MILTON, Ont. — The first time Eric Lindros saw Connor McDavid play live, the younger Next One zipped down the ice for a breakaway goal as Team Canada defeated Russia by a 5-4 score in the gold meal game of the 2015 world junior hockey championships.
It’s one thing to see highlights of the 18-year-old phenom. It’s another to step back, observe the whole sheet of ice, and examine the tools McDavid uses to dominate.
“He’s everything,” Lindros told us at Monday’s Smile Zone Foundation Celebrity Golf Tournament, as he putted out on No. 6.
“Speed. His speed and his hands. Some guys might have two or three gears. He’s got five or six. He can change his pace, especially when he decides to go wide or he sees an opening in the middle. He’s spectacular.”
As one generational talent watches another heading into McDavid’s hotly anticipated rookie campaign, Lindros, now 42, says the expectation and hype surrounding McDavid does conjure up memories of 1991. At the time, Lindros—fast, fierce, seemingly limitless in his potential— was the most talented kid to pick up the game since Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux.
But as Lindros acknowledges, there are a few notable differences between now and 24 years ago.
“Well, there was no lottery,” Lindros says of the lucky number combination that changed Edmonton’s draft position in an instant.
“There was an expansion team (in 1991), San Jose, and they got the second pick (Pat Falloon). Quebec had the first pick, even though there was an expansion team that year. Things have changed,” Lindros adds. “You remember back a little bit. My family was down there in Buffalo for the draft, and we had a nice time.”
LISTEN: Eric Lindros on Dean Blundell & Co.
The teenage Lindros refused to play for the Nordiques and was eventually dealt to Philadelphia for a package (including the rights to Peter Forsberg) that would help lead the Quebec/Colorado franchise to its first championship in 1996.
So comparable are their jumps from Ontario Hockey League dominance to the NHL, McDavid’s camp had to reassure Oilers fans he would not “pull a Lindros,” as the Edmonton Journal put it this spring.
Hockey Night in Canada‘s Ron MacLean, who was also participating in the Smile Zone tourney Monday, has watched generational talents enter the big leagues. He says McDavid’s narrative strikes a stronger parallel to Lindros than those of Gretzky or Sidney Crosby.
“I liken (McDavid) to Lindros, for sure. Sid was obviously that guy, but this is more like Eric. Quebec completely gutted their roster. The Nordiques kept Michel Goulet almost till the bitter end, but they got rid of him and everybody else, like Dale Hunter (and Peter Stastny). They absolutely gutted their team in anticipation of Lindros, which is what Buffalo did for McDavid. Now the Sabres are rebuilding nicely,” explains MacLean.
While MacLean acknowledges that Crosby is stronger on the puck and speedy in his own right, he describes the Penguins star’s skating as more “bull in a china shop.”
McDavid brings a top-end velocity that makes him as ideally suited to today’s red-line-free pace as Lindros was to the bulldozer era.
“He’s as dominant in a game that’s now a speed game as Eric was a power forward in a power forward’s game. Everyone wanted Eric, (Keith) Tkachuk, (Jeremy) Roenick, (Brendan) Shanahan. They wanted that player,” MacLean says.
“Eric was the best of the kind of player you wanted back in 1991. Nobody knew Wayne would be Wayne—nobody. They thought he’d get beat up in the NHL, and he proved to be something. And Crosby’s unique. McDavid is the best I’ve ever seen of the kind of player he is.”
After holding out for one season, Lindros lit it up as an NHL freshman, scoring 41 goals and 75 points in just 61 games for the Flyers. But Lindros doesn’t believe he’s qualified to offer McDavid any advice for dealing with what will be a heavily scrutinized rookie year.
“These guys now learn about media and p.r. when they’re so young, I’m not in any position to give advice on any of that. He’s going to walk into a position where he’s on a young team, an up-and-coming team,” Lindros says. “They did really well in free agency and made some great trades. They’re going to give it a shot and be a very respected hockey club if not this year, then the next year, that’s for sure.”
As for Lindros himself, he’s anxious to get his golf game back in order, just seven weeks removed from shoulder surgery at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto.
He and wife Kina are spending increasingly more time north of Toronto in Muskoka and he’s dabbling in the clothing business through Shop.ca. The couple just celebrated the first birthday of their son, Carl Pierre, in June, and twins are due in September.
As for the Oilers, change is good, Lindros says and he sees McDavid fitting in well there.
“I hope it works out well for him in Edmonton and he’s there a long time and he’s taken care of, and he’s given every opportunity, which I’m sure the new GM (Peter Chiarelli) is going to offer him,” Lindros says.
“They got a new coach (Todd McLellan) in there, which will give them a new shake. That’s nothing against the old shake, but every once in a while you have to switch it up.”