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Ludzik fights to beat Parkinson's disease

Steve Ludzik was at a party recently when his feet tangled and he fell down what he said was several stairs.

He wasn't hurt.

"I rolled," he said. "I'm still in pretty good shape.

"But I was like, 'Jesus Christ, people are going to think I'm drunk.' "

Ludzik actually has Parkinson's disease — a progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects movement — and his tangled feet were another indicator. Just like the tremor in his left hand, the 22 pills he takes daily to control the symptoms and the bungalow he and his wife, Mary Ann, bought in May in Niagara on the Lake, Ontario, that has one story in case Ludzik loses mobility.

But the former Lightning coach is anything but a tragic figure.

"I'm the happiest I've ever been in my life," he said. "I decided to come out and treat Parkinson's like a bully and expose it."

Because there is no Parkinson's in Ludzik's family, Ludzik is convinced — and his doctors agree, he said — that blows to the head he took as a player are the cause.

That has led him to say NHL players with a history of concussions should retire, even Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby.

He also said young players should not body check until they are at least 15 years old.

Ludzik, though, is most proud of his fundraising for the Steve Ludzik Centre for Parkinson's Rehab in St. Catharines, Ontario.

His third celebrity roast, featuring Hall of Famer Bobby Hull, played last weekend to an audience of 800 and raised about $100,000 to help find a cure.

"My whole life has been about me, where I've coached, where I've played," Ludzik, 52, said. "I figured it's time for Steve Ludzik to balance the books."

• • •

Ludzik, who since he was 17 has suffered from Crohn's disease, which inflames the colon and intestines, said he first noticed something else wrong after the 1999-2000 season, his first as Tampa Bay coach.

He was sitting on his deck enjoying a cigar when "my baby finger started jumping up and down. Then my hand started getting rigid with tremors."

He said he hid the tremors as best he could by keeping his hand in his pocket.

Ludzik was diagnosed a year after he was fired in January 2001. He told former Lightning general manager Rick Dudley but not many others. He went public in May 2012.

"My Parkinson's disease I know without a shadow of a doubt is from getting blows to the head and constant damage to my body," said Ludzik, who estimated he had six documented concussions and, perhaps, more that were undiagnosed, in a nine-year NHL career.

A Mayo Clinic study published in May 2003 found "those who have experienced a head injury are four times more likely to develop Parkinson's disease than those who have never suffered a head injury," and the onset occurs about 20 years after the injuries.

Though it also said mild head injuries were not found to be associated with Parkinson's and "the exact link between head trauma and Parkinson's remains elusive," Ludzik, who played 413 of his 424 games with the Blackhawks, with 46 goals, 139 points and 333 penalty minutes from 1981-90, is steadfast.

"My doctors told me there's a 99 percent chance it is, but you can't prove it," he said, adding he believes more than the concussions are at fault.

"That's the falsity; that it's just concussions. It's like going to a carnival and riding on those bumper cars. If you do that every day for two hours a day at practice and games and did it every day for 25 or 30 years, something has to give.

"That's why I'm not big fan of body checking for young kids. You give undo stress to the brain, to the body. It's unfortunate the damage kids do to themselves."

• • •

Ludzik still goes to the gym, though not as often as he would like. He is writing a second book — his first, Been There Done That, was autobiographical — he is a motivational speaker and provides hockey analysis and opinion on Off the Record on Canada's TSN network.

"I'd say we pretty much keep going as normal as we always have," wife Mary Ann said. "I don't think many people could have handled it better."

"What impresses me is that he's trying to help other people. That's Ludzy," Dudley said. "He's making it as positive as he can."

And there is more on the board. Ludzik told Canada's National Post he wants to establish a retirement complex for former NHL players in financial hardship. But beating Parkinson's is his primary focus.

"I don't want to be remembered as Steve Ludzik the hockey player or coach," he said. "I want to be remembered as a guy who raised a lot of money for a good cause. That will be my final resting place."

Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@tampabay.com.

Ludzik fights to beat Parkinson's disease 08/14/13 [Last modified: Thursday, August 15, 2013 12:02am]
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