You’re wrong about Eric Lindros.
I don’t know how many times I said that to friends who brought up his name, who freighted it with judgment.
You’re wrong about Eric Lindros.
They asked about others in the NHL. Most outside the game could sort out the good guys from the bad.
Yeah, 99, he’s about how you thought he’d be. There’s no hidden 99. His private life seemed entirely public. I mean, he invited the whole country to his wedding, right?
Patrick Roy, feisty as hell. Brett Hull, loveable goofball. Jagr, ditto—in spades.
Mario? Well, he’s private, sure, but he suffered. Never mind the threat to his career, he’s been scared for his life. So give him a pass. Give him respect.
Back in the mid- and late-90s, Lindros seemed as remote as Mario, but his circumstances were a stark contrast. Everything in his life had been lined up just right. The plagues hadn’t visited him like they had Mario. Lindros chose not to be out there in the headlines simply because he could.
The public jumped at it. Filled the void. Wrote a narrative. Then another. And another. A whole stack.
He was hyped: Before he even played an OHL game, he was the Next Big Thing, this kid who left Toronto to play for Compuware in Detroit because he was too good.
He was entitled: He wouldn’t go to the Soo Greyhounds like Gretzky had before him. He was going to play junior hockey on his terms—or his parents’. He was going to play close to home, never mind all the legends who had to move far away at 15 or 16.
He was fast-tracked: He was an “exceptional player” in a way that others who followed him never were, leading an Olympic team to a silver medal and taking a regular shift in the Canada Cup before he played an NHL game.
He was greedy, even Francophobic: Damn the fallout and never mind the death threats sent to his hotel at the draft, he wasn’t going to play for les Nordiques. He wanted to rewrite the rules, go to a big market and back up the Brinks truck.
He was arrogant: Well, yeah, did he ever look conflicted to you? Wracked with self-doubt? Even one time? “Aw” and “shucks” weren’t in his vocabulary.
But, then again, how would you know? I’d tell them that they were confusing being insulated for being insolent.
They wouldn’t stop there, though. The most damning tag: He was never a winner.
No, don’t count the two world junior golds because on his third trip to the under-20s Canada finished a disastrous sixth. Don’t count the Memorial Cup because that was just junior. And don’t count the ’91 Canada Cup because that roster was an ensemble of first-ballot Hall of Famers. No, the big thing was that he hadn’t won the Stanley Cup.
He won a Hart Trophy, but they’d say that just proved silverware is no true measure of a player. Show them statistics that put Lindros among the greats of all time and they’d say that just proved numbers were no more useful than trophies.
People outside the game just had a visceral reaction: Eric Lindros was the villain.
He landed in the perfect place for him: Philadelphia, the city that tore down heroes, including but not limited to Wilt Chamberlain, Mike Schmidt, Richie Allen and anyone under centre for the Eagles. Philadelphia, perfect, that way he could be hated everywhere and the farthest thing from beloved at home.
“Nobody roots for Goliath,” Chamberlain had said, and Lindros knew this too well.
Lindros was Goliath. Four cubits high. Philistine.
The league was David. The world was David. Or at least it was for David.
“You’re wrong about Eric Lindros,” I said then, and I’ve been saying it again lately, since Lanny McDonald called him on his cell in late June with the news of his election to the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Of course, I said the same thing the five previous summers when the HHOF classes were announced and the committee had decided to pass him over.
Eric Lindros doesn’t have much interest in going back. “I’m proud of my career and feel lucky to have had a chance to play and meet so many great people and see so much, but there’s so much more to do,” he says. “I’d rather focus on what’s ahead.”
And he can and will. But if all those people who were wrong about Eric Lindros are ever going to get it right, they’ll have to revisit the past. To understand maybe why it took so long for Lindros to get that call. To understand why he had to get it eventually.
Eric Lindros won the Hart Trophy and was voted to the First All-Star Team in 1995, that strange season effectively halved by the NHL lockout. The next season, he finished third in Hart Trophy voting behind Mario and Mark Messier and was named to the Second All-Star Team. Most would point to that stretch as Lindros’s peak, when he was equally a threat to score and a threat to hurt you, unique in his time and maybe matched only by Gordie Howe in the history of the game. Yet when I think of Eric Lindros, it’s the season after that—the 1996-97 campaign—that comes to mind. It was the season most representative of his career, a season of excellence interrupted by injury and bookended with disappointments.
