The Big Easy: Eric Lindros is healthy and happy after blazing a trail for player safety
The Big Easy: Eric Lindros is healthy and happy after blazing a trail for player safety
With his young family keeping him hopping, Eric Lindros is healthy and happy, after blazing a trail for player safety, he's content in the knowledge that he was right all along.It’s a bright fall day on a tree-lined street in one of Toronto’s most exclusive neighborhoods, but the rich and/or famous are nowhere to be seen. Things are pleasantly quiet on this Thursday morning in mid-November. It’s no more than a mile or so north of the bedlam that is downtown, but here, amid a mass of bright yellow leaves, there is nothing but calm and serenity. On one of the houses, there’s a makeshift sign from a torn cardboard box posted on the front door that reads in black magic marker ink: “Dear Guest: Please refrain from knocking at this time. Thank you.” The door opens and a mountain of a man stands in the doorway. His hands look as though they could still swallow you whole, then crumple you up and throw you away like a piece of scrap paper. He’s unshaven and graying at the temples, wearing blue sweat pants and a T-shirt with a Batman logo on the chest. This is where the tranquility ends. Eric Lindros apologizes for the mess as he walks past the three baby car seats at the door and pushes a child’s toy out of the way with his foot. Two nannies are tending to nine-week-old twins, Ryan Paul and Sophie Rose. Lindros’ wife, Kina, rounds out the 1-on-1 defense, running everywhere and seemingly doing everything. Resident handyman Vern is omnipresent, taking massive doors off frames and providing the man of the house a little relief from his Honey-Do List. Oblivious to all the commotion is George, a Hungarian waterfowl-hunting dog who is scared to death of ducks. He’s licking the face of little Carl Pierre, who’s displaying the kind of behavior typical of a 17-month-old child – perfectly content and squealing with joy one moment, inquisitive the next, then agitated and impatient, and eventually in full meltdown mode. Lindros has just returned from his weekly pickup game at the Toronto arena that first displayed his greatness more than a quarter century ago. It was decrepit back in the 1980s, and not much has changed. “We have a real good skate every Thursday morning,” Lindros says. “I had a good line this morning: Rob DiMaio and ‘Kipper’ (broadcaster and former NHLer Nick Kypreos).” There’s something decidedly different about ‘The Big E’ these days. He speaks excitedly about how a Costco is coming soon to his neighborhood, because that means he doesn’t have to go across town anymore. He talks about how much better Pampers are at absorbing wetness than Huggies. And he strongly suggests never buying the bulk batteries at Costco because it’s impossible to get through the enormous package before they die out. Just then, Carl Pierre sits on his lap and reaches for something. Unable to determine what his son wants, Lindros says, “Use your words,” before discovering Carl Pierre wants to play with a set of keys. At one point, Kina walks across the kitchen with two packages of what look like drink boxes, but they’re actually pre-mixed formula with a nipple attached for use in the car during moments of desperation. They were the brainchild of a guy Kina went to university with, and he sent the couple a care package full of them. Eric (under his breath): They’re f---ing brilliant. Kina: I’m sending them all to the women’s shelter. Eric: Those ones? Why? Kina: Because the kids don’t like them. Eric: Well, so much for brilliant. Somewhere along the way, Lindros has become an everyman. All right, everyman is a relative term here. Lindros made almost $50 million over the course of his playing career and has invested his earnings wisely. He doesn’t need a regular gig and can still live in the most well-to-do area of the biggest, richest city in Canada. He can have two nannies and three cars – a Lexus, Range Rover and Porsche Cayenne – in the driveway. He can own a hunting camp in Quebec and can afford to make a $5 million donation to the London Health Sciences Centre. Not exactly Fred Flintstone coming back from a hard day in the quarry. But there is a basic quality about Lindros these days. He’s as happy and content as he has been in years and more at peace with himself than he ever was during his brilliant but turbulent hockey career.
Listen, I wasn’t perfect, no one is perfect, but I feel quite comfortable about my health.Perhaps that has something to do with the fact Lindros lives in the knowledge that he was right all along and those in hockey who viewed him as a petulant, selfish and spoiled superstar owe him a big apology. The trail he blazed on players’ rights and concussion awareness that earned him so much derision during his career have become standard procedure for today’s player. There is no difference between what Nathan McKinnon and Max Domi did orchestrating their destinations as junior players than what Lindros did almost 27 years ago when he refused to report to Sault Ste. Marie and ended up in Oshawa. NHL players can thank the likes of Lindros for the no-trade clauses that are standard today. And those who look out for their own health interests rather than keeping quiet and playing can take inspiration from the man who shut himself down and refused to play until he was healthy enough to do so, in spite of the avalanche of opinion against him at the time. “Listen, I wasn’t perfect, no one is perfect,” Lindros says. “But I do sit here and feel quite comfortable about my health going forward. I feel good. We’re going to be fine. Our (kids) are healthy, and we’re lucky. We’re just tired. We’re just tired.”
