Before there was Sidney Crosby, there was Eric Lindros. Both were hockey prodigies as young teenagers. Both were drafted first overall into the NHL. Both won the league MVP in their early 20s, both were captain of Team Canada at the Olympics, and both were hailed as the next Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux. And then, in a fraction of a second, both fell victim to devastating concussions. The toll on Crosby, who has been sidelined since January, remains to be seen. But most fans know that Lindros was never the same after a series of blows to the head—at least eight by the time he retired in 2007. What few know, however—what he’s never talked about publicly before—is the psychological and emotional toll of those concussions.
That a Herculean hockey legend such as Lindros (he is six foot four and 255 lb.) is speaking out with disarming candour about the panic and desolation that he has endured is unprecedented. “You’re in a pretty rough-and-tumble environment with this sport. Talking about these things—you don’t talk about these things,” says Lindros. So while he was playing in the NHL, Lindros mostly kept his game face on. “You got to understand, you want to wake up in the morning and you want to look at yourself and say, ‘I’ve got the perfect engine to accomplish what I need to in this game tonight.’ You are not going to look in the mirror and say, ‘Boy, I’m depressed.’ ”
But there were signs that the concussions had transformed him, both as a man and a hockey player, for the worse. “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.”
Although he didn’t realize it at the time, Lindros now believes there is one explanation for the downslide: the concussions. “The anxiety started in the late 1990s, in the midst of them all. I never had it before,” Lindros says. And he thinks that “there’s a real strong correlation.” Even after he quit playing pro hockey and the physical symptoms of concussion (headaches, fatigue) were gone, the anxiety persisted. His weight ballooned; he gained 30 lb. He also realized that the “great deal of frustration” he felt about the politics of hockey was depressing him as well.
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