Steve Ludzik recalls standing at the top of Clifton Hill in Niagara Falls at the young age of 16 with a sense of awe. “It looked like Las Vegas to us. It was 10:00 pm and my buddy, John Kirk, and I were looking at our hockey contracts saying, ‘This is unbelievable,” recalls Ludzik. “I had just left home to play junior down here.” Prior to this evening, Ludzik had spent two months in the hospital for his Crohn’s Disease. “I didn’t listen to anyone who said I was too sick to play. I was the seventh round pick: the scrap yard of hockey. I came to camp here in Niagara Falls weighing 198 pounds and tore it up,” says Ludzik.

From 1981-1993, Ludzik had a successful career in the NHL. He played for the Chicago Black Hawks and the Buffalo Sabres for a total of 424 games, 46 goals, and 93 assists before becoming the Head Coach for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Shortly after being let go as the coach of the Lightning, Ludzik received a call to appear as a guest on The Score, and his career in sports broadcasting and writing began.

Ludzik’s life has had its ups and downs, particularly with his health. “I was 39 years old when I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. I kept up a pretty hectic schedule until I came out with it five years ago,” says Ludzik. His decision to discuss his health issues publicly came from a desire to confront the disease and a willingness to help others in their fight against it. “When I was nine years old, a 13 year old kid was bugging me and I came home with a black eye. My mom went to call the school and my dad told her to put down the phone. He said to me, ‘Tomorrow you need to drop him and he is going to stop,’” recalls Ludzik. “So, I treat Parkinson’s like a bully,” says Ludzik. “I try not to be intimidated by it.”

“Parkinson’s causes stiffness and rigidity in your limbs with tremors in your hands and in your body. It disrupts your sleeping patterns and tires you out during the day,” says Ludzik. “It is a tricky son of a bitch. It pecks and pokes at you until there is nothing left of you,” explains Ludzik. Being grateful for the excellent care he has received by his Toronto based physician, he knew the Niagara Region would benefit from a rehabilitation facility close to home. It quickly became his goal to start a rehabilitation clinic to help individuals like himself deal with the symptoms of the disease.

Ludzik also wanted to share his treatment regime and knowledge of the disease with others. “For ten years, I’ve been hitting the punching bag in my garage for 20 minutes a day. Now, the experts are saying it is most fitting for the disease.”

In 2013, The Steve Ludzik Centre for Parkinson’s Rehabilitation opened up inside Hotel Dieu Shaver Health and Rehabilitation Centre in St Catharines. The Centre has an interprofessional approach to treatment consisting of physiotherapy, occupational therapy, speech and language therapy, social work, rehabilitation, dietary counselling, and advanced practise nursing.

“Truthfully, I get a kick out of helping people. I greet them at the Parkinson’s Clinic on a Monday, when they start the program, and six weeks later I see them and they are totally different people,” says Ludzik. The program, which is ranked number one in Canada, is free for participants and is not covered under OHIP nor does it receive government funding. However, there is a need for continued funding and donations as there are currently 200 individuals on the waitlist. “Our objective is to raise more funds to close the gap, so no one has to wait that long,” says Tim Housser, who volunteers his time as Director of the Steve Ludzik Foundation. 

In April of 2015, Bob Miller participated in the program.  “As a result of that program, I am happy to say I experienced an overall improvement in my mobility and general health. I was also a part of a follow-up program,” says Miller, who is a member of the St. Catharines Rotary Club.

As the program runs solely on donations, Ludzik and his team spearhead four different fundraisers per year including: a golf tournament, hockey game, celebrity roast, and a concert with the Light of Day Canada Foundation for Parkinson’s Research and Care.

Ludzik’s most notable event, his roasts, are an enjoyable evening of entertainment where close to 1000 people meet former NHL players and hear their stories.

“I got the idea (for the roast) from the Dean Martin Show, but with hockey players,” says Ludzik, who was laughed out of the office of the first organization he reached out to for support. “I was retelling the story while I was golfing with a representative from the Scotiabank and she thought it was a great idea,” explains Ludzik. “They stepped to the forefront right off the bat.”

“It’s a great night out for a great cause,” states Housser. “It’s like a gala or a wedding.” Housser, whose father also suffered from Parkinson’s and had to travel to Hamilton for treatment, understands first-hand the need for the facility and the benefit it brings to the region.

August 13th, 2016 marks the fifth year for the roast and will feature the Bad Boys of Hockey. The cast of characters includes: Dave “The Hammer” Schultz, Battlin’ Billy (Hatchet Man) Smith, Al “The Rock” Secord, Bill “Goldie” Goldthorpe (The inspiration for the character Olgie Oglithorpe in the movie Slap Shot), Bob “Big Daddy” McGill, and Chris “Knuckles” Nilan.

Ludzik’s roasts have developed a solid reputation for good clean entertainment that has not gone unnoticed across North America. “We have a good format that we have perfected and we do something better each time,” says Housser. “Cities like Calgary and Chicago have asked us to do the same for their charity and will give a portion to the Steve Ludzik Foundation. Although the details are still in the early planning stages Ludzik and Housser are excited about the possibility of expansion.

“It would be great for us to take the business model for the roast to any hotbed of a hockey town outside of Niagara and find community partners and support,” explains Housser.

Last April, Ludzik was presented with The “Paul Harris Fellowship Award”, the highest recognition that Rotary International offers. “Steve was honoured for his outstanding contribution in promoting Parkinson awareness and his tangible care through the Steve Ludzik Centre for Parkinson’s Rehabilitation,” says Miller.

Ludzik has never been the type of individual to succumb to setbacks and loss. When asked about being fired as Head Coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning, what he calls the greatest defeat of his hockey career, he responded, “Defeat is never final. The mark of a good man is getting up one more time to be knocked down again.” It is this outlook on life that inspires Ludzik’s drive to make a difference in the lives of individuals who, like him, are suffering from Parkinson’s Disease.

“I came here at 16 and people welcomed me with open arms. Niagara Falls was there for me when I was getting on my feet in my hockey career. I love this town and I am proud to call it my home. This is my way of giving back and to help others in the fight against this despicable disease,” concludes Ludzik. For more information visit ludzy.com.

Written By: Jill Tham