During a 1998 game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Eric Lindros picked up a loose puck near the centre ice boards and attempted to take it into the attacking zone. The Philadelphia Flyers forward approached the Pens’ blue line and he’ll never forget what happened next – even if he didn’t remember at the time.
“[Defenceman] Darius Kasparaitis caught me and I had my head down,” Lindros said of the hit that knocked him to the ice, jarred off his helmet and took him out of a game against a division rival.
Lindros was concussed and would go on to miss the next 18 games. But in the moments after the check he thought his Flyers career was over, just not for the reason you might expect.
“You’re the visiting team and you’re in the dressing room, so all of the towels and all of that have the Penguins logo on them,” Lindros explained. “I truly thought I had been traded to Pittsburgh. I joke about it now because it’s the way I deal with it, but you are not yourself. You are not sharp. You may look fine, but you’re not close to being what you were prior to the incident.”
It was the Hockey Hall of Famer’s personal history with concussions – his NHL career was cut short by the five he incurred during his playing days, while his brother, Brett, had his career ended after only 51 games due to the effects of post-concussion syndrome – that made Lindros want to align himself with a new campaign from the Ontario government promoting Rowan’s Law, set to go in effect in the province on Canada Day.
Named after Rowan Stringer, a 17-year-old Ottawa rubgy player who died from second-impact syndrome in 2013 after incurring multiple concussions, the law creates firm protocols for young athletes to be removed from activity upon showing signs of a suspected concussion, as well as an understanding of resources and conduct.
A commercial that features a young soccer player being taken out of a game with the tag line “Hit. Stop. Sit.” began airing this week during Game 5 of the NBA Finals between the Toronto Raptors and the Golden State Warriors.
“I got to know [Rowan’s father] Gord Stringer, [Ontario Minister of Children, Community and Social Services] Lisa MacLeod and learned about what they were pushing forward and thought I could help and wanted to do so,” Lindros said of his involvement. “We got a few things passed and we got our advisory board set up and worked hard at it. We took what the [Ontario] coroner said and we came up with recommendations and solutions to the recommendations that the coroner laid out for us after Rowan’s passing. We think we have the real deal. We’ve done a pretty good job and now we’re at the stage where we want to implement things and that’s where we’re at now in moving forward.”
Lindros, who retired from hockey in 2007 following a 13-year career with the Flyers, New York Rangers, Toronto Maple Leafs and Dallas Stars, acknowledges that there might be some difficulty in the early going with the adoption of the law.
“You get caught up in the moment and are taking a kid away from what they were doing and saying, ‘You’re not right. I’m doing you a favour. Please listen to me.’” Lindros said. “But the hardest part will be in the spirit of the moment – whether on the pitch, on the bench of a rink, a basketball court, whatever the place may be – as a coach, as a parent, as a friend and having that simple conversation, saying, ‘We recognize that you’re showing early symptoms [of a concussion] and think it’s best that you sit.’ And it’s going to be a hard one to do because, although it’s not Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final, to them and possibly to the coach, it could be the equivalent.”
For the modern sports fan, hearing about concussions and their after effects is commonplace, but that wasn’t always the case. Lindros was one of the first high-profile athletes for whom identified concussions became an urgent matter.
“I went in to see a migraine specialist – the Flyers had a migraine specialist – and he said you don’t have a migraine, you’re concussed,” Lindros recalled. “Go out to Chicago and see the best guy [for it]. His recommendation was two weeks flat off and then we’re going to start to assess from there, which was unheard of at the time. Two weeks now for a concussion, nobody really bats an eye. It might even be on the low side. There was a lot of conflict around time and time off and that was tough to go through.”
As a 46-year-old retired athlete in 2019, Lindros considers himself to be fortunate.
“My back hasn’t been good for the last little bit, but I think overall, I was quite lucky,” Lindros said. “At this point, I feel pretty good. Yeah, everybody’s got their good days and their bad days, but that’s life, right? Having three small kids, you’re tired.”
Lindros believes the goal with the new awareness campaign isn’t to make concussions a boogeyman for parents and young athletes, but to have a real understanding of what’s at stake and what should be done.
“I think what we should focus on here is that we don’t want to scare people or make concussions a reason not to perform or not to play or not to be active or involved,” Lindros said. “Don’t give concussions that power. Read up on things. Make sure you’re ready. They will happen, but if they’re handled correctly, you’re going to be back in hopefully a short period of time, doing what you love to do and back at school. And you’re going to know about it. You’re going to know that things are going to be okay. You’re going to be cautious moving forward a little bit, but you’re still going to be able to perform.”
Improvements elsewhere can also be made and Lindros admits that being a parent has let him view youth sports through a different lens and identify what he sees as a problem in youth hockey.
“You don’t want to see your kid hurt and then I look at hockey and think, ‘Why are we hitting before everybody has gone through puberty?’” Lindros said. “Sure, some guys are going to be bigger and some guys are going to be smaller, but why don’t we at least let everybody get through puberty before we say, ‘Let’s get hitting?’ I think we can work on our puck-handling, I think we can work on our gamesmanship. You can work on a team approach. You can work on whatever facet of the game you want.”
For Lindros, the physical aspect of the sport is one that is superfluous to the level at which a majority of kids are playing or will play.
“Hitting is not that difficult, in my eyes, to pick up, nor is defending a hit or body positioning and what not,” Lindros explained. “So if you’re playing house league, Single-A or Double-A for that matter, do you really need it? Is it worth it? If you’re not going to go play pro or you’re not in Triple-A, you’re probably not going to Jr. B. Why bother? Why expose yourself to it? ...Hockey doesn’t need the rest. I think we’re losing a lot of kids along the way, dropping out because of the hitting.”
As the awareness campaign begins and July 1 approaches, Lindros hopes that Ontario is just the beginning for Rowan’s Law.
“It would be great if we could use this in Ontario and then other provinces could also pick up on it and brand it all under Rowan’s Law, so that when you think of the name Rowan, it would be the equivalent of saying ‘Amber Alert,’ where you know it relates to a missing child,” Lindros said.
Lindros sees participation from Ottawa as the way to make his hope a reality.
“We need federal [participation], but to be honest with you, we don’t need a gazillion committee meetings to move ahead,” Lindros said. “We’ve done the heavy lifting. The work is there. Take the name. Take the blueprint. Take the branding. Take everything. We’re open to it. We’ve done the work. Please use it.”