"We're always in the headlines, aren't we?"
--PHILADELPHIA FLYERS DEFENSEMAN CHRIS THERIEN
The Philadelphia Flyers are in the headlines, but not in the way
a papal visit or the Elian Gonzalez controversy or tech stocks
are in the news. The Flyers are in the headlines in the manner
of MY AUNT WAS ABDUCTED BY ALIENS! This is a tabloid team, all
boldface type and exclamation points. Philly has as good a
chance to make the Stanley Cup finals as any other team in the
wide-open Eastern Conference, but it's also only one bearded
lady short of a freak show.
When the postseason begins next week, the Flyers probably will
start their fifth netminder in as many playoff years. That
goalie will be the calm, confident 23-year-old rookie Brian
Boucher, not John Vanbiesbrouck, 36, who was signed two years
ago to stop Philadelphia's goaltending carousel. The Flyers will
also start the postseason with their third coach in four
seasons, Craig Ramsay, filling in for Roger Neilson, who is
recuperating from stem cell replacement treatment for cancer.
Neilson's multiple myeloma is just one of a series of events
that have buffeted Philly since the day before Game 4 of the
1997 Cup finals, when coach Terry Murray suggested his Flyers
were in a "choking situation." To continue the pattern, last
week Philadelphia stripped Eric Lindros of his captaincy, even
as he was recovering from yet another concussion, and handed the
coveted C to Eric Desjardins, a move that, depending on your
perspective, was either necessary or callous, logical or
vindictive, but indisputably bizarre.
The Flyers had soldiered on to 97 points and the third-best
record in the conference through Sunday, yet on the brink of the
playoffs they seemed to have leaped into the abyss as tensions
between the franchise player and the franchise came boiling out
of an already simmering pot. "The turmoil is huge," Philly
president Bob Clarke said, "but it's outside the team right now.
The players are happy. It's adversarial between the Lindros
family and management. This actually could be a great scenario
for Eric to come back to [in the playoffs]. If he comes in, he's
just one of the players, part of the team. He doesn't have to
speak for anyone else. If Eric doesn't make peace with me, I
couldn't care less--if he could just make peace with his
teammates and be a hockey player."
To appreciate the significance of Lindros's demotion is to
understand the totemic value of the C, a letter as essential to
the narrative of hockey as Hester Prynne's scarlet A is to the
writing of Hawthorne. The captaincy in hockey, unlike in other
sports, is not merely an official designation of leadership but
an honor of almost mythic proportions. The player who wears the
C is the voice of the team, the public face of the organization,
the personification of its hopes. "There's a glory that goes
with that C," Ramsay says.
Conversely, when it's stripped from a player, there's abject
humiliation. Footage of equipment manager Turk Evers, the most
noted needle-and-thread expert in Philadelphia since Betsy Ross,
sewing the C on Desjardins's sweater was aired on highlight
shows across North America, making the slap even more public.
Lindros had been the Flyers' cornerstone since he joined
Philadelphia in 1992, a hulking, dominating center who it was
hoped would return the Stanley Cup to the Flyers, a player as
identifiable with his team as any in the NHL. Taking his
captaincy wasn't merely a C change--it was a sea change.
Lindros was stripped on March 27 after Clarke called a meeting
with Ramsay and alternate captains Desjardins, John LeClair and
Mark Recchi. The comments from Clarke that players thought they
needed leadership as they headed into the playoffs were at best
irrelevant, at worst disingenuous. During Lindros's extended
absences in previous years--he has missed 136 games since the
1992-93 season--his C had been handed temporarily to forward Rod
Brind'Amour, who was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes in
January, and returned when Lindros was healthy. "There are,"
Desjardins says, "all kinds of ways to handle a situation."
The Flyers chose the most provocative as retribution for
comments Lindros had made four days earlier about the
Philadelphia medical staff, specifically trainer John Worley.
Two years ago Clarke thought enough of Lindros's leadership
skills to name him captain of the Canadian Olympic team ahead of
Wayne Gretzky, Steve Yzerman or Raymond Bourque. Last week
Clarke said, "It's just not possible for him to be disliking the
organization--and that includes the doctors and trainers--and
still be captain. He's supposed to represent the other players,
and the other players don't feel that way." Lindros refused to
comment to SI other than to say that he didn't want to inflame
the situation any further.
Flyers medical personnel apparently misdiagnosed a Grade II
concussion stemming from a blow to Lindros's jaw by Boston
Bruins defenseman Hal Gill in the second period of a March 4
game. When asked how the medics--who initially called the injury
"posttraumatic migraine headaches" and a day later a Grade I
concussion--might have missed the subsequent diagnosis by
concussion expert James Kelly, an associate professor at
Northwestern University Medical School, team internist Gary
Dorshimer said, "When you get your clock cleaned, it's hard to
look so normal. Eric looked like Eric. He seemed like his normal
personality, hurrying around, upbeat."
