There are times--say, when he's driving to the net, swatting aside
backpedaling defensemen like traffic pylons--that the feats of
strength of Philadelphia Flyers center Eric Lindros border on
cartoonish. At 6'4" and 236 pounds, he has the rolling shoulders
and V-shaped build of a linebacker. Put Lindros in the confined
space of an NHL rink, get him in one of his famously bad moods,
and the potential for bone-crunching collisions is ripe. Ottawa
Senators winger Andreas Dackell found that out on Oct. 29 as he
chased the puck into the corner behind his net and saw a blur
closing in on him from his right. "Too late," says Dackell, who
gives away five inches and 45 pounds to Lindros.
Lindros drove Dackell face-first into the Plexiglas and left him
stretched out on the ice for 12 minutes. Standing in the
Senators' dressing room after a recent game, Dackell reached up
as he spoke and traced with his finger the pink C-shaped scar
starting near his hairline and curving along his right eyebrow.
He needed 30 stitches to close the gash and two weeks to get over
Lindros sent word to Dackell that he was sorry, and NHL czar of
discipline Colin Campbell later agreed with referee Richard
Trottier that Lindros's devastating hit was legal (and, thus,
deserved no penalty). But the sight of Dackell being wheeled off
on a stretcher, his face bloodied, provided the rest of the
league with vivid evidence that Lindros is playing with a
forcefulness not seen during his previous six years in the NHL.
That's partly because at the end of last season Lindros was fed
up. Philadelphia general manager Bob Clarke, who held the same
title with Canada's 1998 Olympic team, named Lindros captain for
the Nagano Games--ahead of Wayne Gretzky, Raymond Bourque, Steve
Yzerman and other players with thicker portfolios--and while
Lindros played hard on the larger international-ice surface,
which is not well-suited to his power game, the Canadians, who
were the cofavorites for the gold, went home without a medal.
Ten weeks later the Flyers were eliminated in the first round of
the playoffs by the Buffalo Sabres in five games, a series in
which Philly showed all the enthusiasm of a clerk at the returns
counter on Dec. 26. Lindros scored just once. Then, later in the
summer he was broadsided by public criticism from Clarke.
"Something is going to come from all of this," Lindros vowed
privately. "What, I don't know, but something."
The withering shots by Clarke reported in July 31 editions of
The Philadelphia Inquirer hit the City of Brotherly Love like a
bombshell. "If you want to be the highest-paid player in the
game or close to it, you've got to play that way," Clarke was
quoted as saying about Lindros. "You're not a kid anymore. It's
time. You talk to him and ask him, Why did you play poorly
against Detroit in the Stanley Cup finals [in 1997]? He says, 'I
don't know.' Why did you play poorly against Buffalo [in '98]?
He says, 'I don't know.'
"If you're going to pay him $8.5 million, you hope to get more
games out of Eric--and better games.... You can't keep paying
someone on potential.... If you're going to be as good as you
can, you have to have a real passion for the game, a real passion
for life with your teammates, being around the locker room....
It's a hard thing. Some players never learn it. That's why they
never get better."
Clarke went on to say that Lindros, a potential free agent after
the 1998-99 season, might not be long for Philly. "If we can't
get him signed now," Clarke told the Inquirer, "we'd be better
off trading him."
In the space of three paragraphs, Clarke had questioned his
franchise player's heart, brains, leadership and ability to
excel in the clutch. Then he threatened to run him out of town.
Word of Clarke's comments didn't reach Lindros, who was at his
off-season getaway in Muskoka, Ont., an idyllic lakeside spot
about two hours north of Toronto, until a couple of days later.
He recalls stopping at a general store and picking up a Toronto
newspaper. When he turned to the sports pages and began reading
the follow-up stories about Clarke's comments, he felt angry and
betrayed. "Some nights I'd lie awake thinking about it," he says.
