, the former president of North America Travelex, a global business payments corporation, shoot pucks back and forth on the finely finished wood floors. Lindros is also here most Wednesday nights, contorting his massive frame through a series of Pilates poses. He endures these sessions for one simple reason: They help keep his creaky back limber enough for his twice-weekly games of shinny at a nearby community rink.
Lindros has been skating there since he was 10, and the rink is as classically Canadian as it gets, all cinder block and cement, thick, dark wooden roof beams and war-era lime-green tiled floors sliced up by generations of skaters eagerly penguin-walking their way to the ice. "That's home for me," says Lindros. "It took time, age and perspective for me to be okay with hockey again. As soon as that happened, (I found the beauty in it again."
As Lindros hits his 40s, bits of gray have begun to peek out at the temples from under his helmet. Other than that, his face is almost exactly as Flyers fans would remember it from his heyday in Philadelphia. His eyes remain cold and intense, and the gap between his front teeth and his massive cleft chin are connected by a series of vertical scars that, linked together, evoke cracked granite. He still has those impossibly thick catcher's-mitt-size hands, the same ones that logged 865 points and 1,398 penalty minutes in just 760 games over his 13-season career.
A few weeks before Easter, Lindros and his buddies skate at the community rink for about an hour. Afterward they gather in front of the net trying to replicate Red Wings forward Pavel Datsyuk's sick shootout moves -- that is, until the Zamboni driver chases them off the ice as if they were teenagers.
For a moment, Lindros is transported back to his hometown of London, Ontario, about 120 miles southwest of Toronto, where, before he had even turned 18, he was already being anointed the Next One, as the rightful heir to the Great One, Wayne Gretzky. Lindros could dazzle with skill and speed every bit as much as Gretzky or Mario Lemieux, but at 6'4", 225 pounds, he was perfectly willing to kick your ass first if so required. "Eric has got to wear the crown," said Hall of Famer Bobby Orr in 1998. "Eric is the guy now."
Lindros became a full-fledged villain, however, when he refused to play for Quebec after the Nordiques selected him No. 1 overall in the 1991 draft. Unswayed by the enmity of an entire province, or pressure from the prime minister himself, Lindros sat out a year and eventually forced the trade of the decade: a six-player, two-draft-pick, $15 million swap with the Flyers. "I just didn't sense any of that burning desire to win in the Nordiques organization," Lindros says. "If I had gotten drafted by the Canadiens, are you kidding me? I'd be driving up the 401 right away."
Instead, he was playing for his childhood hero, Flyers GM and former Broad Street Bully Bobby Clarke, in Philadelphia. Lindros scored 41 goals during his first NHL season and won the 1995 Hart Trophy as NHL MVP. In 1997 he helped the Flyers to their first Stanley Cup Finals in a decade (they were swept by Detroit) and was voted to his third All-Star Game.
All of this made Lindros a natural choice to grace the cover of our first issue in March 1998, standing, arms folded, just to the right of our motto: NEXT. We fully expected the Next One to rule hockey and change the future of sports. And he did, just in a different -- and far more important and complicated -- way than anyone ever could have imagined. "Injuries cut his time in the NHL short," says John LeClair, a former linemate in Philly. "But Eric left his mark on the game."
Just as our first issue was going to press, Lindros was crossing the blue line in Pittsburgh when he lost the puck in his skates, glanced down for a second and got freight-trained by Penguins defenseman Darius Kasparaitis. In the showers after the game, a groggy Lindros didn't recognize his surroundings and began to wonder if he had been traded.
He would sit out 18 games following that first concussion, and he suffered at least five more over the course of the next two seasons. The scene was all too familiar, and terrifying, to Lindros and his parents, Bonnie and Carl, who also served as his agent and adviser. In 1995 Eric's younger brother, Brett, a first-round pick of the Islanders, suffered a pair of debilitating concussions that left him unable to dial a phone or sleep. He was forced to walk away from his childhood dream after just 51 games, at age 20. At a time when NHL players were still allowed to play without a helmet if they signed a waiver, the information and concern about concussions was so scarce -- and the topic so taboo -- that Carl had to go to the local library to educate himself about what his kids were dealing with.
