The fight against concussions

Former NHLer Eric Lindros is on a mission to keep his kids—and yours—safe from concussions.
Hockey player Eric Linnros and family on couch

Photo: Sandy Nicholson

 

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It’s 2000, and Philadelphia Flyer Eric Lindros is thundering toward the goal, one-on-four, in a playoff game against the New Jersey Devils. Suddenly, Devils defenceman Scott Stevens cuts across and slams a shoulder into Lindros’s face, snapping his head back and sending him down on the ice. Hard. Lindros doesn’t move. It isn’t his first concussion, and it won’t be his last. While Lindros doesn’t suffer any lingering side effects from that hit 17 years ago, he hasn’t forgotten what it feels like to be concussed.

“Everything is off. It’s tough to read; it’s tough to see; you feel fatigued and you have this irritability. You just want to shut off.” Looking back, he says he wishes he’d eased off a little, given himself more time to recover. But, he says, that’s hindsight. “I’m not forgetting the past, but I do want to put it aside. It’s more about, what can I do going forward?”

Ever since he retired in 2007, Lindros has devoted his time to two things: his family (he and his wife, Kina, have three kids—Carl, 3, and 18-month-old twins Sophie and Ryan) and raising awareness about concussions, a series of which cut his career short.

In fact, the first thing Lindros did when he retired after 13 seasons in the NHL was donate $5 million to the London Health Sciences Centre in London, Ont., where he had received treatment and surgery. Since then, he’s been outspoken about concussion prevention and research (“I can really let it rip,” he says), and he’s currently the honorary chair of See the Line, a London-based organization focused on concussion awareness and research.

At last year’s See the Line symposium to educate athletes, coaches and parents, Lindros championed the June 2016 passing of Rowan’s Law in Ontario, named for Rowan Stringer, who died in 2013 at age 17 after sustaining two blows to the head in less than a week while playing rugby. Lindros had been pushing for the law for three years. Under Rowan’s Law, Ontario will establish a committee to develop mandatory concussion protocols for all of its schools—a first in Canada. Still, Lindros is modest about the impact he’s had. “It’s not about me. It’s about communication and collaboration. This takes a team. It takes a lot of people looking out for each other.”

One of those people is Michael Strong, dean of the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry at Western University in London, Ont. “Having a major athlete like Eric so invested in this shows how important it is,” he says. “Our goal is to move the conversation away from just those of us at the lab bench and out to people in the community, and Eric’s support of See the Line has been tremendous.”

Lindros says the biggest improvement he’s seen since his NHL days is that people at all levels of sport are finally talking about concussions—and taking them seriously. “It just wasn’t happening 15 years ago,” he says. “Then, it was, ‘Shhh…don’t use the C-word.’ I just wish we had more to offer people, more research wins to flash across the sky. But it’s coming.”

One of the greatest strides the scientific community has made is the discovery of biomarkers for concussions. Last year, researchers at the London Health Sciences Centre developed a blood test that identifies with 90 percent accuracy whether an adolescent has suffered a concussion. “It gives us the ability to see who actually has neural damage,” says Strong. Still, the invisible nature of brain injury is a hurdle for diagnosis and treatment, especially in kids who may not recognize their symptoms—or who might not share how they’re feeling because they want to stay in the game. “It’s easy to see when you break your leg and are in a cast,” Strong says. “You hope you can get back to your sport, but you know you need to rest. A brain injury isn’t that overt, but like any other organ in the body, it can get damaged and needs to heal.” In some cases, symptoms such as learning disabilities, anxiety, depression and aggressive outbursts can last for months or longer.

While parents will naturally worry about their kids getting a concussion, it’s no reason to keep them on the sidelines, Lindros notes. For one thing, there are many causes—from falls to car accidents—and it’s impossible to prevent them all. “Concussions are going to happen and, when they do, it’s about using common sense. It’s about seeking a medical opinion and helping them get through it and get back to normal activity, gradually,” says Lindros.

