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Heads Up After a 16-month layoff, concussion-prone Eric Lindros was rusty but also showed flashes of why the Rangers paid dearly for him

Eric Lindros refuses to look back to the history of concussions
that haunts him like Banquo's ghost, to the bad feelings that
marked his final years with the Philadelphia Flyers, even to the
deft drop pass he left for linemate Theo Fleury on Lindros's
third shift as a New York Ranger, a blind pass that was elegant
in its simplicity but spoke of endless possibility. The
playoff-challenged Rangers may not be the right team for Lindros,
but New York is the right town at the right time for him. This is
the city of the possible, one that whispers of delicious freedoms
even beyond the vows of the Statue of Liberty.

In New York a man has the freedom to find himself or lose
himself, to reinvent himself, to rewrite his history. In other
times an athlete so good and so noticeable might have had
difficulty merely going about his business in New York, but the
city has more pressing matters these days, its grief and
fortitude a camouflage for its athletes. Lindros will be the
center of attention soon enough--"Eric's our most important
player," says Mark Messier, the Rangers' captain and a New York
icon--but amid the city's stark abnormalcy this fall, Lindros, who
had longed to play in his hometown of Toronto, has found a
comforting quiet. "I never wanted a carnival," said the
28-year-old Lindros last Saturday. "If I wanted a carnival, I'd
go out there."

Laughing, Lindros jerked a thumb in the direction of the rides at
Playland, an amusement complex in suburban Westchester County
that includes the rink on which the Rangers practice. He was
bare-chested, chatting quietly at his stall in a nearly deserted
dressing room the day after his first NHL game since May 26,
2000, when New Jersey Devils defenseman Scott Stevens crumpled
him with a shoulder to the jaw as Lindros, head down, entered the
offensive zone. Lindros suffered his sixth concussion in 27
months on that hit, and he sat out 2000-01 in a contract dispute
with the Flyers.

Against the Carolina Hurricanes on Friday night, Lindros played
like a man groping for the light switch. There were flashes of
inspiration, like that exquisite pass to Fleury, but they were
overshadowed by the awkwardness that tore at Lindros's line,
which coach Ron Low ripped up in the third period, using Radek
Dvorak in place of the faltering Zdeno Ciger. There was an
embarrassing Alphonse-and-Gaston pass to Fleury that floated into
the neutral zone during a power play and a more telling error
later in the game, when Ron Francis stripped Lindros of the puck
outside the Carolina blue line. That gaffe was compounded seconds
later when Lindros made a poor defensive read and lost his check
on the third Hurricanes goal.

The lack of timing, dulled instincts and uncertainty about
positioning were all unmistakable signs of rink rust, but this
was a mere snapshot of a season opener. The most important thing
wasn't the dismal small picture--Lindros was -2 in a 3-1 loss--but
the encouraging big picture. Given the volumes of well-chronicled
bitterness between Lindros and Philadelphia general manager Bob
Clarke as well as the thick medical files that explained why
Lindros missed 31.4% of the Flyers' regular-season games during
his nine seasons in Philly, it was unrealistic to expect him to
deliver an instant fairy tale on an October night in Raleigh.
"What Eric hasn't done a lot of is move the puck and bust through
the holes," Low said last Saturday. "That's been his strong
point. After the game he told me that it seemed as if he had
nobody to move the puck to."

The Lindros-Fleury pairing is intriguing. After his seamless
partnership in Philadelphia with straight-ahead power winger John
LeClair, Lindros must get accustomed to a pint-sized maverick
who's 82 Nights at the Improv. Fleury, returning from a season
aborted last February when he sought treatment for alcohol and
substance abuse, is a master of the hockey riff, his
unpredictable and often undisciplined style making him as
confounding as he is dynamic. He likes to lug the puck, also a
principal part of Lindros's game.