In a twisted way, that knowledge and the caution it fostered in Eric made him something of an outsider. Nowadays, most hockey fans applaud and defend Penguins star Sidney Crosby for having the guts and perspective to sit as long as he needed to fully recover from a concussion. A dozen years ago, when Lindros tried to do that? The reaction was, shall we say, slightly less enlightened. The media snickered about his manhood and mocked him as a head case. Fans threw pacifiers on the ice. And when Lindros and his parents dared to question the Flyers medical staff after the team first sent Eric to a migraine specialist in March 2000 instead of a neurologist who focused on concussions, the old-school Clarke flipped. He isolated Lindros from the team, at one point going weeks without speaking to his injured star. Then he stripped him of his captaincy.
Looking back, that's one of the moments of his experience that irks Lindros the most and makes him worry about today's nonmarquee players: The pressure to play, the alienation from teammates and the other mind games used to get players back on the ice -- those things worked on him, in large part because he let them. "The athletes are the worst advocates for this crap by not disclosing enough," he says. "Who wants to admit deficiencies and put that X on your back? Are you gonna take yourself out? Because now it's who do they have in the minors to replace you? It's a sh -- y business in that regard."
After a 10-week absence in the spring of 2000, during which he suffered another concussion, Lindros returned to play in the Eastern Conference finals. In Game 7, as Lindros skated up the ice trying to pass the puck, Devils defenseman Scott Stevens delivered one of the most famous head shots in hockey history. The once-hulking Lindros crumpled to the ice in a twisted heap, then remained there in the fetal position for a long time. He was never the same player again.
In 2007, after stints with the Rangers and Toronto, Lindros was in Dallas, playing right wing for the Stars because he could no longer stomach skating up the middle of the ice. Near the end of the season, banged up again with myriad injuries, he caught himself watching the clock during practice, counting down the seconds until he could get the hell off the ice. It's time, he thought. A few months later, he called it quits.
By that time, Lindros had suffered almost as much from hockey's machismo mindset as he did from the concussions themselves. "Have we come a long way since then?" Lindros asks. "I don't know, have we?"
Operating in the NFL's shadow has allowed the NHL to avoid intense public scrutiny on head injuries. (No one's asking the president if he'd let his son play hockey.) But the sport is struggling every bit as much with its own epidemic of brain trauma and how to deal with it. In 2011 the NHL adopted new in-game protocols to better identify players with concussions and manage how they return to competition. The league has also broadened Rule 48, which governs hits above the shoulder, to penalize players who target an opponent's head from any direction.
Yet at the same time, fighting is on the upswing this season, and teams are still permitted to cite "upper-body injury" on medical reports rather than clearly identifying players with concussions. Like football, hockey is struggling to confront the idea that smaller, legal collisions involving rotational force of the brain -- as well as the buildup of subconcussive hits over a player's career -- can be just as damaging as the big hits everyone seems so focused on.
Last season about 90 NHL players (or 13 percent of the league) missed games with concussions, including former playoff MVP Jonathan Toews. The simple truth is that there may not be a way to wipe out concussions completely in violent contact sports like football and hockey. So what Lindros did was the next best thing: He stood up to hockey's insidious play-through-it culture. As a result, players today will tell you they feel less obligated to hide or downplay a brain injury or postconcussion symptoms -- a mindset that protects them far more than any helmet or rule ever could.
"It's unfortunate what Lindros dealt with throughout his career," says Maple Leafs defenseman John-Michael Liles, who missed 16 games in 2011-12 following a concussion. "But I think that one of the things everyone knows now, if there's a possibility that you got your bell rung pretty well, it's, 'Hey, we need to take a couple of days and see.' "
"Not so crazy now, was I?" Lindros says, before catching himself. "But you want to give me credit? I hate the idea of that more than anything. That poster boy s -- ? No. No thanks."
For Lindros, the greatest reward is that the very thing that turned hockey purists against him at the time -- the idea that this cocky, aloof, self-centered kid would dare put his long-term health ahead of the needs of his team -- is probably what saved his brain, if not his life. Since retiring, Lindros has dealt with bouts of anxiety that may be a byproduct of the concussions. He mentions that he does 10 to 20 minutes of sudoku and freecell solitaire on his phone almost every day. Is it a form of self-testing, a way to stay sharp? "Maaaybeee," he says, using a faux nervous tone to elicit a laugh.
Overall, though, he has no long-term effects associated with his head injuries. He feels good. He feels strong and sharp -- and, most of all, fortunate. In the past few years he has invested in two Internet startups, and the underdog, collaborative environment has him bursting with energy, observations and ideas. Kina says the topic of his concussions almost never comes up in their day-to-day lives.