**********This year’s World Junior Championship in Finland marks the 40th time the International Ice Hockey Federation has gathered the best teenage players in the world together during the holiday season. A tournament that was once the sole domain of hockey nerds has become a major revenue generator and marquee event. To say Lindros was the driving force behind this monolith is not a stretch. The world juniors, particularly when it’s playing in Canada, generates about $60 million for Hockey Canada and its partners. And TSN, which started broadcasting the event in 1991 using Lindros as its centerpiece, has found a lucrative advertising windfall at a time on the calendar when nobody has any money and advertisers have maxed out their Christmas budgets. A TV producer by the name of Paul Graham was the mastermind behind the television spectacle the WJC has become today. It’s the closest thing the hockey world has to March Madness. It was Graham’s idea to do it up big as a major TV event, and with the hottest prospect on the planet anchoring the Canadian team in 1991, he had a player who could attract eyeballs. Organizers in host Saskatchewan made a bold guarantee they would deliver $1 million to Hockey Canada, a target they far exceeded. From that year on, TSN built its WJC coverage to make it a must-see event, one that has had an enduring legacy. The audience for Canada’s 3-2 win over the Soviet Union in the 1991 gold medal game – one in which little-known Newfoundlander John Slaney scored the winner with just more than five minutes to go in the third period – was 1.4 million, a record for TSN at the time. It was a pittance, however, compared to the 7.1 million who tuned into the gold medal game in 2015 to see another can’t-miss prospect in Connor McDavid. Lindros was spectacular in the 1991 tournament, with six goals and 17 points, part of a three-year run that made him Canada’s leading WJC scorer and one of its all-time greatest players. Twenty-five years later, Lindros remembers the tournament well, but he never had a sense at the time that he was part of something so big. The players, who were under enormous pressure, were in their own cocoon most of the time, one that had them wrapped up in wool blazers that itched like the dickens, as Lindros recalls. All the players had hockey ass, which wasn’t accounted for in the team-issued pants they had to wear everywhere. And it was cold. Lindros remembers it being so cold that if you went outside with wet hair, it would freeze to the point that players would pounce on unsuspecting teammates and actually break their hair. “Guys would be losing chunks of hair,” he recalls. “It didn’t make for the cutest team picture.” There are 22 players in that team photo, and every one of them went on to play in the NHL. Five guys played 1,000 games – Scott Niedermayer, Patrice Brisebois, Kris Draper, Brad May and Mike Sillinger, who became one of the most-travelled players in the history of the game after playing for 12 NHL teams. There are five Stanley Cup winners in Niedermayer, Draper, May, Brisebois and Martin Lapointe. And in Niedermayer, there’s one of the most decorated players in the history of the game, with gold medals in every international competition imaginable to go along with four Stanley Cups, a Conn Smythe Trophy, a Norris and a place in the Hall of Fame. And then there’s Lindros, whose career was interrupted and ended by injuries, a player who was limited to 760 games and whose closest encounter with the Stanley Cup came in 1997 when his Philadelphia Flyers were swept by the Detroit Red Wings in the final. Lindros is the only player on that WJC team that has a Hart Trophy, and he’s the only one who held the distinction of being the best player in the world for a period of at least three years. Should it be enough to get him in the Hall of Fame alongside Niedermayer? Many believe it should. His career and that of Hall of Famer Cam Neely are almost mirror images, with the exception that as good as Neely was, he was never considered the best player in the game at any time during his career. In terms of the combination of pure power and skill, Lindros is without peer in the history of the game. When talk of the Hall of Fame comes up, Lindros chooses his words carefully. He knows it’s out of his control, but he also knows he can’t go and pump gas into his car during the month of November, when the Hall inducts its newest members, without someone mentioning it. Next year, with no clear-cut first-time candidates, would be an ideal time to get him in. When asked, Lindros stares into space, puts his hands to his lips and lowers his voice. “I know what I did,” he says. The words hang in the air. Lindros then articulates what everyone in the hockey world knows – that the six concussions he suffered in less than two years were largely responsible for his premature decline as an NHL player and made him a shell of his former dominant self. The first one came March 7, 1998, when he was levelled by Darius Kasparaitis, and the last came 811 days later on May 26, 2000. In Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final, Lindros was knocked out by Scott Stevens with the kind of hit that got Stevens into the Hall of Fame but would have earned him a long suspension in today’s NHL. It left Lindros curled on the ice in the fetal position. His career would never be the same. “I certainly did not play as well during the latter stages of my career,” Lindros says. “I hated going through the middle. I had huge fears. It’s tough going from being so assertive – you never show any cracks – to having an ‘X’ on your back. Players who would have never spoken or taken liberties in the past, it was happening all the time. I had a fear of cutting through the middle. Absolutely. Could I still shoot and pass? I could still score, but it wasn’t the same game.”