In the late summer of 1996, Canada’s best players gathered out west for training camp for the World Cup. Mario, Ray Bourque and Patrick Roy had passed on the tournament. Paul Kariya was hurt. The biggest names—Gretzky, Messier and Coffey—were on hand, but at 35 they were skating in the twilight. Yzerman, Shanahan and Fleury, among others, were closer to their primes. But despite all the surrounding star power, despite emerging players in Scott Niedermayer and Joe Sakic, who both owned Stanley Cup rings, Messier said, basically, that the Canadian team was Lindros’s—as much as anyone could claim it. “I look around this dressing room and there’s a group of young players who are phenomenally talented, skilled and with size and speed,” Messier said in training camp. “Heading them is Eric. There’s not a player that has the size and strength and speed that he does. And he’s had a tremendous influence on hockey in this country and abroad. The world is going to a power game, bigger and faster players making bigger and harder hits and giving nothing up in skill. And a lot of that has to do with Eric’s success.”
When it was put to him, Lindros didn’t seem uncomfortable with the idea that this was his team. But he didn’t ask for it. He knew better than anyone else the team was his if people saw it that way. Public perception was reality, nothing he could distance himself from. He emphasized that what separated him from the other young stars wasn’t talent but rather international experience. His advantage over Niedermayer and Sakic was that he’d won a couple of world juniors, played an Olympic final and skated with the nation’s best at the ’91 Canada Cup. “There’s no formal passing of the torch like the media or the fans think, but there’s lots of little things that you pick up [having played in other international events],” he said. “I think people might be underrating the young players here, or at least they’re not that familiar with some of the guys. All the young guys here will have their time. There aren’t too many Paul Coffeys in the history of the game, but I think that Scott Niedermayer at the end of his career might be up there with Paul and some of the other great players.”
Though this turned out to be a prescient observation, at the time the talk focused on Lindros. And early on Lindros looked like he was going to make the tournament his own. After a physical beatdown in an exhibition game, Darius Kasparaitis said Lindros “plays like a computer programmed to kill Russians.” But in that game Lindros took a slash across his hand from Igor Larionov and he favoured it the rest of the way—several times in the World Cup he was criticized by the pundits for passing up opportunities to shoot when in fact he had difficulty getting off his one-timer with a weakened grip.
That Canadian team didn’t come together like those in ’84, ’87 and ’91. From day one it felt close but just off. And though others also disappointed, it was Lindros who took the blame. He had just one assist in four desultory outings, including a 5-3 loss to the U.S. and a mind-numbingly dull 4-1 win over Germany in the last game of the round robin. “Who would think Eric Lindros wouldn’t have a goal at this stage?” Canadian coach Glen Sather said before his team’s semi-final game against Sweden. “From the way he played in training camp, you think he’d dominate and he hasn’t. Eric is working hard. He’s doing everything we’ve asked him. He’s been saving his goals for the next game.”
Lindros did open the scoring that game but the Canadians were life or death to get by Sweden 3-2 in double overtime, the game turning into the personal showcase of Peter Forsberg, who had been the prize in the trade for Lindros. That the crowd in Philadelphia cheered for the Swedes just enriched the irony.
The first game of the best-of-three final against the U.S. was also in Philly and a goal by Yzerman in overtime sent the series to Montreal with Canada ahead. After a loss in Game 2, the media’s flamethrowers focused on Lindros. The banner headline in the Montreal Gazette, “Lindros Drops the Torch,” summed up the consensus. Some commentators softened the blow. “He was just good, neither better nor worse than the others,” wrote Le Journal’s Bert Raymond. The bottom line, however, was harsher. He wasn’t Gretzky. He wasn’t Messier.
Lindros wasn’t being measured against teammates. He was being measured against history and he’d been found wanting.
Lindros had to have imagined that he could put his travails behind him with a great performance in the third and deciding game of the final, and he was capable of that. Trailing by a goal, Canada came at the U.S in waves in the second period with Lindros finally beating Mike Richter just before intermission. And if Adam Foote’s goal in the third had stood up as the winner… no, don’t speculate, because the game came crashing down for Canada in the last four minutes. The U.S. won on a Brett Hull deflection that self-styled patriots mistook for a high stick and a Tony Amonte goal that the same fans thought was kicked in.