Fleury's need to lead the rush, however, might prove to be a
blessing. Lindros's critical flaw is his occasional habit of
searching for the puck at his feet and leaving himself vulnerable
to brain-rattling hits like the one Stevens delivered in Game 7
of the 2000 Eastern Conference finals. There's a degree of hubris
in head-down hockey, but the 6'4", 240-pound Lindros had a
simpler reason to adopt that style: He was always the biggest and
best player growing up, unlikely to be hurt by the gnats who
tried to check him. Although he was superb during the up-tempo
but noncontact practices at Team Canada's camp in the first week
of September, defensemen at the Olympic orientation privately
noted that Lindros still sometimes carried the puck with his head

After Rangers general manager Glen Sather made the trade with the
Flyers in August and signed Lindros to a complicated
contract--he's guaranteed $2.3 million this year but can earn as
much as $38 million, based on personal and team incentives, if
New York exercises its option for each of the next three
seasons--the first discussion they had was about Lindros's keeping
his head up. "He's working at it," Sather says. "We talked about
how he would have a chance to work on his puck-handling, how he
could modify his game."

Lindros accepted the counsel--"Any G.M. is going to tell a player
who's had a history of concussions that," he says--but he doesn't
enjoy sifting through the past. The one time his soft voice had
an edge to it during that dressing-room conversation was when he
discussed the Stevens hit. Yes, his head was down, but he sensed
the looming presence of the NHL's most punishing defenseman. "I
was a little surprised Scott was up that high because Johnnie
[LeClair] was down the right side, slipping in behind him, all
alone," Lindros said. "What I was trying to do when I got dinged
was chisel the puck to Johnnie, because if Johnnie gets it, maybe
he scores. If I chisel it through, maybe I'm wearing a [Stanley
Cup] ring right now."

In the near future any jewelry Lindros wears likely will be
bought at retail. The Rangers are composed of disparate parts;
they're a team for which the value of the players' names exceeds
the levels of their games. Like Lindros and Fleury, many others
are returning from something or someplace--a near career-ending
eye injury for defenseman Bryan Berard, surgically repaired knees
for goalie Mike Richter and defenseman Vladimir Malakhov and a
sojourn in Slovakia for Ciger, who last played in the NHL in
1996. There will be growing pains as a swell collection of
resumes tries to transform itself into a team. If it does, the
club will belong to Lindros.

For the moment he's another star on a New York roster that
includes the 40-year-old Messier and Norris Trophy defenseman
Brian Leetch, but Lindros's name will soon be above the marquee.
The Rangers know it; they elected him an alternate captain after
their pregame skate last Friday. They have embraced him off the
ice--Messier, Lindros's boyhood idol, hosted Lindros at his
Manhattan brownstone for three weeks while Lindros looked for his
own place--and, more important, on the ice. When New York
Islanders goalie Garth Snow elbowed Lindros in a preseason game,
Rangers enforcer Dale Purinton rushed to his defense, earning a
four-game suspension. "He'll be hit. There's not a player in the
game who isn't," Sather says of Lindros, "but if you cheap-shot
Eric, you'll pay."

Sather was roundly criticized in New York for trading three young
players (forwards Jan Hlavac, 25; Pavel Brendl, 20; and
defenseman Kim Johnsson, 25) for a Blue Cross All-Star--albeit one
whose 1.356 points-per-game average was second only to Mario
Lemieux's among active players. Lindros, though, turned heads and
maybe changed some minds on Sunday in his home debut, a 5-4
overtime win over the Buffalo Sabres. He scored on a power-play
rebound for his first goal in more than 16 months. He held off a
check by center Tim Connolly and nudged a pass to new linemate
Andreas Johansson for a goal as time expired in the second
period. He cycled the puck down low and threw his considerable
weight around. In the dressing room after having been crunched
into the glass by Lindros late in the first period, Sabres
defenseman Jay McKee asked partner Rhett Warrener, "How much do
you think a body can be squished?"

If this wasn't vintage Lindros, it was only because, as Buffalo
coach Lindy Ruff suggested, Lindros still needs more game
conditioning. He will get plenty, assuming he holds his head up
as proudly as everyone else in New York.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY LOU CAPOZZOLA Back in business Lindros commands so much respect that his new teammates have voted him an assistant captain.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY LOU CAPOZZOLA Top shelf After a shaky opening game, Lindros rebounded with a strong effort on Sunday that included his first Rangers goal.

It was unrealistic to expect Lindros to turn the page and
deliver an instant fairy tale on an October night in Raleigh.