By increasing the pressure on Lindros and threatening to break
up the Flyers, Clarke constructed a now-or-never scenario in
which nothing less than a Stanley Cup would do this season. So
far Lindros has responded to the challenge. Philadelphia has
muddled along--its talent-rich team had only the sixth-best
record in the NHL through Sunday--but Clarke can't hang this on
Lindros. At week's end he led the league in scoring with 40
points and was a physical force. Lindros's line had accounted
for 58% of the Flyers' goals, an imbalance as dangerous as it is
impressive, which explains why Clarke reacquired gifted right
wing Mikael Renberg from the Tampa Bay Lightning on Dec. 12 to
play on the second line. For now, Lindros and All-Star left wing
John LeClair are flanked by Keith Jones. That line makes its
living cycling the puck, wearing down defensemen and looking for
a setup in the slot. Also with fewer teams playing the
neutral-zone trap this season, Lindros has found more open ice.
Against the New Jersey Devils on Dec. 10, for instance, he took
the puck at his blue line, lugged it down the left side, turned
defenseman Lyle Odelein into a pylon and scored a film-at-11 goal.
If Lindros is quicker this season, he also is smarter; so far he
has avoided the retaliation penalties that previously had marred
his game. While, through Sunday, he was on pace for 153 penalty
minutes--about average for him--he should reach that total in
about 20 more games than last season as long as he remains
healthy. "I don't know what it is with Eric, he's just
different," says Montreal Canadiens defenseman Igor Ulanov, a
longtime nemesis who plastered Lindros twice in a game on Nov. 9
only to find, "He didn't say anything. Normally he likes to talk
back to you. I think he's playing more for the team than he did
before. Usually he'd elbow me, head-butt me, stick-butt me. Now
he's a cleaner player. You can't get him off his game." Lindros
can pinpoint when the transformation occurred: "It was late last
summer, after all those things were said. I was sitting in a
boat on the lake with my brother, Brett, in the middle of the
night, just talking and having a few beers. Ultimately, I just
decided, I'm tired of going through life doing things out of
frustration or worrying. I'm sick of my moods. Sick of being
bothered by things I can't control.
"I realized I can't shoulder everything. [When things went wrong]
in the past, I might withdraw or snap--sometimes both. Then I
realized, If this guy's ticked off at that guy, how does that
affect me? Why bother? I talked to Steve Yzerman and Mario
Lemieux this summer. They told me the same thing: Just play. I
talked to my brother and looked at how he has handled having to
retire [because of numerous concussions]. His motto is, Nobody
gets to have more fun than me. I thought, That's not bad. I
started saying the same thing. From now on, nobody has more fun
With Gretzky and Mark Messier in the autumn of their careers,
Clarke isn't alone in thinking that Lindros, who was league MVP
in the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season, should have already
settled into the role of the NHL's leading man. During the 1997
playoffs Lindros and the Flyers crushed those legends and their
team, the New York Rangers, to become Eastern Conference
champions. But in the Stanley Cup finals Lindros all but
disappeared, scoring just one goal, and the Detroit Red Wings
swept Philadelphia. Detroit coach Scott Bowman shocked the
Flyers by using finesse defensemen Niklas Lidstrom and Larry
Murphy against Lindros's line, rarely allowing Lindros to
forecheck and force turnovers. If Lindros disappeared on the
ice, he was just as invisible in the dressing room. After a
practice between Games 3 and 4, when then coach Terry Murray
made his infamous "choking situation" comment in discussing
Philly's performance, Lindros made a hasty exit from Joe Louis
Arena--hardly leadership at its finest. Then last season Lindros
missed 19 regular-season games because of a concussion (he
missed 22% of the Flyers' games in his first six seasons,
despite never having surgery), finishing with only 30 goals
before bottoming out in the postseason.
Some observers feel that unless he makes a quick turnaround,
Lindros is on the verge of cementing his reputation as a
postseason flop. "If the Flyers had gone to the wire and Eric had
been MVP throughout the playoffs by now, it might be different,"
says Russ Farwell, Philadelphia's general manager from 1990 to
'94, who acquired Lindros from the Quebec Nordiques in a '92
blockbuster trade. "Five years ago nobody said you can't win a
Cup with Lindros. But now? You bet they do. I think Bob [Clarke]
has tried to be accommodating in every way. The Flyers have
changed coaches. They've changed personnel. Now Eric needs to go
win a Cup. It's time."
Though he has been Philly's captain since his third year with the
Flyers, Lindros's leadership, or lack thereof, has long been in
question. He says he was unsure what his role should have been
the last few seasons when the Flyers had three coaches--Murray,
who was replaced after the 1997 finals; Wayne Cashman, whom
Clarke fired after 61 games; and now Roger Neilson. Should he
monitor every squabble? Rant? Soothe every flagging ego? Brett
says Eric often wondered, "If he did stand up and say something
in the dressing room, how much support would he have?"