Canada lost. Lindros was the centrepiece of the generation’s most disappointing team. The loss to hated rivals was his to wear, deserved or not.
Lindros didn’t make either the First or Second All-Star team that season. He finished ninth in Hart Trophy voting—in fact, he finished behind linemate John LeClair in the Hart balloting. That said, Lindros missed 30 games with injury and still wound up with 79 points. The Flyers were a team of conspicuous strengths (LeClair, Lindros and Mikael Renberg in their third season as the league’s most feared line, the Legion of Doom) and equally conspicuous weaknesses (goaltenders Ron Hextall and Garth Snow combining for a team save percentage of .900, below the league average). They were also as streaky a team as any in the league.
Philadelphia started the year indifferently, with a .500 record through the end of November, before going undefeated for 17 games stretching into January. Lindros and the rest finished the season with 103 points. The Flyers then seemed to have raised their game in the post-season, losing just three games in the three series through to the Final, Lindros leading the way with 11 goals in 15 games and being talked about as the certain Conn Smythe winner if heavily favoured Philadelphia raised the Cup. The Flyers had home-ice advantage and were nine points clear of a Detroit Red Wings team that had weaknesses of their own (goaltender Mike Vernon’s .899 save percentage during the season) and a rep for crashing in the postseason, including getting swept in the ’95 final by the New Jersey Devils.
But again, it came apart, even more shockingly than Canada’s fall at the World Cup—and not because Philadelphia failed to win a game. No, the Stanley Cup Final went to a best-of-seven format in 1939 and 18 times before the series had finished in the bare minimum number of games. The Flyers’ meltdown was excruciating and comprehensive and it started with soft goals on long, harmless shots whiffed on by Hextall in Game 1 and Snow in Game 2. By the time the series moved to Detroit, coach Terry Murray said that his team was “in a choking situation.” Further, Murray said: “Detroit has not come out and beat us. We’re the ones who gave it to them.”
As captain, Lindros did as the situation required and put on a brave face. “It’s not the end of the world,” he said. “Now the pressure’s on them. They’re up two games—they’re expected to win.” Game 3 was so thorough and emphatic, a 6-1 win for the Red Wings. Down 2-1 midway through the first period, the Flyers wound up with a five-on-three power play for almost a minute and a half and couldn’t even get a shot on Vernon. From there the frustrations mounted and Lindros took a couple of chippy minors. ”Eric is a key part of our team, I need more out of him than what we saw tonight,” Murray said. “We’ve got to find a way to stop the bleeding. It was an embarrassment.”
No, the real embarrassment was in the offing. The final score of Game 4 was 2-1, but it misleads—Lindros netted his only goal of the series in the dying seconds. The outcome was never in doubt. The Red Wings’ fans cheered their team’s first Cup in more than four decades, but during the game they were loudest when Lindros touched the puck, chanting “loooo-ser.” The Flyers’ defence was decimated—Paul Coffey missed the games in Detroit with a concussion, Petr Svoboda was out with a broken foot. Among the forwards were guys who clearly weren’t fit to play—Renberg was on crutches the morning before Game 4 but played, and Dale Hawerchuk’s chronic hip injury made every shift a struggle. Still, like it had been with the Canadian team at the World Cup, all the blame fell on Lindros’s shoulders.
After the handshake line, with the crowd cheering while the Wings circled the ice with the Cup, the Flyers’ dressing room was opened to media. Reporters mostly passed over the other players to crowd around Lindros’s stall. He was one of the last to enter the room. He didn’t make eye contact with those who asked questions and barely bothered to conceal their schadenfreude. He looked straight ahead, over the mob. Every word was a trial, but he handled the situation as graciously as anyone could.
“It’s all a blur,” he said. “I didn’t think we could lose four games in a seven-game series, let alone four straight. I’m not going to take any credit away from [the Wings]. They did a real good job covering the neutral zone. They were stepping up and taking the ice away from us.”
He resisted pinning blame on Hextall and Snow and turned it around, questioning those who questioned the goaltenders. “Anybody who stands here trying to point fingers at the goaltenders doesn’t know what it is to be part of a team,” he said. “They tried with every shot. We didn’t help them out as we should have. We left them to hang out to dry on a lot of occasions.”