**********Here is where redemption emerges. Lindros, along with his father, Carl, who was also his agent, criticized the Flyers’ handling of his concussion issues. He was accused of getting his own doctor to handle his injury, though he says the doctor he ultimately saw, Dr. James Kelly, was recommended by the migraine specialist that the Flyers originally sent him to. Lindros’ handling of his injury and his insistence on not playing until he felt he was healthy are the kinds of things players are encouraged to do now. They’re supposed to gather all the information they can, they’re free to get their own independent opinions, and they’re urged not to forsake their lives to keep playing when they shouldn’t. Suddenly, Lindros doesn’t look so obstinate. It’s the field of head trauma that Lindros has thrown himself into, along with a number of other charitable efforts. He’s the honorary chair of See The Line, a concussion research and awareness effort through Western University that has a symposium every summer. It was at one of those symposiums that Lindros listened to Dr. Arthur Brown, who has done research that points to the manipulation of white blood cells as a possible vehicle in stopping the damage caused by concussions and preventing the possible onset of dementia. Lindros gets excited as he describes it. When a person receives a cut, white blood cells rush in to close the gap and form a scab so the healing can take place. When an injury occurs in the brain, though, there isn’t room for that kind of expansion, which is what causes headaches and compression. Dr. Brown has come up with a way to manipulate white blood cells so this doesn’t happen and use them to rejuvenate the nerve damage that has occurred in the stems. Apparently, he has been researching this for 11 years and is at the animal testing stage, but it’s going to take somewhere in the neighborhood of $3.2 million to finish the human testing part of it.
Could I still shoot and pass? I could still score, but it wasn’t the same game.That’s where Lindros has come in. As soon as Dr. Brown finished his speech, Lindros went to him and asked how he could help. Last summer, Lindros went to the NHL Players’ Association and convinced it to donate $500,000 to the project. So far, about $300,000 has come in from private donations, which leaves it still $2.35 million short. It’s something Lindros thinks could be a game-changer. “When I heard it, I was like, ‘Finally, this is the first (new) thing I’ve heard in forever,’ ” Lindros says. “And this isn’t just for athletes, it isn’t just for kids playing hockey. This is for kids who fall off the jungle gym, this is for car accidents. This may spread into an area where it can even help with ALS.” Lindros does, however, lament what he thinks is a lack of cohesiveness in the scientific community when it comes to concussions. Instead of pooling their expertise and resources together, and sharing their failures as well as their triumphs, Lindros sees a world in which experts are working on their own without collaborating. “There’s a bit of dysfunction there,” he says. “Not everybody is playing nice in the sandbox.” Lindros is now in a place where he can concentrate on fatherhood and help with concussions in the knowledge that he did right by himself. Certainly history will paint him differently as time goes on. Some will never forgive him for not reporting to Sault Ste. Marie and Quebec. Lindros was recently at a charity hockey tournament where a Quebec native asked him to sign something and was shocked when Lindros introduced his Montreal-born wife. Lindros takes comfort in the fact that it was recently chronicled by La Presse that Hall of Famer Guy Lafleur, who tried to convince Lindros to come to Quebec after the Nordiques drafted him first overall in 1991, made it clear that the Lindros family’s objections were with owner Marcel Aubut, not the Nordiques or the province of Quebec. “Basically, Guy was saying to Marcel Aubut, ‘It’s not that they have anything against French people or the city. They don’t like you, Marcel,’ ” Lindros says. It was an exercise in self-determination that flew in the face of old-school thinking that dictated you go where you’re told and keep your damn mouth shut. There were players before and after Lindros who refused to play in certain NHL cities, and there are dozens of veterans in the league who now have no-trade clauses in their contracts, which allow them to have a say in their final destination. They’re just not 18-year-old kids who haven’t played a game in the NHL yet.
**********Lindros is looking at his watch. After almost an hour and a half, time is winding down. He talks about the 1991 Canada Cup and how amazing it was for him to walk into a dressing room of future Hall of Famers in training camp, then make the team and contribute to its success as an 18-year-old. When told if that scenario had come up today in the World Cup of Hockey, he would have had to play for Team North America (the squad of Canadian and American players 23 and younger), Lindros is taken aback. “Is that what they’re doing?” he says. “I’m so out of it. I get my news at 7 a.m. with my Shreddies, or I read CNN alerts in the tub.” As Lindros walks toward the door, he checks on the twins, who are both fast asleep. Carl Pierre clearly needs some fresh air, so one of the nannies bundles him up and gets him into the stroller. A moment of peace amid all the activity. Lindros remarks on how Ryan is long and lean, while Sophie is more solid. By the time his kids are in university, Lindros will be close to being a senior citizen. He worries about things such as CTE but says nobody among former players ever talks about it. He knows one of the symptoms is a short fuse, but he attributes his to the trying Toronto traffic. Life is good for Lindros, though it’s hectic and all this work isn’t going to get done by itself. He sticks out one of his massive mitts and shakes hands with a gentleness that betrays his size and strength. Outside, it’s noticeably quiet. Not far away, however, is a busy yet contented man who has found peace with himself. He is trying to do some good in the world and is looking forward to years of happiness. Good for him. This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the January 4 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.