TAMPA — By now, the lesson is nearly 50 years old. Passed on solemnly from a parent to a 10-year-old.
Former Tampa Bay Lightning coach Steve Ludzik was being bullied daily by an older and bigger kid. He tried running. He tried taking the long way home from school. He tried everything a fifth-grader could imagine until his mother confronted him about a freshly earned black eye.
When he explained about the size and ferocity of the older kid, his mother promised she would reach out to the school and straighten this out.
That’s when Ludzik’s father appeared from the next room. There would be no visits to the school. There would be no requests for help. When confronted with a fight, the only solution is to meet the SOB head-on. Otherwise, you’ll spend your life in perpetual retreat.
And so Steve Ludzik fought.
He fought his way into a nine-year NHL career as a grinder with more heart than skill. He fought Crohn’s Disease from the time he was a young man. He quietly fought Parkinson’s Disease without telling anyone as he stood behind the Lightning bench. And now he is fighting Stage 4 liver disease with its utterly grim prognosis.
And all these years later, Ludzik finally needs to ask for help.
His wife MaryAnn went on Facebook last week to tell the world her husband was dying. The end was near if a matching liver donor could not be found. Almost immediately, offers began to pour in. Friends, fans, strangers. A handful appear to be adequate matches, and so tests are scheduled this week in Toronto to determine if there is a path forward.
As he explains this, his words will sometimes slur and his voice sounds tired. The combination of multiple diseases leaves Ludzik, 58, feeling as if he can never shake the world’s worst flu.
And now, all he is seeking is a fighting chance.
“The response has been huge. It’s been astronomical. Now we just have to find the right person, the right match,’’ Ludzik said. “I’m just praying that it works. My job is to stay one step ahead of the devil.’’
Nowadays, his time in Tampa Bay feels mostly like a footnote. He was the guy who coached a teenaged Vincent Lecavalier and proceeded a then-unknown John Tortorella.
Ludzik was a 38-year-old minor league coach in 1999 when his boss, Detroit Vipers owner William Davidson, bought the Lightning. Ludzik was suddenly elevated to head coach of the worst team in the NHL and, a year and a half later, was already out of a job.
“Everybody was good to me in Tampa, it just wasn’t the right time or the right place for Steve Ludzik,’’ he said. “It took me a while to understand that, but that’s the way it goes. There’s a lot more important things in life.’’
Ludzik’s liver problem had been diagnosed long before he arrived in Tampa Bay. An annual physical when he was playing in Chicago showed the early stages of disease (possibly caused by his medication for Crohn’s) and doctors warned him it would only get worse.
Meanwhile, during his brief stay in Tampa, Ludzik was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. He told no one of the disease and went on to work in television for a decade. As his symptoms became more and more apparent, Ludzik finally faced reality.
He announced his diagnosis and then formed a foundation to take on the disease. The Steve Ludzik Parkinson’s Rehab Centre in St. Catharines (Ontario) has now been open for eight years and employs 12 therapists.
“I’m not going to be remembered as the greatest hockey player or the greatest coach or the greatest TV announcer,’’ Ludzik said. “But I could be remembered as someone who did a lot of good for a lot of people with Parkinson’s. It’s the most proud thing I’ve ever done.’’
He’s lived with the liver diagnosis for decades, but the bill did not come due until recently. He and MaryAnn were at a Fleetwood Mac concert when he realized he did not have the energy to get up and down from his seat like everyone sitting nearby.
Ludzik visited a doctor who explained he had reached Stage 4 of the disease. He asked about Stage 5 and was told there was no such thing.
So now he waits. He waits for the best donor possible. He waits for the mindset he will need to face this lifetime foe. He waits to find out how much time he has left with his two children and four grandchildren.
“I have to be hopeful. It’s the only way I can deal with it,’’ Ludzik said. “Otherwise, I’d drive myself crazy.’’
As our conversation nears its end, I ask Ludzik whatever happened with the schoolyard bully from years ago.
“I always tell people I whupped the s--- out of him, but I actually didn’t,’’ Ludzik says. “He was one of those guys in Grade 7 but should have been in Grade 9. He had a beard and muscles, and I was still in fifth grade. But I never had a problem with him after that. I wouldn’t recommend it as Parenting 101, but my dad was right.
“Sometimes you have to be willing to fight.’’
Potential liver donors for Steve Ludzik must have Type O blood and be in good health. For more information, call (416) 340-5400 or visit livingorgandonation.ca.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.