He tried, vainly, to see some positives: “We did a lot of good things getting here, but we didn’t adjust very well,” he said. “We didn’t do what we worked all year to accomplish.”
Asked how he had played in the Cup final, Lindros said, simply: “Obviously not well enough. I didn’t have a great series. I’ll be the first to admit that. I’m not going to jump off the Walt Whitman [Bridge].”
That was the worst moment of Eric Lindros’s hockey life to that point. It was also as close as he’d ever come to a Stanley Cup. He had already played his best hockey. He was 24. He’d only ever play in 10 more NHL playoff games.
Less than a year later it would be Nagano. Another Canadian team he was expected to lead to victory. Another team that had Gretzky (although, controversially, not Messier) and a core of legends effectively billed under Lindros, who this time wore the C. Another one that fell short.
He was the second last of five stars stoned by Dominik Hasek in the Czechs’ win in the semi-final shootout. The team’s fortunes were on his stick. His fluttering backhand went over the sprawling Hasek and rang off the post. He was just one of many who flatlined in the bronze-medal game against the Finns, but others had past glories on their CVs and his performance looked too familiar, evoking the Cup Final the year before.
Blame could have and should have been more evenly distributed for the Canadian disappointment, but it was heaped again on Lindros. He had been tried and tested and judged to have failed. No one could have guessed that his tests were only starting.
I couldn’t have been the only one who sensed that something awful was going to happen eventually, that the speed and brute force Lindros brought to the game would eventually exact a tragic human toll, maybe even a mortal one. I’m sure that I was just one of thousands in the arena in Ottawa who thought, on Halloween night in ’98, that we had actually seen that price paid in real time.
On that night, the Flyers were in to play the Senators, an early-season game of no great consequence, certainly not a heated rivalry. Late in the first period the puck was dumped in to the home team’s end of the ice and with defencemen changing, it was left to resolute journeyman winger Andreas Dackell to skate back and retrieve it. Lindros bore down on Dackell in full flight with none of the Senators there to hold him off or slow him down. His hit on Dackell was so sudden and shocking it was hard to figure out what happened until the replay, and even then there were questions. Did Lindros get his elbow up or did Dackell duck? Did Lindros jump into him or did his skates just lift off the ice on impact? The referee, Richard Trottier, didn’t call a penalty on the play but if he had blown his whistle, no one would have heard it over the boos.
The boos quieted to a hushed and worried murmur as Dackell laid on the ice in a slowly expanding pool of blood. It would take 12 minutes for him to be stretchered off. A replay from a camera in the corner of the rink, on the other side of the glass from the collision, showed the awful images of Dackell’s face being pressed into his shield, his helmet against the glass, a cut bursting open that would take 30 stitches to close. It wasn’t that Lindros was picking on a small player per se—at five-foot-11 and 190 lbs. Dackell was average size by the league’s standards, but he was still giving away five inches and more than 40 lbs.
Dackell was diagnosed with a concussion after the game but he still came out to speak with reporters. “At least I won’t have to buy a Halloween mask this year,” he said through swollen lips. “I felt like a beetle that hit the windshield.”
For his part, Lindros seemed genuinely remorseful: “I feel horrible after seeing someone lying on the ice like that. No one wants to see anyone hurt, Nobody has the intent to hurt anybody else. I just went in and finished my check.”
The hit on Dackell foreshadowed the future in a way that no one could have anticipated. There would be more collisions like it, but Lindros would be on the other awful end of them. It seemed so far-fetched, but it’s the nature of the game and probably all things: life is never so dangerous as when you’re presumed invulnerable.
Little noticed, Lindros had suffered a concussion a few weeks after Nagano: a hit by Darius Kasparaitis, the abrasive defenceman’s piece of revenge against the Russian-killing machine. A one-off, people imagined. Yeah, Lindros’s younger brother Brett had his career ended by a concussion after less than a dozen games with the Islanders. Still, that was Brett, not the most dangerous man in hockey. It didn’t seem like reason for others to think that they could start loading their slings.
