It's hard to believe that the man to the left with a touch of gray in his hair is only 38 today. Had health problems not sidelined Eric Lindros, he may still be contributing to an NHL team's run to a Stanley Cup. If there is one image of Eric Lindros that almost everyone remembers, it is the image of him lying on the ice in a crumpled heap of humanity after Scott Stevens caught Lindros cutting through open ice at the blueline. While Lindros's playing days didn't end there, a new report in Maclean's Magazine has Eric Lindros talking about how his series of concussions ended his career shortly after taking that hit. Honestly, this report is eye-opening, and it truly puts Eric Lindros in a new light for me as I have an immense amount of respect for him for speaking out about the aftermath of concussions.
I'll preface this article with this thought: I didn't like Eric Lindros. He was a force of a human being on skates at 6'4" tall and 255 lbs. He was supposed to be the "Next One" to follow in the footsteps of players like Gretzky, Lemieux, Howe, Hull, and Richard - a man that could not be contained who seemingly scored at will. I loved how he played the game, but hated that he played for the Flyers and snubbed the Quebec Nordiques after being drafted. Because of his choice not to play for the Nordiques, I never respected him as a person, so I wanted to see what this report in Maclean's Magazine had to say from his perspective.
The focus of the article, written by Cathy Gulli, is all about how concussions have sidelined players, but how the aftermath of those concussions has derailed the lives of former players who suffer from concussions. I think that concussions are often dismissed in sports as a sign of machismo and toughness in the heat of the moment, and I was certainly not aware of the issues that come after the concussion has been suffered and how far those issues extend in terms of affecting other people around the concussion victim. Eric Lindros and several other professional players opened up to Miss Gulli about the circumstances surrounding their individual battles, and the stories they tell of what they went through is absolutely shocking.
For Lindros, his metamorphosis into a different player was almost immediate.
"I was extremely sarcastic. I was real short. I didn't have patience for people," says Lindros, 38. That rudeness mutated once he stepped on the ice into fear that the next concussion was just one hit away. "That’s why I played wing my last few years," he explains of changing positions late in his career. "I hated cutting through the middle. I was avoiding parting the Red Sea." Off the ice, Lindros developed a paralyzing sense of dread at the very thought of public speaking or of being in a crowd — once routine activities for the sports superstar. "I hated, absolutely hated, that. I'd avoid those scenarios. I didn't like airports. I didn't like galas. It would stress me out."For a man as admired in hockey circles as Lindros was, public appearances are a way of life. Kids idolize him. Fans love him. In airports, people would seek autographs from the superstar. But all of a sudden, those scenarios fill him with anxiety. That's probably a pretty good sign that something isn't right.
For former New York Ranger and Stanley Cup champion Jeff Beukeboom, concussions were ruining his life at home where he just wanted to spend time with his family.
"I couldn’t go out and play or do things with the kids physically," says Beukeboom, 46, who had several previous concussions. Instead, he related to his toddler another way: "Me and him were on the same sleep schedule."For an elite athlete, that's not normal by any means. Beukeboom was in the best health of his life during his days as an Edmonton Oiler and a New York Ranger, and now he can't do physical activity whatsoever. That's hard to hear from someone who was a champion in his sport.
Former Washington Capital Kevin Kaminski saw dramatic changes in his personality as he looks back on his life after concussions. The 42 year-old's character took a dramatic change following his retirement from the game in 1999.
"I isolated myself from my family," he says, by shutting himself "in a dark room" to cope with the headaches and fatigue, as well as light and noise sensitivity. However much they offered support, patience and care to him, Kaminski couldn't reciprocate. His moods swung from detached to enraged. Even Kaminski's neuropsychologist had trouble getting him to work through the emotions. "He wanted to talk about how I felt, but I was just blah," says Kaminski. So they’d resort to memory exercises, which agitated Kaminski because he couldn’t repeat back a list of four or five words. After grocery shopping, he couldn’t find his parked car. "My mind," he says, "was just a mess."Kaminski's story was the one that hit home for me. I've never suffered a concussion that has been diagnosed while playing sports, but I have taken my fair share of shots to the cranium. And while I feel that my personality hasn't changed a lot in any way, it scares me to hear that a serious concussion or series of concussions could ultimately ruin one's life through no fault of one's self.
In time, and using antidepressants, Kaminski's symptoms faded. But the injury had scarred him and his marriage. Last October, he and his wife finally divorced. "She said I wasn’t the same person anymore," he explains. "And I don’t think I am. I don’t think I am." Kaminski, who is now head coach of the Louisiana IceGators in the Southern Professional Hockey League, believes he knows what shattered his family. "I think a big part of it was the concussions," he says.