It depends on whom you ask. Flyers 10-year veteran forward Rod
Brind'Amour says, "I see what Eric does every day, and I'll
always stand by him. He's a leader."
TSN announcer Paul Romanuk, who has covered Lindros since his
junior hockey days, says, "Eric's a nice young man, but he just
wants to play and be left alone. That's not realistic when they
pay him $8.5 million a season. If that's how he really feels,
there are a million adult hockey leagues he can play in."
Because of their active roles in their son's career, Lindros's
parents, Carl and Bonnie, have been called meddlers, leading to
mean-spirited whispers that Eric is led around by his mommy and
daddy. Bonnie has been accused of breaking up Eric's engagement
to Canadian actress Monika Schnarre by springing an 11th-hour
prenuptial agreement on her ("Believe me, Monika and I never even
got that far," Eric says) and of faxing line combinations to
Farwell. ("Oh, right," Lindros says. "Do people at least laugh
when they say these things?") During the Olympics, Bonnie
reportedly called Clarke's secretary, Dianna Taylor, in a snit
after reading that Gretzky, not her son, had been selected to
carry Canada's flag in the closing ceremonies. Bonnie would not
comment for this story; Carl says that Bonnie did phone Clarke's
office during the Games, but the call had nothing to do with
which player carried the flag.
Carl has also been involved in controversy. After Philadelphia's
6-1 loss in Game 3 of the 1997 Cup finals, he cornered some
reporters and urged them to lay the blame where it belonged--on
Murray, not on Eric. Murray, who had a distant relationship with
Eric, was fired after the playoffs. Though two sources confirm
the conversation, Carl insists, "I didn't talk to anybody in the
media about my views about Murray or that series, as I recall."
Says Farwell, "As soon as Eric hits a cold streak, his family,
not so much him, will always say it's someone else's fault."
Clarke says Lindros's parents are nice people, but he
acknowledges that Carl's role as Eric's agent creates awkward
moments. "It's hard to sit there [during contract negotiations]
and tell someone, 'Your kid screwed up,'" says Clarke.
On a recent Sunday morning Clarke sat in his office at the
Flyers' practice rink in Voorhees, N.J., and said, "What I said
this summer was nothing personal. It was just meant to challenge
Eric. That's all." Asked if he thought Lindros was the sort to
hold a grudge, Clarke quickly answered, "Oh, no. Not at all."
But when Philadelphia defenseman Eric Desjardins was asked the
same question, he smirked and said, "I don't think Eric has
forgotten what was said."
Added Brind'Amour, "I don't think Eric will ever forget it."
Brett says, "When it first happened, I told Eric, 'You know what?
They've done everything they can do to you now. They've called
your mom a bitch and called your dad everything. Now Clarke's
abusing you.' I said, 'Why not just pack your bags? They've been
putting a gun to your head forever. Just pack your bags, go to
L.A. or New York or Colorado or wherever somebody wants you.'"
After Clarke's cutting remarks last summer Lindros rejected a
five-year, $42 million offer from the Flyers. Instead, he made a
handshake agreement on a one-year, $8.5 million deal for next
season, which remains in effect only if the Flyers don't trade
him. Otherwise, he becomes a restricted free agent this summer.
"This gives us a chance to see what direction the team is going,"
"After what was said this summer I was pissed," says Eric. "You
know, contract talks do funny things. Honestly, given that
context, I don't give a s--- what Bob Clarke does. I know I have
to win the Cup. I want to finish what I started here."
What if the Flyers win it all this season? Does Lindros believe
people will say they were wrong about him? He laughs and says,
"I'd love to, love to, love to win the Cup and find out."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MATT MAHURIN [Eric Lindros]
COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA LEADING MAN After a disappointing 1997-98, Lindros has blasted to the NHL scoring lead, with 17 goals and 23 assists. [Eric Lindros in game]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MATT MAHURIN [Eric Lindros]
"Five years ago nobody said you can't win a Cup with Lindros,"
says Farwell. "Now? You bet they do."
"Contract talks do funny things," says Lindros. "Given that
context, I don't give a s--- what Bob Clarke does."