Dorshimer had examined Lindros on March 5, but in answer to the
doctor's question, "Did you get your bell rung?" Lindros said he
was fine. Lindros's lack of forthrightness played a part in the
misdiagnosis. He should have known better. He'd had three other
concussions in the past two years, and in 1996 his brother
Brett's nascent NHL career was cut short after 51 games by a
series of concussions. In a March 23 press conference Lindros,
who had vomited between the second and third periods in Boston,
conceded that he hadn't been totally truthful but added that
Worley knew he was experiencing more severe symptoms than
headaches and should have kept him from playing. Worley, who
said it wasn't uncommon for Lindros to vomit before games or
between periods because of nerves, told SI that he didn't learn
that Lindros had sustained memory loss until March 13 in
Phoenix, after Lindros had told roommate Keith Primeau that he
couldn't remember some shifts the previous night in Colorado.
Primeau encouraged Lindros to call Worley.
At that point Lindros had appeared in four games since the
concussion, playing well in the first three--he scored two
goals--and miserably in the fourth. Eric, whose father and
agent, Carl, had clashed with the Flyers last year over the
medical treatment of Eric following a collapsed lung, sat out
the game against the Coyotes and three others before seeing
Kelly. On March 21 and March 22, Kelly examined Lindros in
Chicago and said he would be out four to six weeks, a timetable
that suggested he would return for the second round of the
playoffs, if Philadelphia got that far.
Without a healthy Lindros the last two years the Flyers haven't
advanced past Round 1. In 1998 he returned in the opening round
after missing 18 games with his first concussion and played
listlessly as Philadelphia fell to the Buffalo Sabres in five
games. Last season, with Lindros sidelined because of the
collapsed lung, the Flyers lost in six games to the Toronto
Maple Leafs. Philly is 59-60-17-0 in games Lindros has missed in
his eight-year career, one measuring stick of his value,
although it measures only losses on the ice and not in the
dressing room. Conversations with several Philly veterans last
week painted a portrait of their former captain as an
increasingly isolated player, an impression reinforced by the
effusive, almost mawkish, public praise of the unprepossessing
Desjardins as a superb leader who, as wing Keith Jones described
him, "always puts the team ahead of himself."
"There's not a guy in here who wouldn't say Eric isn't a great
guy," says Primeau, who was obtained from Carolina in the
Brind'Amour trade, "but that doesn't change everything else
that's gone on. We all felt the team was looking for closure on
the captaincy issue."
The Flyers' next issue is goaltending. At week's end Ramsay had
not formally selected his starting playoff goalie, although the
process of natural selection seemed to have occurred earlier in
the week. On March 28 in Ottawa, during the first game of
Desjardins's captaincy, Philadelphia dominated the Senators for
50 minutes until Igor Kravchuk's 60-foot floater eluded
Vanbiesbrouck, tying the score. The suddenly fragile Flyers gave
up two more goals plus an empty-netter in a 5-2 loss. With
Boucher in the nets in Pittsburgh last Saturday, Philly players
flung themselves in front of shots with abandon during a furious
last four minutes, in which Boucher made some key stops, Jaromir
Jagr dinged the crossbar, and the Flyers escaped with a 3-2
Philadelphia was undermined in the playoffs against Toronto last
year when Vanbiesbrouck allowed three short-side, backhand goals
among the nine he gave up. (The timing and the type of goal
often matters as much as how many are scored.) Boucher will
start in the postseason this year not because his numbers are
marginally better than Vanbiesbrouck's--a 1.97 goals-against
average and a .916 save percentage compared with 2.22 and
.905--but because the Flyers play more comfortably with him.
When Philadelphia has scored three or more goals with Boucher in
net, the team has won 16 of 20 games and earned a point in all
the other matches. "The kid's gotten stronger," Recchi says. "At
the start of the year in practice you could almost score on him
at will. Now it's almost like you can't get one past him.
There's a big upside there."
In the tabloid world of the Flyers there might even be a big
upside in the busting of Lindros, who has been averaging just
1.08 points per game this season, the poorest output of his NHL
career. As one Philadelphia veteran says, "I'm an optimist. So
the way I see it, when Eric comes back, he'll be so angry with
management that he'll try to stick it up their butts and play
The glass is neither half empty nor half full in fitful
Philly--it's broken. In what surely are the final weeks of
Lindros's career with the Flyers, the team will have to sweep up
the shards on Broad Street before it can map out a Stanley Cup
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID E. KLUTHO TROUBLING TIMES Despite having a talented team, the Flyers face another uphill playoff battle without Lindros.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO A REACH LeClair, a wing on Lindros's line, had 39 goals as of Sunday and is used to playing without his oft-injured mate.
COLOR PHOTO: RICK STEWART/ALLSPORT NEW LEADER After Lindros (88) questioned the team's medical staff, the Flyers took his C and gave it to Desjardins.
COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA [See caption above]
The Flyers might have as good a chance as any team in the East,
but they're also only one bearded lady short of a freak show.
The captaincy in hockey is not merely an official designation of
leadership but an honor of mythic proportions.