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updated: 6/16/2012 7:26 PM

Ludzik won't be bullied by Parkinson's

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  • Steve Ludzik ...

      Steve Ludzik ...
    Photo courtesy of the Chicago Blackhawks

  • Steve Ludzik ...

      Steve Ludzik ...
    Photo courtesy of the Chicago Blackhawks

  • Steve Ludzik, who played with the Blackhawks from 1981-89, says the constant hits he took to the head was like "being in a bumper car for years without stopping."

      Steve Ludzik, who played with the Blackhawks from 1981-89, says the constant hits he took to the head was like "being in a bumper car for years without stopping."
    Photo courtesy of the Chicago Blackhawks

  • Steve Ludzik ...

      Steve Ludzik ...
    Photo courtesy of the Chicago Blackhawks

  • Steve Ludzik ...

      Steve Ludzik ...
    Photo courtesy of the Chicago Blackhawks

 
 

Steve Ludzik woke up one day and realized he'd traveled this road before.

"When I was in grade six, there was a kid who would wait for me after school and slap me around," Ludzik recalls. "I was just a skinny, little kid, and one night I came home with a black eye after he beat me up."

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In today's America, there are protocols for handling bullies. In 1960s Canada, there was only one way to solve the problem.

"My mom was an angel, and when she found out what was going on, she got right on the phone and said she would straighten it out," Ludzik said. "My dad said, 'Put that phone down!'

"My dad told me that when I get out of school tomorrow, get the drop on this kid and hit him, and then keep hitting him.

"Like all bullies, the guy was a coward. I grabbed him the next day and throttled him. I never had another problem, and that kid never bothered anyone after that.

"That's how we were raised. Take care of it yourself and don't get pushed around."

The 51-year-old Ludzik had been thinking about that time in his life early this year. It was eating away at his conscience. He felt what he was doing was wrong.

"I looked at my own kids and I knew what I had to do," Ludzik said by phone from Niagara Falls a couple of days ago. "I said, 'I'm not going to get kicked around by Parkinson's disease.' Not anymore."

That's when Ludzik announced to the world that he was ill.

•••

Life was just about perfect for Steve Ludzik 12 years ago.

He was "Ludzy," the life of the party. He was a star back in Ontario from his junior years and was a popular Blackhawk during his time in Chicago, which coincided with the drafting of Denis Savard and a rebirth of the franchise in the 1980s.

In 2000 he was home for the summer after a season as head coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning, sitting on the porch of his Niagara Falls home with his wife of nearly 20 years.

They were talking about their hockey-playing sons on a warm and pleasant evening.

It was idyllic.

"And I felt a twitch in my hand. Just like that. My finger jumped," Ludzik said. "I knew that couldn't be good."

For two years he did nothing, but his symptoms got worse, and he went to see a specialist in St. Catharines.

"The doctor walks in and says, 'You've got Parkinson's disease, young man,' and walked out of the room," Ludzik remembers. "I had to figure out how to tell my wife. I was 40 years old. I had two boys to take care of. Now what?"

For 10 years, Ludzik told no one outside his family. After being fired by the Lightning, Ludzik -- known during his Hawks days as affable and entertaining -- moved on to TV, radio and even a newspaper column.

But over the years there were rumors about his slurred speech and wobbly behavior being alcohol related, so Ludzik decided in April to go public and fight the beast on his own terms.

"I always felt like I was lying to people,"' Ludzik said. "People here in Canada who hear me on the radio and see me on TV were shocked.

"But I was tired of running from it. I decided I wasn't going to be bullied anymore."

Right away, there was speculation about how Ludzik wound up with Parkinson's, which can be genetic but is almost certainly in Ludzik's case due to the scores of hits to the head he absorbed in decades of playing hockey.

After a spectacular junior career as a scorer -- Ludzik playfully points out that Niagara Falls teammate Steve Larmer was drafted four rounds behind him -- the 5-foot-11, 185-pound Ludzik was turned into a checking center by minor-league coach Orval Tessier, who later became the Hawks' head coach.

