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Current NHL issues vindicate Eric Lindros

Eric Lindros was drafted first overall in 1991 by the Quebec Nordiques and was subsequently traded to Philadelphia. (Craig Melvin /Allsport )

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Eric Lindros was drafted first overall in 1991 by the Quebec Nordiques and was subsequently traded to Philadelphia. (Craig Melvin /Allsport )

As part of Sidney Crosby’s health update press conference Wednesday, the Penguins superstar came out with his strongest condemnation of head shots in the game.

“I think we can go further,” Crosby said in regard to the game’s treatment and prevention of head injuries and on-ice head hits, intentional or otherwise. “I don’t think there’s a reason not to take (all head shots) out…For the most part, we can control what goes on out there. For sure, it’s a fast game. But we’ve got to be responsible, too. Guys have got to be responsible with their sticks, why shouldn’t they be responsible with the rest of their bodies?”

After the press conference was over, I didn’t hear one pundit or hockey person refer to Crosby’s declaration as a fine whine from a petulant, hyper-rich athlete. The grand majority of people understood the agony and anguish he has been through and thus accepted his interest in making the game safer.

And you know what that silence told me? It said the hockey world owes a big-time, heartfelt apology to Eric Lindros. Remember him? The game’s Sidney Crosby before No. 87 ever got near an NHL rink? Long painted by the game’s establishment as the opposite of what a hockey player ought to be – self-interested and unwilling to bend to the traditions of the game – Lindros and his struggles have been vindicated by the passage of time. He now stands out as a clear harbinger of what was ahead for the sport.

Unfortunately, that willingness to stand up and rage against hockey’s machine made Lindros into as close to a pariah as any superstar in the history of the game. But if you can look past his stoic exterior, brick-wall build and whatever you think of the influence his parents exercised on the course of his career, you’ll see a supremely talented player rightfully angry over what has become fashionable to talk about after the NHL’s summer of death: the manner in which players are treated as disposable slabs of meat on a conveyor belt.

Lindros saw his brother, Brett, have his NHL career ended by concussions shortly after it began. Eric suffered multiple concussions himself and had his own effectiveness as a player truncated by them. In 1999 in Nashville, he suffered a collapsed lung that was misdiagnosed by a trainer as a rib injury – and if he had followed team orders to get on a plane back to Philadelphia, he very likely could have died.

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And what did he get for bristling at his treatment? He was painted as soft by people such as Bob Clarke, snickered at in many corners for having the equivalent of a glass jaw for a skull and instructed to keep his head on a 360-degree swivel on the ice. The industry callously allowed his skills to be whittled away with each successive concussion. When he retired at age 34 in 2007, there was no great sadness that washed over the game, no vow to try and prevent such a disaster from befalling another top talent.

If that’s not a huge condemnation of how quickly hockey eats up and spits out even its brightest lights, I don’t know what is.

What would’ve happened had the NHL reacted with even a sliver of the alleged urgency they’re now attacking concussions with? You’d be right to say there’s no guarantee Lindros would have avoided his fate, but it’s also true there’s no proof it wouldn’t have helped him.

The day Lindros announced his retirement, he made a massive $5 million dollar donation to the London (Ontario) Health Science Centre, where he received treatment during his hockey career. That should’ve been enough proof that what Lindros and family were fighting for wasn’t solely about Lindros and family.

But it wasn’t enough. Hockey looked at Lindros and his natural inclination to protect himself and projected on him a weakness that in reality was the weakness of the sport itself in providing an adequate degree of player safety.

Times have changed when that sense of self-interest can now be seen in Crosby as entirely justified. It’s just a dirty rotten shame that Lindros and others before him weren’t given the same benefit of the doubt.

Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. Power Rankings appear Mondays, his blog appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays.

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