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Lindros wants Rowan’s Law carried across the country

It was while waiting at the Toronto airport on Wednesday, while his flight was initially cancelled and then twice delayed because of an ice storm, when Eric Lindros began to wonder if he was ever going to get to Ottawa.

Part of him might have wondered if there was any point in going, at all.

For the better part of three years, the retired NHLer has become the face of concussion research and awareness after his Hall of Fame career was shortened by repeated hits to the head. And while he’s made strides in that department, by helping to push Rowan’s Law forward as the standard concussion protocol for the removal-and-return-from-sport in Ontario, it’s been a slow and uphill climb for someone not used to the red tape and bureaucracy that bogs down the government.

So when Lindros was invited to speak at the House of Commons’ health committee for his views on sports-related concussions this week, there might have been a sense of “here we go again.”

Enough talk. It’s time for results.

“We all know the problems, but we need actions,” he said. “What are we doing? Let’s get moving here. There were some efforts, but it was different from what I imagined. It was supposed to be moving a little bit. But I don’t know where it sits. I think there are a lot of groups trying out there, but even on the research side, we could be doing a lot better.”

Sometimes, when you’re delivering the same message for what seems like the hundredth or thousandth time without any real change, it’s easy to get cynical and wonder if anyone is actually listening to anything you’re saying. That was the feeling Lindros had after minister after minister repeatedly asked for suggestions on how to make the NHL safer, while he tried to steer the conversation back to his attempt at making Rowan’s Law more than just a provincial-wide protocol on concussion treatment in sports.

“Unfortunately, we wasted some time talking about the NHL,” he said. “We’re not going to change the NHL.”

And then, while leaving the House of Commons, Lindros turned on his phone and checked his e-mail. There, waiting in  his inbox was an invitation from Michael Tibollo, who is the Minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport in Ontario, asking him to be part of a follow-up committee for Rowan’s Law.

“As a former NHL-hockey player, Mr. Lindros experienced first-hand the profound mental and physical impacts associated with concussions,” Minister Tibollo said in a statement to Postmedia Network. “He was a valued member of the Rowan’s Law Advisory Committee and continues to be an active advocate of concussion research, care and awareness.”

Lindros smiled. Someone had in fact been listening.

“At least something is coming there,” said Lindros. “We’ll see what we can come up with and get this moving and rolled out properly. But the needle got moving. That’s a good thing. Now let’s get busy and roll up our sleeves and move along here.”

Former NHLer Eric Lindros, left, and co-founder and CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation Chris Nowinski wait to appear as witnesses at the House of Commons’ Health committee on sports-related concussions in Ottawa, Wednesday, February 6, 2019. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld)

As much as concussions are a part of everyday life, Lindros is smart enough to know that if you want to get people talking about the severity of head injuries, you have to talk about them in a way that affects most Canadians. So the majority of his testimony at the House of Commons centered about hockey, even though most head injuries occur on the playground than in the rinks.

Lindros made headlines for suggesting that kids shouldn’t play year-round hockey, because “the brain (needs) to take a break,” and advocated for introducing body contact after kids had hit puberty, as well as implored the NHL to take a firmer stance on hits to the head.

“The low-hanging fruit,” he said, adding that body contact still has a place in the game. “I believe that there should be contact in hockey for sure. There’s a lot that goes into changing momentum with a good, clean hit. It’s part of the game. I don’t think you get rid of that at. But I just think you start it later.”

In the end, Lindros understands that concussions are going to happen. Which is why his focus these days is on Rowan’s Law, named in honour of Rowan Stringer, a 17-year-old rugby player from Ottawa who died after playing through her second concussion in a week. The removal-and-return-to-sport recommendations are now provincial law. But that’s not enough.

Lindros wants this protocol carried across the country — not just Ontario. But before that can happen, he knows that the provincial law, which was passed less than a year ago, still needs fine-tuning. That’s why the invitation to participate in a follow-up committee has him so excited.

“You can’t just roll things out nationally without trying some things provincially,” he said. “And this law, while we think that it can work in any province outside of Ontario, we know that it’s not perfect. Give us a couple of years to implement this, tweak it and change and alter as we learn more about concussions and how the system is working on the street with parents and doctors and listening to what they have to say.

“The beauty of this law is it’s living and breathing and has the ability to change as the environment changes. But let’s get started. I look forward to what we can accomplish in three-month increments. Let’s set deadlines for ourselves and get busy on this. I think it can be amazing.”

Until then, Lindros is happy to keep speaking — even if it feels like he’s talking about the same things over and over again.

“Listen, it takes everybody to push it,” said Lindros. “You want to talk to me, I’m happy to talk. But this doesn’t go off unless it’s a group. So yeah, let’s keep this rolling.”

mtraikos@postmedia.com

DELAY BODY CONTACT

Eric Lindros was an imposing 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds when he played in the National Hockey League, so he usually was the one dishing out the hits. But it was a different story when he was growing up.

Lindros, who was a late-bloomer who played up a year, was often one of the smaller kids on the ice. And he paid the price for it.

“I took my licks, for sure,” he said.

Hockey Canada banned bodychecking for ages 12 and under in 2013. But in testimony at the House of Commons on Tuesday, Lindros suggested that it should be delayed even further to when kids are 14 or 15 and have already gone through puberty.

“People grow at different times,” said Lindros. “I remember some guys had full beards at pee-wee. There’s a difference there. If we want to make things as safe as possible, which we do, then slow it down. What’s the harm in that?

“There’s no race to start body contact. Listen, you can always learn to hit. That’s not the hardest thing in the world to do.”

— Michael Traikos

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