For one player, who prefers to remain unnamed, it became life-threatening at times. He received a career-ending concussion while playing in the minor pros. "It's crazy the feelings that go through your head. I get emotional just thinking about," he says. "I had a lot of suicidal thoughts. I'd be driving to the doctor's office and thinking to myself, 'What if I just swerved my car into oncoming traffic?'" he says. He felt weak and embarrassed for having such thoughts — he only told his girlfriend and, later, his neuropsychologist about what he was going through. Those sessions helped him. "I needed to get a lot of feelings out and deal with them," he says, to gain perspective. But he wants to resume therapy to further heal. "It’s like you get trapped in your own brain."These comments stuck out to me because of the recent number of suicides and deaths surrounding athletes who play contact sports. While I'm no doctor, there might be something evident in the brains of concussion victims that force their thought processes to go off the tracks. Take the case of former pro wrestler Chris Benoit: the man was described as a loving father and husband who was a hard-working professional wrestler, yet his life and the lives of his family ended in the most tragic of ways. Former Chicago Bear Dave Duerson committed suicide, and it was found that he suffered from multiple concussions over his career. The Star just reported that former North Star Bill Masterton most likely died on the ice from an untreated concussion. The Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy is now encouraging athletes to donate their brains for science and research into concussions and the effects they have on the brain. More and more athletes, having seen their idols and peers fall to concussions, are getting onboard with the science.
Depression and anxiety "is definitely very common for those players," says [Dr. Ruben] Echemendia. Left untreated, "that spirals," he explains, "and it can get really bad." All the more so, adds [Dr. Michael] Czarnota, among those players whose concussions are career-ending. "Their identity since they were six or four has been hockey. And if you tell somebody you can't do this anymore? I don’t know how many regular people have Plan Bs. I don't know how many athletes have Plan Bs."Perhaps that's the scariest sentence of all: "It gets tricky to discern what’s concussion and what’s mental illness". Perhaps concussions in hockey should be treated with more respect than just a 15-minute break in a ready room after taking a big hit. Perhaps more teams should follow the lead of the Pittsburgh Penguins when they told Sidney Crosby not to return for this season or the playoffs. Perhaps the game of hockey itself should look at saving the players instead of pushing the violence. "Playing through the pain" is just a phrase used to show courage and sacrifice. To me, courage is telling the coach that you're done for the night after taking a big hit.
That’s the irony: their single-mindedness to make it to the NHL is what got these players so far in their careers; it's also what contributed to their anxiety and depression. Grant Iverson, a neuropsychology professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia who specializes in concussion, says that studies show the more highly athletes derive their sense of self from a sport, the greater the psychological stress they experience once injured. That worsens, he continues, the longer the physical symptoms last. Further complicating matters, Iverson adds, is the fact that concussive symptoms are so similar to those of depression and anxiety — fatigue, sadness, irritability, nervousness, confusion, trouble concentrating. It gets tricky to discern what's concussion and what's mental illness.
Many players admit that before they were concussed, they didn’t appreciate the pain of others either. "I knocked a guy out once in the playoffs, and somebody told me that he had a career-ender, and I didn't feel any remorse at all," says the anonymous player. [Former player Max] Taylor didn't have compassion for one of his best friends. "He had problems, and he was explaining them to me, and telling me how he felt, and I was like, 'Come on, man, you should be able to play through that.'"If the emotional stuff is the baggage that one carries, there needs to be additional research done to help victims of concussions manage their conditions better. As it stands right now, the NHL isn't doing anything but risking players' lives and abilities by giving them a period off after a big hit. If Penguins fans were bothered by Crosby's lack of playing this season, consider that he may play a lot longer than Eric Lindros did after he took a jarring hit. If he does, this one season of rest to get his brain back at 100% will certainly be worth it in the long run for not only the Penguins franchise and the NHL, but for Sidney Crosby's family, the game of hockey in general, and every other player who suffers from a concussion.
Playing through the pain, after all, is a requirement to make the pros, just like taking one for the team. "If you’re not scoring goals, you got to chip in somehow — whether that's blocking the shot or fighting. Otherwise they’ll find somebody else to do your job," says the unnamed player, who once played with a broken hand. But, "when you're dealing with pain in your body, you have your wits about you. You can put the pain out of your mind. When it's your brain, you're dealing with a lot of other things; it's not just the pain, it's the emotional stuff."
For Eric Lindros, I have a brand-new respect for him in helping players battle through their concussion problems, and I think Eric Lindros, the person, is a one helluva better guy today than the player ever was. Well done, Mr. Lindros, and thank you for stepping forward. For the rest of the hockey players who stepped forward in this article as well, thank you as well for bringing a new light to the epidemic of concussions in sports. And to Miss Gulli, thank you for pursuing this story and bringing to light the struggles that some of my former idols are battling.
Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice, and your heads protected!