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He is, sad to say, a walking, talking encyclopedia on the topic of postconcussion syndrome.

Pat LaFontaine knows it all because he lived through it all for more than half a year -- the headaches, the drowsiness, the sleepless nights, the anxiety, all the misery that a sufferer endures until the fog one day, finally, miraculously, gratefully, lifts.

"Postconcussion is really a scary place to be at," LaFontaine said, in an interview from his Greenwich, Conn., home.

Like Eric Lindros, who is now attempting a comeback after suffering six concussions in the past 27 months, LaFontaine was one of the National Hockey League's brightest stars, a player who once scored 148 points in a single season and qualified for five all-star games.

Early in the 1996-97 season, LaFontaine suffered a serious concussion when he was flattened by the Pittsburgh Penguins' Francois Leroux, an injury that limited him to only 13 games that year and put his career in jeopardy.

During his convalescence, LaFontaine spent months consulting with a brain injury expert, Dr. James Kelly of Chicago, before his symptoms finally subsided and he eventually received medical clearance to play, the same as Lindros has now.

But saying you are medically cleared to play is not the same as saying there is no risk involved in a comeback attempt. The medical community is short on clinical evidence to support the contention, but many doctors believe susceptibility to concussions increases the more times one absorbs a blow to the head.

"Obviously, Dr. Kelly has cleared Eric and for me, that's good enough, because I have a tremendous amount of respect for Dr. Kelly," LaFontaine said. "Don't forget, the hit that Scott Stevens laid on him, anybody could have been knocked out by that. A big indicator as far as when a guy should continue to play is when it takes a lesser sort of hit to put you out for a longer period of time. That's when the cumulative effect begins."

Just as Lindros is anxious to resume his career, LaFontaine determined that he too wanted to play again following his recovery. So the next season, the Buffalo Sabres traded his rights to the New York Rangers for a comparatively bargain-basement price -- a second-round choice. LaFontaine began well and in all, played 67 games on behalf of the Rangers, scoring 62 points. Along the way, he became only the third U.S.-born player in history to exceed the 1,000-point plateau.

Then, out of the blue, in an early March game against the Ottawa Senators, disaster struck in the most innocent way imaginable. Skating, LaFontaine accidentally collided with a teammate, Mike Keane, and sustained yet another concussion, the fifth of his career.

"It was enough of a collision that I blacked out for a second or so, but then I came right to," LaFontaine remembered. "What happened was, my symptoms were milder than the ones I had previously, but they lingered on for a long time.

"In Dr. Kelly's mind, that was a real concern because it happened on a much lesser hit than what I took [from Leroux]in Buffalo. His concern was that now, we were starting to get into a real grey area, where the next hit could put you out for a year -- or longer."

So, faced with that grim prospect, LaFontaine reluctantly announced his retirement in August, 1998. It took him from then until early in the fall to finally get back to feeling right.

"Since then, for the past 2½ years, I've had no problems, no residual effects," he said. "I really feel good. Retirement has gone well for me. I had a passion for hockey, but I found out I could have a passion for other things."

Upon his retirement, LaFontaine began working with the American Academy of Neurology to help promote concussion awareness. In addition, he has acted as an adviser to CCM, the equipment manufacturer. As LaFontaine noted, so many of the star players in today's NHL -- Lindros, Paul Kariya, Mike Modano -- have suffered one or more significant concussions in their careers.

"There are only so many hits the head can take," LaFontaine said. "Somehow, we need to protect it better. The scary thing is, it's happening a lot in football and in other high-contact sports. In talking with Dr. Kelly recently, he says it seems to be more and more of a problem all the time." Eric Duhatschek writes analysis and commentary for globeandmail.com; his column appears on the Web site Tuesday through Saturday. Readers can send e-mail to: eduhatschek@globeandmail.ca

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