This process is something that’s finally being acknowledged in hockey, and it has changed how the game is played at all levels. In 2013, Canadian peewee hockey introduced a ban on checking, and in some kids’ leagues, players are automatically benched and get checked out by a medic if they get hit in the head. Meanwhile, the NHL introduced spotters in 2016 to pull players with potential concussions out of games. “We’ve seen a continuous increase in education and respect in the game,” says Todd Jackson, director of insurance and risk management at Hockey Canada. “Being active is important for kids, and it’s our job to make it as safe as we can.” New research shows it’s working: In March, a University of Calgary study found the checking ban has led to a 64 percent reduction in concussion rates for 11- and 12-year-old hockey players in Alberta.

It’s a start, but Lindros says the problem isn’t solved yet. Not even close. “I just want to know why we still have contact for older kids, kids who just want to get out and play and are never going to turn pro,” he says. And, he adds, there’s still too much hype over hits. “Hockey is a great game, but when kids are playing, we should celebrate offensive and defensive plays far more than we acknowledge the physical contact.”

The greatest thing about the game, Lindros says, is that it brings people together. Last November, when he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, his wife, Kina, threw a big party (“It was bigger than our wedding,” Lindros recalls) to celebrate some of the people who helped get him there. “It was a chance to say thanks,” he says. “You just remember how fortunate you are. You think about the sacrifices your parents made, about the volunteer coach who stayed after practice to teach you power skating, about your teammates who supported you: There are a lot of selfless people in hockey.” For his part, Lindros still sharpens skates at his childhood arena in north Toronto, and he plays pickup hockey twice a week—and he gets parenting advice in the change room after the game. “I play with a great bunch of guys, and they all have kids. There’s no manual for this, so we’re all just figuring it out as we go along.” If you watch Lindros with his kids, though, he seems to have a pretty good handle on dad life. Whether it’s a spontaneous shootout with mini Flyers sticks or a game of “scary bear” (couch cushions make a den, and everyone gets a turn being the bear), the Lindros household is raucous, fun and full of laughter.

But here’s the big question: Will Lindros let his kids play hockey? Absolutely, if they want to, he says. But he’ll make sure they understand how to protect themselves and what to do if something happens on the ice. “It’s about communication between coaches, parents, teachers, kids and teammates so proper diagnosis, care and recovery can occur.” For now though, says Lindros, Carl’s interest in skating and hockey is about what you’d expect from a preschooler. “There are days when he just wants to sit in the middle of the ice and drink hot chocolate.” Lindros laughs and shakes his head. Kids.

How to spot a concussion
People think that because the brain is encased in the skull, it’s protected from injury, but the skull actually puts your brain at risk, says Michael Strong, dean of the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry at Western University in London, Ont. “The brain floats as though it were inside an aquarium, and when you have a hit to the head, it creates waves.” These waves push the brain back and forth against the skull, causing a concussion.

Kids are more susceptible to concussions because their brains are still developing, adds Douglas Fraser, an associate professor and clinician-scientist at Western. “In competitive sports, children underestimate the severity of symptoms,” he says. “They worry about sitting out or losing their position on the team and aren’t always willing to give up activity because of a concussion.” That’s why it’s up to parents and coaches to be on the lookout for symptoms, which can include headache, nausea, vomiting, slurred speech, dizziness, fatigue, sensitivity to light and noise, irritability, sleep issues and trouble concentrating.

Signs of a concussion can be subtle and may not show up right away—and some may last for days, weeks or even longer. If your child shows any symptoms, stop all activity and see a doctor, Fraser says. A kid who has a concussion needs to rest physically and cognitively—which usually means staying home from school and having no vigorous physical activity or screen time. As symptoms improve, you can ease your kid back into activities. However, if symptoms return, says Fraser, “you just have to take a step back and wait a little longer.”

For a video of Eric Lindros and other profiles from the Power of Play series, visit powerofplay.sportsnet.ca

Read more:
How to raise the next Sidney Crosby
Confessions of a reluctant hockey mom
Concussions: What you need to know

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