The concussions came in quick succession the in the 1999-2000 season. The worst moments are too awful to watch and still terrifying just to catalogue. Just after Christmas, Calgary’s Jason Wiemer levelled a hit that gave Lindros a concussion. He missed two games. Mid-January, a couple of hits in a single shift in a game against Atlanta led to another concussion. He missed four games. Early March, Boston’s giant blueliner Hal Gill hit Lindros, who stayed in the game and played on for a week before his concussion was finally diagnosed by the team’s medical staff. He had to sit out the rest of the regular season. Early May, skating with the Flyers’ farm club on a conditioning stint, Lindros collided with a teammate in practice and suffered yet another concussion. And then in late May, he re-entered the lineup in the Conference Finals against the Devils and, in his second game back, was knocked unconscious, caught with a vicious check by Scott Stevens.
Stevens was nobody’s idea of David but that didn’t matter to many. They were just happy to see Goliath felled for his presumed hubris. In this case, Goliath was stretchered off the ice, the last time he wore a Flyers sweater. He wouldn’t return to an NHL arena for more than a year.
Training camp was just opening and the Rangers made a publicity push centred on Lindros’s arrival on the roster. They were looking to get the team in the news. Management booked Lindros on Live! with Regis and Kathie Lee. He was picked up by limo and was being driven across Manhattan to the studio. He never made it. That was the morning of September 11, 2001.
As portents go, you can’t do worse.
The borders were closed immediately and re-opened days later. Before air travel was restored, I drove down to the Rangers’ training site in suburban Rye, NY. Life was just lurching back to some semblance of normality. Training camp was part of that attempt, not that things could ever again be quite the way they’d been.
When I had originally planned to go to New York back at the start of the month, I imagined that I would focus on Lindros’s acrimonious split from the Flyers, and his comeback from a year on the sidelines. It barely came up. As Lindros said: “All of this here feels awfully small.”
The Rangers’ room was subdued after their first practice back together. No music. No yelling. No chirping. No laughing. The New York press corps, a combative bunch, was muted and respectful when asking the team’s veterans about the attacks on the World Trade Center and whether they had friends or family among the casualties. Lindros was just off to the side, at his stall in the tiny dressing room, watching it unfold.
“I wonder how a rookie, an 18-year-old or 19-year-old, from the junior leagues or coming from Europe for the first time, can process all that happened this week here,” he said. “It’s hard to keep your mind on hockey with all that has happened in Manhattan and Washington.”
I suggested that it might be easier for a young kid than a veteran with roots in New York and children asking him to explain what happened.
“Maybe it’s true,” he said. “It might be tougher for those guys who have been in the city for a long time. Leetchie [Brian Leetch] knew one of the victims and Mark [Messier] played with Ace Bailey [the Los Angeles Kings scout who was in one of the hijacked planes]. Maybe it’s easier if you’ve never been in New York before or developed a comfort level coming here over a career.”
Leaving Philadelphia for New York, Lindros hoped that a new environment shorn of personal baggage would jumpstart his game, that his brain injuries would have healed with the extended time away and that the hockey world would finally see all his promise fully realized. After all, he was still only 28, what passes for most players’ peak. Yet with each of his three seasons in New York, the erosion of his game became more painfully clear—he had tied Jagr for the league lead in points back in ’95 but he wasn’t quite a point a game player in his first and best season with the Rangers. He was named to the Canadian Olympic team once again but no one imagined he’d lead it, not with Mario’s return from retirement, not with Sakic and others at the height of their game. It was easy to miss him on the ice in Salt Lake City, something that you could have never claimed in his Philadelphia days. He dropped from 37 goals in his first season to a career low 19 in 81 games in season two and finally to 10 in 39 games in ’04.
What Lindros said to me about New York after 9/11 could well have served as a postscript to his time with the Rangers: “Everything since then has just felt a little off, no matter how normal you try to make it.”
Few careers end with a great and memorable moment. Most players hold on too long, worried that they’ll have cheated themselves if they leave. That’s Lindros’s time after the second lockout cancelled the 2004-05 season. Does anyone remember anything of his time with the Leafs or Stars?
