Former NHLer opens up about battle with Parkinson's

"I treat this disease like it's a bully. I refuse to give into it," says Steve Ludzik.

CORY SMITH, QMI AGENCY

, Last Updated: 9:56 PM ET

It started 12 years ago.

Steve Ludzik was enjoying a warm summer evening with his wife, Mary Ann, on the porch of their Niagara Falls home. Ludzik was unwinding after his first season as head coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Then it happened.

“I felt my finger jump,” the 51-year-old said Monday. “I felt my finger twitch and I knew something was wrong”

He tried to “tough it out” for two years before visiting a specialist in St. Catharines.

Ludzik hoped it was a nervous twitch.

“The doctor said, ‘You’ve got Parkinson’s disease, young man,’ and walked out of the room,” he recalled.

“I sat there and had the ordeal of telling my wife.”

It took 10 years until Ludzik, a Niagara Falls resident, decided to tell everyone else.

“I treat this disease like it’s a bully. I refuse to give into it.”

Rumours of Ludzik’s worsening health also prompted the former NHLer to go public. There was unsubstantiated talk that his occasional slurred speech and hand tremors were signs of alcoholism.

“I want to make a difference,” he said. “I’m tired of running.”

The degenerative neurological disease is sometimes genetic, but it can also form after repeated brain trauma. Ludzik received his share while playing 424 NHL games from 1981 to 1990, mostly with the Chicago Blackhawks, plus hundreds of games in junior, the minors and Europe.

He figures he suffered six concussions throughout his career, though none were ever diagnosed.

“It was, ‘Boy, I’ve had a headache for a week, no appetite, and I’m miserable,’ ” Ludzik said. “You know your body more than anyone else.”

One of the biggest hits Ludzik received came during the 1986-87 season. The Hawks were in Minnesota and North Stars enforcer Larry DePalma drilled Ludzik into the boards from behind.

“I remember going to the bench and I couldn’t remember which town I was in,” Ludzik said. “You never said anything (about concussions) because you wanted to keep your job.”

Ludzik dropped the gloves 22 times in the NHL, according to hockeyfights.com, though he doesn’t link fighting with his condition. After scoring 142 points with the Ontario Hockey League’s Niagara Falls Flyers in 1981-82, Ludzik, a 5-foot-11, 185-pound forward, was given a checking role with the Hawks and accepted the physical pounding that came with it.

“I watch these hits guys are taking and delivering,” Ludzik said of today’s game. “I know in my heart of hearts (the disease) was caused by taking shots to the head.

“It’s not the fights. It’s the constant pounding.”

Head shots and concussions have dominated hockey headlines the last few years as their long-term impact is learned. Phoenix Coyotes forward Raffi Torres was recently suspended 25 games for launching himself at the head of Chicago’s Marian Hossa, who was taken off the ice on a stretcher. Some of the game’s top players have missed significant time after suffering concussions.

“If I could tell Sidney Crosby one thing, I’d tell him to retire,” Ludzik said of the Penguins star who has battled neck injuries and concussions.

Ludzik is worried the repeated blows will leave one player — or more — in the same position with which he finds himself. His left hand tremors, he only sleeps three or four hours a night and he takes six different medications four times a day.

“I’ve had a great life,” he said. “I married the girl I wanted to marry, and I have two great sons. It’s tough on them, too, to know I’m not 100% well.

“I’m sick of watching the fight and not getting involved.”

He wants to become an advocate for those living with Parkinson’s. Michael J. Fox and Muhammad Ali are two of the most famous people afflicted with the disease. Walter Gretzky recently announced his Parkinson’s diagnosis.

“My legacy isn’t going to be Steve Ludzik the player, Steve Ludzik the coach, Steve Ludzik the writer or Steve Ludzik the television personality,” he said. “It’s Steve Ludzik, the guy who had Parkinson’s and helped other people.”

cory.smith@sunmedia.ca

 


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