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Bergeron recovering from a concussion, but hits keep on coming

NHLPA ombudsman Eric Lindros (in his Toronto office) had eight concussions in his career, so he knows what Patrice Bergeron is going through. NHLPA ombudsman Eric Lindros (in his Toronto office) had eight concussions in his career, so he knows what Patrice Bergeron is going through. (Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Stan Grossfeld
Globe Staff / April 4, 2008

WILMINGTON - Darkness hugs most of the ice on a Friday afternoon in March at Ristuccia Arena. The fans attending the Bruins' practice are gone, and the coach is huddled with the media. In the locker room, all you can hear is the hissing of steamy showers.

But back on the ice, there's the unmistakable sound of pucks being shot. A thin-looking Patrice Bergeron skates toward the only net still illuminated. It's an odd sight - seeing the black-and-gold Bruins logo on a blood-red noncontact jersey. Bergeron arranges five pucks in a row the way a bartender lines up shots of whiskey and rapidly fires them into the net. Then he skates off into the black, sweat dripping off his visor.

Bergeron is working his way back after suffering a concussion and broken nose when he was slammed facefirst into the boards by the Flyers' Randy Jones Oct. 27. The 22-year-old center has been participating in three-on-three noncontact drills but is not expected to return during the regular season.

It's been a long, difficult road for Bergeron. Concussions are brain injuries caused when the soft tissue of the brain slams into the skull. This can cause memory loss, fatigue, and depression, perhaps even permanently.

"It's hard to explain what it's like for someone who never had one," says Bergeron, sitting in the stands after the workout, staring at his feet. "At first, the light is bothering you. The noise is bothering you. Walking for a short distance makes you dizzy. You have headaches. You feel nauseous. Your memory is gone. There's a lot of stuff that stinks. Stuff we take for granted every day. It's tough. You try to do something and you feel good. And then the next day you try to do the same thing and you feel terrible, and you have to go to bed."

Some coaches still call concussions "dingers" and label players "wimps" if they don't return quickly to the ice.

It's a strange dichotomy. Bobby Orr went through a slew of knee operations and was revered for his courage. Eric Lindros, who played for four NHL teams, most notably the Philadelphia Flyers, had eight concussions and had his toughness questioned by Flyers general manager Bobby Clarke. Lindros had his captaincy stripped from his empty uniform - on television, no less - when he disagreed with the team's medical staff about returning from a concussion in 2000.

"It's funny, you break your leg, you know how long it takes for a bone to heal," says Lindros, currently the NHL Players' Association ombudsman. "You'll know how long it takes to come back. But what we don't know is what goes on in the head because it hasn't come to a science. Even now it's still a very gray area."

A critical eye

Lindros, 35, was known as "The Next One" because he was a sure bet to succeed Wayne Gretzky as the dominant NHL superstar of the 1990s. Big and strong but with finesse and passion, he scored 41 and 44 goals in his first two seasons and was MVP of the lockout-shortened 1995 season. But concussions and injuries plagued his 13-year career and he was forced to retire last November.

Doctors say after you've been concussed, it's easier to get subsequent concussions from a lesser hit. Worse, Lindros feels he was targeted by younger players looking to make a name. He likens it to sharks smelling blood.

"Yeah, there's a bit of a feeding frenzy, sure," Lindros contends. "But you wouldn't get it from the guys you played in the league with for years.

"The game has changed and the respect level has truly changed in what I've seen in the last seven years. There's an unwritten code of conduct being stomped on and walked over. I don't ever recall seeing so many questionable hits as now."

Lindros says he spoke to 28 of the 30 NHL teams this season about respect.

"A lot of players stood up in the beginning and said this has got to stop," he says in a rare interview. "It's impossible to gauge how a person's feeling. A lot of times you're feeling fine one day and then two days later you're cranky, and tired, and don't have it anymore. Your hand-eye coordination is off. It really knocks you for a loop."

Lindros's younger brother, Brett, who played two seasons with the New York Islanders, also had his career ended by post-concussion syndrome, in 1996.

"My brother came back too soon," Eric says. "It wasn't even a head shot. It was a shot to the chest, shaking his skull. He was in bad shape. For the longest time, he couldn't even dial a phone. He'd have a phone with these huge numbers on it."

Mental damage cited

According to a study in the Orange County Register, over the past six NHL seasons, an average of 64 players each year have suffered concussions or related symptoms. The NHL says the number of concussions this season is in the mid-40s. Dr. Jim Kelly, an NHLPA consultant who treated Eric Lindros, says the mental damage of concussions is "in fact very similar to the post-traumatic stress syndrome that affects war veterans."

Eric Lindros has admitted to bouts of depression and nervousness.

Kelly would like to see an end to fighting in the league, which he called "appalling," but he acknowledged that more players are concussed by collisions that target the head.

"In my opinion, they are cheap shots, even if technically legal," says Kelly. "They are actually producing brain injuries and that is totally inappropriate."

The NHL says it is the first major professional league to offer baseline testing of players. "Hats off to them for that," says Lindros.

They made the glass and the boards more giving. More players are wearing visors and more equipment. According to Kelly, that cuts both ways.

"NHL players have told me that the equipment allows them to collide with impunity," Kelly says. "They can target the head with a piece of equipment and deliver a significant force and they don't feel it at all."

Lindros believes the league's instigator rule - which adds an additional two-minute minor penalty to the player who starts a fight - actually causes more injuries because enforcers are less effective.

"They are stopping the players from policing themselves," he says. "The Code. [The unwritten rules about fighting.] There always has to be The Code. I know this puts a dark light on our sport, but it will get worse if it's not handled. That's my opinion. It can't stay the way it is."

His advice for players who suffer concussions is to be truthful. "People have to be honest," says Lindros. "The player has to be extremely honest about exactly what he's feeling and the doctor has to be honest in looking out for the patient's best interest and making sure that person is not susceptible when they return to play. It's that simple."

'Good days and bad days'

Bergeron says he feels the pressure to return. "Obviously, as a teammate, I want to be back for them," he says. Looking down at the floor, he acknowledges there are still setbacks. "I had some issues [a week earlier] - a little bit at night, but now I'm feeling good.

"These things are going away, for sure. At first I was thinking so much and things were going through my mind. I was a little nervous and stressed about my condition, but now I'm feeling better. I'm just looking forward to coming back, but at the same time be smart about it and see what happens."

Before Christmas, Lindros came to Boston and had lunch with the injured Bruin. "I told him there's going to be good days and bad days," says Lindros. "Try to be positive. There's the fatigue. Questions about whether you'll play again. Just start building your body back up again. Don't rush things."

Bergeron fidgets in his seat. He'd rather talk about goals than concussions.

"I'm not the only guy this has ever happened to," he says. "I think the players have to recognize they don't ever want to be in the desperate position that I'm in right now. No one would want to be away from the game that long."

His advice is simple. "There's no point to these kind of hits," he says. "If a guy's back is turned, don't hit him, and you'll avoid the consequences like this. Just don't do it to someone else."

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