No Holding Back
Like the Flyers, these NHL experts would have let Eric Lindros
On the day before Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals last
week, SI polled a total of nine NHL coaches, general managers and
scouts on whether they would have played Eric Lindros, who had
just been cleared by his personal physician to return despite
having suffered five concussions in his career. Eight of those
polled said yes. "You have to play him," said an Eastern
Conference general manager. "How can you not play a guy who will
run people over to go to the net and score? How can you not play
someone with a shot like his?"
Lindros's return belongs in the pantheon of courageous
comebacks: He played for the first time in two months, less than
three weeks after sustaining his latest concussion, in practice.
And he played even though he could have become a restricted free
agent likely to command an $8.5 million salary this summer. The
gamble did not pay off. Lindros was the Flyers' best forward and
scored their goal in a 2-1 loss to the Devils in Game 6, but in
the first period of Game 7 last Friday, another 2-1 defeat, he
absorbed a ferocious, clean open-ice hit from New Jersey
defenseman Scott Stevens. As Lindros lay on the ice curled in a
fetal position, his mouth hanging open after another concussion,
the stunned crowd knew it might have seen him play his last
game. "He showed a lot by coming back," says Devils defenseman
Ken Daneyko. "You hope his career isn't over."
The series of concussions has left Lindros more prone to head
injuries and at ever greater risk of suffering permanent brain
damage. Lindros should follow the lead of his brother, Brett, who
retired from the NHL in May 1996 following his own string of
concussions. At week's end Eric had not commented on his future.
If he retires, Lindros will leave legions of fans wondering what
might have been had he not come back so quickly. Before his
return Lindros said he anticipated that the Devils would play
physically against him, and New Jersey forward Bobby Holik said
that Lindros would be "fair game" on the ice. "What happened is
very unfortunate, but it's part of hockey," Devils coach Larry
Robinson said after Game 7. "We weren't the ones who brought him
back to play at this time."
True, but when asked if he would have played Lindros, Robinson
Will He Be Mr. Fix-it?
Glen Sather rose early in his La Quinta, Calif., home last
Friday, and by 8 a.m.--just hours before SI learned that he
planned to accept the Rangers' offer to become their general
manager--he had clambered onto the roof to make some repairs.
Sather, as his wife, Ann, will tell you, is a handy man to have
around, and the Rangers are hoping he can renovate a franchise
that needs work. "I love New York," says Sather, who resigned as
the Oilers' president and general manager on May 19. "Fans there
have been recognizing me, and screaming at me, for years."
Sather, 56, reached the heights of the hockey world by building
and presiding over Edmonton's five Stanley Cup champions between
1983-84 and '89-90. Sather was the club's general manager for 21
years, including 10 in which he was also its coach. He was
elected to hockey's Hall of Fame in 1997.
Even so, you have to wonder if the Rangers, who fired G.M. Neil
Smith on March 28 after the team missed the playoffs for the
third consecutive year, were overly enamored with what Sather had
done in the '80s. Consider that 1) the Oilers have had eight
consecutive losing seasons, a stretch during which they have won
only two playoff rounds; 2) in the biggest trade Sather made in
the 1990s he dealt Mark Messier to New York for faded center
Bernie Nicholls and a pair of nonstarters, forwards Louie DeBrusk
and Steven Rice; and 3) of the 200 players the Oilers drafted
between 1982 and '99, only two have played in an NHL All-Star
Game. "How do you explain that one?" asks one Western Conference
Sather's failings are mitigated by the fact that he has been
operating on a limited budget; this year Edmonton reached the
postseason despite having a payroll of roughly $25 million, the
seventh lowest in the league. (Only the Senators made the
playoffs with a lower payroll.) While Sather will probably never
live down the Messier deal, he has consistently improved the
Oilers through less glamorous trades, including those that
brought center Doug Weight from the Rangers in 1992-93 and goalie
Tommy Salo from the Islanders in '98-99.
Perhaps Sather's most revered attribute in these dollar-driven
times is his ability to be a fair-minded contract negotiator who
retains the respect of players and agents while holding a hard
line for management. That ability may be irrelevant in New York,
however, because budget constraints are rare. For better or
worse, if he moves to Manhattan, Sather will be entering a new
world. "That's the adventure: to have the opportunity to go
someplace new and to succeed," he says, "or fail."
The More Refs, The Merrier
One thing you probably didn't notice during the conference finals
was the refereeing--and that's a good thing. Several players in
the Flyers-Devils series praised the refs for consistently
"letting us play," while out west the Stars and the Avalanche
were also satisfied with the officiating. (Dallas, in fact,
didn't gripe even after being assessed eight straight penalties
in Game 3.)
This was remarkable, partly because 10 refs appeared in each
series and no two worked together twice in a series. When the
two-referee system was phased in last year, some NHL executives
advocated using one or two set pairs of referees to govern each
playoff series, feeling such a setup would lead to more
consistency. The league's collective bargaining agreement with
the officials, however, mandates that they use a total of 10 refs
in the conference finals. "The system has worked as well as I
could have imagined," says Bryan Lewis, the NHL's head of
officiating. "We're able to keep people fresh."
Apparently 20 eyes are better than four for another reason. "Say
you only had two guys for the series and you got them angry early
on," says Devils coach Larry Robinson. "Then you'd be stuck with
COLOR PHOTO: JERRY LODRIGUSS/PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER Stevens's fierce but legal hit caused the 27-year-old Lindros to suffer his sixth concussion.
COLOR PHOTO: DARREN CARROLL Weight proved to be one of Sather's best acquisitions.
This Date in Playoff History
JUNE 5, 1997
FLYERS VS. RED WINGS
Forwards Sergei Fedorov and Martin Lapointe scored two goals
apiece as Detroit beat Philadelphia 6-1 and took a 3-0 lead in
the Stanley Cup finals. The win broke a seven-game home losing
streak in the finals for the Red Wings, dating to 1964. Detroit
goaltender Mike Vernon stopped 21 of 22 shots on his way to
winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. The Wings swept
the series with a 2-1 victory in Game 4.