"People who want to say this is from fighting are clueless," Ludzik said. "I don't give a (bleep) what they think. I only fought (22) times in 10 years and I never got clocked. I never caught anyone good, either.

"This is from getting hit in the head. The constant banging wore me down. It's like being in bumper cars for years without stopping.

"My guess is I had about six concussions, and you never said anything because you didn't want to lose your job. You'd find out later from the guys that when you got to the bench you couldn't say your name, and then you had a headache for a week and couldn't eat anything."

So when he sees what Sidney Crosby is going through, he wonders aloud if Crosby shouldn't call it a career.

"He could wind up like me," Ludzik says. "You know, hitting is a great part of the game -- important part of the game -- but hitting a guy in the head has nothing to do with the game.

"I heard Bobby Hull talking about it, and he can't believe what these guys do to each other. They hit in his day, too, but they didn't try to end each other's career. There was some respect.

"What happened to me, I know it's because of the shots I took to the head. You take enough and you're gonna wind up with something like (Parkinson's) or worse.

•••

On this Father's Day, Steve Ludzik wants you to know he's still here, and he intends to be here with his wife and kids for a very long time.

"I'm like one in a million," he said. "There's an experimental drug that's working for me."

He takes six medications four times a day and doesn't sleep more than a couple of hours a night. His left hand shakes. Some simple tasks aren't as simple as they used to be.

"It's a destructive disease that would rather take you apart for 15 rounds than knock you out," Ludzik said. "You can't rope-a-dope with this thing. You have to attack it.

"I don't know what my future holds. I don't want to know. I want it to be my agenda. I run a couple miles a day. I look after it. I'm in control. I'm doing well."

Ludzik prefers not to visualize Muhammad Ali. Instead, he is busy with TV, radio and writing, and not long ago wrote a best-selling book in Canada, "Been There, Done That," which is available at ludzy.com.

In September he will debut a website -- oldteammates.com -- that allows former athletes in all sports to locate their old teammates, whether it's from a peewee team in Etobicoke, Ontario, or a Little League Baseball team in Naperville.

"It came about because an old hockey buddy of mine died and we couldn't find anyone to come to the funeral because we couldn't locate anyone," Ludzik said. "It was very sad. No one deserves to die alone."

This always has been Ludzik's way. He sees a problem and finds a solution. He locates a mountain and figures out a way to climb it.

"If you look at my career, when I was 16 in my draft year for juniors, I would have been one of the top two or three players in Ontario, but I found out I had Crohn's disease and spent two months in the hospital. The hockey world gave up on me," Ludzik said. "One team took a chance on me, Niagara, and I scored and got drafted 28th."

That was in 1980, the same year the Hawks took Savard third overall.

"I played for the Chicago Blackhawks in front of the best fans in the world," Ludzik said. "I may not have been the best player, but with all due respect, no player ever wore that uniform with more pride.

"Unbeknown to me, I had liver disease when I was in Chicago, and it ended my career, but I bounced back from that, became a head coach and made it all the way to the top.

"I decided to get into TV and got to the top, decided to write a book and had a best seller.

"Now, I'm going to host the 'Steve Ludzik Roast for Parkinson's disease' in Niagara and we're going to have 750 people and raise a lot of money and open a center that helps people with Parkinson's.

"That will be what people remember me for, not for hockey or TV or anything else.

"That's the reason I came out. You need to know it's not a death sentence and you can fight it. I was sick of watching the fight and not getting involved."

Lest you think Ludzik feels sorry for himself, know for a fact that it's not accurate.

"My golden rule is nobody rides for free. We all have to pay," he says. "Look, I'm married 30 years to the same girl, the girl I wanted to marry. I have two great kids, and Father's Day will be great here.

"I'd never change a darn thing. I was born and raised to tear at life, and I don't intend to stop.

"I want people to realize that it's just a diagnosis. I want them to know I'm still on the north side of the sod. You need to tell people I'm still here.''

Alive and, as always, kicking.

brozner@dailyherald.com

•Listen to Barry Rozner from 9 a.m. to noon Sundays on the Score's "Hit and Run" show at WSCR 670-AM, and follow him @BarryRozner on Twitter.

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