This is not to say he's moving on; it has never been that simple with Lindros. Upon retirement, he donated $5 million to the London (Ontario) Health Sciences Centre for medical research, where he had received treatment for his concussions. Each spring he speaks to medical students at the University of Western Ontario to give them an athlete's perspective on the growing concussion epidemic.
In 2007 Lindros joined the NHL Players' Association in the newly created role of ombudsman but quickly grew frustrated with the league's glacial pace of business, especially when it came to player safety issues. Lindros says even an inexpensive and noncontroversial improvement like more forgiving Plexiglas took several years to implement. Lindros also wanted to widen rinks by five feet on each side to give players more space to maneuver. He was an advocate of putting the red line back in play -- which, he says, would slow down collisions and decrease concussions without affecting the number of goals scored. He also favored one government- and NHL-sanctioned online clearinghouse for all medical information, research and resources on concussions.
"That's where we need help, consolidating information to find out what we can do better on this," he says. Responds NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, who notes that the league uses a centralized tracking system to study and analyze injury trends: "Suffice it to say we are very comfortable with how the league approaches player safety issues in our game -- including boards and glass -- and any perception of delay or indifference should largely be attributed to the historic interference of the NHLPA, including specifically when Eric was there."
Before long, the lack of progress on issues like these began to gnaw away at Lindros. In the end, he decided he could either save the NHL or save himself. "At some point you gotta just say, Screw it, I'm moving on," he says. "I'm gonna do my thing and I'm not gonna listen to the noise anymore. Some call it selfish. Some call it self-preservation. And that's what it was for me: survival."
THE CLEAN BREAK ultimately gave Lindros the perspective and peace he needed to find closure with hockey. That arrived in the summer of 2011, when current Flyers GM Paul Holmgren invited Lindros to play in an alumni event that December at Citizens Bank Park. What role Clarke played in the overture is unclear, but he insisted there were no longer any hard feelings between the two. "Certainly we had our battles, but once he was gone, it was over," says Clarke, who went so far as to lobby for Lindros to be elected to the Hall of Fame. "He was a big part of the Flyers."
In pregame introductions, an apprehensive Lindros stepped onto the ice in full Flyers orange and was given a roaring, goose-bump-inducing standing ovation. At the time, with Crosby incapacitated with concussion-like symptoms, it felt like a much-needed moment of awakening on brain trauma in hockey and in the sports world in general. An acknowledgment of sorts -- an apology, even. Lindros bowed his head and lifted his stick in the air, saluting the fans. "It's nice that those battles are over now for Eric," says Kina. "He has nothing to gain by saying to everyone: 'Look, you were all wrong; the villain you created in your minds, in so many different ways, that's not who I am.' "
The reconciliation with Philadelphia, though, was nothing compared to the challenge Lindros faced with his future father-in-law. In a wonderful bit of irony, somewhere inside the grand intersection of life, love and hockey, Kina, the love of his life, turns out to be a native Quebecer. It gets better. Her father, Pierre Lamarche, is an exclusively French-speaking, former Molson employee and diehard hockey fan. In other words, the one guy Lindros hoped he'd never run into after shunning the Nordiques would now be sitting across from him at every family get-together, holding a carving knife.
Turns out, though, Pierre didn't stand a chance. A few months after the November 2012 wedding, the groom took Pierre to Montreal for the All-Star Classic at the Bell Centre, a game featuring Lindros and other former NHLers against a team of Habs legends. Lindros, who speaks only about five words of French, got Pierre great seats and gave him a behind-the-scenes tour where, of all things, Pierre marveled at the idea that millionaire players would be given free razors inside the locker room. The whole thing still nearly blew up in Lindros' face when, inside the Habs' dressing room, a giggling Sergio Momesso, Chris Chelios and Alex Kovalev started giving Pierre a hard time, en français, about letting his daughter marry that Lindros guy. "An absolute beauty," howls Lindros, remembering the scene.
At 73, Pierre has considerable trouble walking. His pace is so slow, in fact, that it's easy for him to be left behind in a crowd. But at their wedding and again inside the Bell Centre, every time Kina looked back for her dad, she saw the same smiling person by his side, patiently shuffling along next to him.
It was Lindros, unhurried and with a renewed sense of purpose.
But still going against the crowd.
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ESPN The Magazine: May 13, 2013