That Lindros was passed over for the Hall of Fame once or twice was probably not so surprising on one count: deep fields. Like Lindros, a lot of stars, Brett Hull and Yzerman among them, came back for a single season after the lockout. The list of eligibles was crowded and seemed to refill every passing year. If that worked against Lindros then a changing philosophy on the selection committee seemed to work in his favour: With the election of Cam Neely and Pavel Bure among others, it seemed that making it to 900 games was no longer a defining criterion. Lindros’s shortened and frequently interrupted 740-game career didn’t help his candidacy but it didn’t disqualify him.
But one year passed and then another. And last year made five, each one an opportunity to blow the dust off the old, misdirected criticisms. His haters came out of retirement to hate him again. They again noted that he never won the big one and overlooked the many who didn’t win it all either, Neely and Bure included. He was disliked inside the game, they said, never mind that most of them weren’t around at the time. He failed to live up to all the promise he displayed, they said, never mind that at age 24 he was already the best player in the league. And, if they conceded that dominance, they shrugged it off as having lasted for such a brief time, never mind that many in the Hall could never have made that claim at all.
And then in June, Eric Lindros’s phone vibrated. Lanny McDonald calling. And then it vibrated again and again. Congratulations, Goliath.
Here’s the Eric Lindros you don’t know, perhaps the Eric Lindros you don’t want to know.
At one level, he’s like every former player.
He has regrets. “I honestly never thought that the series against Detroit was the closest that I’d get to the Cup,” he says. “Every training camp I went to, I thought that we had a real shot at winning it all that season. I didn’t realize that maybe it comes just once. You just don’t realize how hard it is to win the most important things. In Nagano, we hadn’t lost a period going into the semi-final and we just lost one [period] in that game. And then it’s gone in a shootout. I was so relieved to be a part of that team that won in Salt Lake City. It was unfinished business.”
More than the game, he regrets the fallout from the controversies that opened his family to criticism, most pointedly when Philadelphia GM Bobby Clarke accused Bonnie and Carl Lindros of meddling in the team’s affairs. He admits those potshots stung more than any directed his way, more than the “loser” chant at Joe Louis. “My parents were the best support that I could have possibly had,” he says. “Most players don’t have the benefit of someone [with business expertise] like my father in their corners. And my mother was always there—at the time the game was male-dominated, so there was shots taken at her.”
His conclusion is the universal refrain: “Some things could have been handled better.”
At another level, he’s unlike almost any other former player.
There have been a few better in the game. There has never been better in retirement. Not a single one. You can say that some have been great as coaches or general managers, but no one has thrown himself so deeply into a cause for the benefit of a future generation of players. As much as he changed the game when he was on the ice, Lindros is bound and determined to change it again from the sidelines. To save careers. To save lives. Of players in the pros and kids at neighbourhood rinks.
Upon retirement, he made a $5-million donation to London Health Sciences Centre, where Dr. Peter Fowler had treated him for concussion issues over the years. If it were only that, then Lindros’s generosity and public spirit would be above reproach. But, no, that’s just where it starts.
When Lindros, now 43, talks about the research into white-blood cell transfusions as a first-stage therapy for treatment of concussions, he evinces an enthusiasm he never communicated about the game of hockey when he was its best talent. After the World Cup, he had talked about passing up the ’98 Olympics, but now he says he’ll spare nothing to make it to a conference bringing in medicine’s top neurologists to Western University—wouldn’t miss it for the world. He had dedicated his off-seasons to self-improvement, whether on the ice in workouts or off the ice with college-level studies, but now it seems he divides every waking hour between being a house husband, father to three young kids, and a fundraiser for research initiatives, looking to enrich the lives of others.
If he has regrets about his youth, he’s not going to dwell on them. If you were to reduce his career to a single theme, it would be that he was ahead of his time. What was controversial then is commonplace now. “I wasn’t going [to the Soo] out of the OHL draft and was criticized for it, but now that’s standard practice, every year, just an accepted part of the business,” he says. “I sat out as long as I thought was necessary [in 2000] and was criticized for not returning to the lineup sooner. But now there has been a change in attitude … a change in the culture and awareness.”
Eric Lindros paid an awful price as a player. In the beginning, because of the judgments of people who didn’t know him. In the end, because of the concussions. He tries to be philosophical about both.
The cynics—and there will be some—will think he’s rehabbing his image. The more fair-minded—and their numbers are growing—will think he’s wiser for his suffering. That he changed over the years.
And again, I say: “You’re wrong about Eric Lindros.”
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