WHEN ERIC LINDROS retired last week, reports noted he suffered "at least eight concussions." The estimate was needed then, as it apparently is in today's National Hockey League, because sometimes a concussion is not called a concussion.
Sometimes he was deemed to have suffered something else, something that allowed him back on the ice as soon as the fog around his head cleared. A shoulder. A back. Dizziness and dehydration perhaps.
"There were some frustrating moments, for sure," Lindros said yesterday from his new office in Toronto.
He was in the second day at his new job as ombudsman for the NHL Players Association. Lindros will serve as a liaison between the players, the NHLPA offices and the league, maintaining a player's anonymity in sensitive areas - such as cases, he said, "of someone's code of conduct."
Which brings us to the curious case of Simon Gagne. Officially, Simon has not suffered a concussion, although all the symptoms - dizziness, fatigue, headaches, nausea - have been there since Gagne left the lineup following a hit by Florida's Jay Bouwmeester on Oct. 24. Gagne, who twice failed the baseline test used to determine a concussion's severity (he passed it on his third try), did not practice with the team for 9 days before returning for a game against the Rangers on Nov. 5.
Gagne asked back in. He was listless in the Flyers' 2-0 loss that night and had to leave the lineup again after being bumped by Pittsburgh's Gary Roberts two nights later. That latest absence has added "concussion-like symptoms" to his injury report, although originally the team asserted it was simply a matter of dehydration - because of a dip in Gagne's physical fitness after sitting around all that time.
Point is, anyone with half a brain - pun intended - knows that Gagne's problems are the result of blows to the head, and the team's use of other words to describe it is at best silly and at worst dangerous. After watching the careers of bright, young stars such as Lindros and his brother, or Pat LaFontaine, or Keith Primeau, the NHL has embraced the guidelines set forth by the National Academy of Neuropsychology.
While this should be applauded, it has unintentionally encouraged Orwellian doublespeak from teams reluctant to lose stars for long periods of time, and created a climate in which players might not be forthright in disclosing the severity of their head trauma.
Gagne is at fault for rushing back to the ice. The Flyers are for allowing him to do so, especially since there is growing sentiment within the medical community over whether the NAN guidelines are too lax. Two international conferences in this decade, organized by the International Hockey Federation and the International Olympic Committee, concluded that any multitiered grading system is flawed because it seeks to assess severity before all symptoms surface.
"First of all, it doesn't matter how many," Lindros said. "It's the severity."
I suggested that the time between them meant something as well. Lindros agreed. He was clear of all symptoms when he went back out on the ice for that fateful Game 7 of the 2000 Eastern Conference finals against the Devils, which ended for him when Scott Stevens crashed into him at midice.
When he retired last week, the former Flyers captain joked that he would "stickhandle with my head up," if he had it all do again. The unanswerable question, though, is whether he would have fared better if Stevens had hit him like that the following October, when his brain had more time to heal.
This seems particularly relevant in the case of Gagne, who originally thought he would be ready to play in just a few days, pushed his way back into the lineup 9 days ago, and now seems unlikely to play in the immediate future. Did Gagne rush back too soon? Absolutely. Should the Flyers have stopped him? General manager Paul Holmgren agreed the other day that answer was yes.
"We will make sure he feels 100 percent before he returns, and this time, I think it is very important that Simon spend some time practicing with the team before getting back into it," Holmgren told reporters. "We didn't do it the last time."
If they heed the consensus of those two conferences, they will keep their star from actual games even after all symptoms disperse. That's when the timeline should start, according to consensus of neurologists, neurosurgeons and psychologists at the two international conferences. Because of the intensity, disparity and duration of symptoms, they said, concussions really should fall into two categories: mild and severe.
Rather than finding new words, the Flyers should assume Gagne suffered the latter. Clearly, the plight of Lindros and, more recently, Keith Primeau should compel them to err on the side of caution - especially given that Gagne has 4 more years and $21 million left on his contract.
And Gagne? Well, as he noted when Lindros retired last week, Gagne was befriended by Big E as a rookie. The former Flyers star could tell the current one a thing or two about coming back too soon.
"If he wants to call me," Lindros said, "I'm here."