TORONTO — Eric Lindros stands on the boring side of the arena glass watching active but locked-out National Hockey League players scrimmage. Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens practice jerseys are turned inside out, the logos of the NHL clubs that stopped paying the men wearing the sweaters reduced to mirrored stitched outlines.
He watches St. Louis Blues forward and Toronto native Chris Stewart zip down the right wing, the name on his back more prominent than the name on his front, bits of black hockey tape crudely masking the Blues logos on his helmet.
He sees a dozen or so Toronto-based pros reduced to playing shinny — albeit damn fast and fully padded shinny — on the campus of a private, all-boys Roman-Catholic high school campus.
The scene at St. Michael’s College on Wednesday, Lindros’s Junior “B” alma mater, brings to fluorescence a déjà vu that springs the Hart Trophy winner eight years back, when he spent the NHL Season That Wasn’t here in Toronto, trying to stay in shape just in case and studying at the University of Toronto.
As he watches the guys rush end to end, Lindros chuckles at the thought of recruiting some of the current Ontario NHLers to play alongside the famous alumni and fundraising weekend warriors in his new charity tournament in support of Easter Seals. It ‘s not ha-ha funny, but rather a “what else are they going to do?” shrug.
If there’s no new CBA in place by Oct. 18, the inaugural Eric Lindros Celebrity Hockey Classic will not only benefit children with disabilities but benefit from a serious talent injection.
“We have quite a slew out here to pick from that are practising and trying to stay in shape,” Lindros said, “and we’ll see what happens from that. Hopefully there’ll be hockey soon.”
Three days after he retired in November 2007, the NHLPA appointed Lindros as its ombudsman, a newly created position. Lindros, who had been involved with the union throughout his career, severed ties with the Players’ Association in February 2009, resigning as ombudsman after 15 months on the job. Reports at the time cited Lindros’s not seeing eye-to-eye with then-director Paul Kelly.
“I think the Players’ Association is in great shape. They’ve got the best leadership since the days of (Bob) Goodenow (who served as NHLPA executive director from 1992-2005). They have a core group of people within that office that have been there for years and understand what goes on. Talking with the players, they seem to be well informed. It’s an unfortunate situation, but the group will stick together.”
Prior to the 2004-05 lockout, Lindros averaged nearly a point per game, scoring 32 points in 39 games centring the 2003-04 New York Rangers; his eighth concussion limited him to less than half a season of action. But after a summer of rest, Lindros — an unrestricted free agent at the time — was hungry for ice time.
He describes what he felt during the last lockout.
“A great deal of frustration,” said Lindros, now 39 and five years deep into retirement. He repeats: “A great deal of frustration.”
Lindros was never tempted to play overseas, instead trying to keep his mind and body sharp by working out in Ontario and studying economics, but he understands why some NHLers hop on the plane.
“You do what you gotta do to get yourself in shape. Sometimes it’s a great experience over there, to see different parts of the world and play in a different environment and go and enjoy yourself,” he says.
“It gets a little bit boring, I’m not gonna lie to you — going to the gym and skating endlessly with these practices. It never ends,” Lindros said. “But there is light at the end of the tunnel. Hopefully the light comes quicker than we’re all thinking it will.”
For Lindros and others in his era, the light came a full season later. Post-lockout, the Big E signed a one-year contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, then rounded out his career with the Dallas Stars in 2006-07.
Mike Modano, who played with Lindros on that Dallas squad, voiced some strong feelings about the ’04 labour standoff earlier this week.
“In hindsight, it wasn’t worth it,” Modano told ESPN The Magazine. “It was a waste of time. We thought we were stronger than we were. We started falling apart as the months ticked by.
“It’s money you feel you never get back. At some point, we were sold a bill of good,” Modano continued. “Everybody thought, ‘Let’s not let each other down. Let’s do it for the future of the game. Blah, blah, blah.’ You’re only in the game so long.”
One could argue that a forced sabbatical gave the veteran Lindros a welcome break from the hard-banging pro game; another point of view sees Modano’s side — all those unscored goals that could add to a great player’s legacy, and provide enough statistical padding to get a game-changer like Lindros into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
The case for Lindros being inducted into the Hall — and it’s a sturdy one — is essayed annually.
What other seven-time NHL all-star has won a league MVP, an Olympic gold medal, scored 865 points in 760 career games, averaged better than a point per game in the postseason, then donated millions to health science research upon early retirement?
Even if Lindros had produced modest numbers in 2004-05, he would have surpassed the 900-point mark and joined the 500-assist club. But Lindros won’t allow himself to dwell on the what-ifs.
“I don’t think in those regards, what’s gone on in the past. I’m very proud of the teams we were on and what we were able to accomplish. That’s completely out of my hands,” Lindros said of the honour that eludes him.
What Lindros does have power over is his name, which, when lent to a cause such as Easter Seals, can raise big bucks for important causes.
The Lindros Classic, set for Oct. 18-19 in Whitby, Ont., will feature 16 teams of up to 20 players that must pay $1,500 to enter. An additional $300 fundraising goal is set for each individual skater. Each team of Joe Schmoes gets to draft an NHL alumnus (or, heaven forbid, a current locked-out NHLer) and share a beer with the likes of Curtis Joseph, Wendel Clark, Dale Hunter, and other players Lindros has no trouble recruiting for the cause.
“I’m owed a few days around this city, you’re darn right,” Lindros laughed. “I look forward to it. It’s a good skate, and it’s quite competitive. I’m sure things will heat up when it gets down to crunch time.”