Great expectations haunt talented Lindros
"We're going to look back and say, 'Wow, what could have been with this guy. And what still could be.' I haven't closed the book on Eric because this one's going to have more pages than War and Peace," says Michael Farber of Sports Illustrated in ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.
Cut from the mold of Mark Messier, his childhood hero, Lindros was projected to follow Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux in the pecking order of stars. Reporters dubbed him "The Next One," although "The Big One" might have better fit his size, ego and hype.
"The best 16-year-old player I've ever seen," said Philadelphia Flyers general manager Bobby Clarke, who would become his boss and then antagonist. "He could play in the NHL right now."
Lindros reached the NHL three years later, in 1992, in trademark hardball style. Spurred by his demanding parents, he refused to play for the Quebec Nordiques, who had drafted him No. 1 overall in 1991, and forced a trade.
The big kid from Ontario -- now a chiseled 235 pounds -- has made a career of getting almost everything he wants, even if he hasn't met the great expectations of the hockey world or sipped from Lord Stanley's cup.
He spurned the minor league team that drafted him, turned his back on the Nordiques -- in essence a whole province -- and finally stared down the Flyers in a 15-month stalemate. Angered by what he and his parents perceived as questionable medical treatment and a lack of loyalty, Lindros refused to re-sign and eventually was traded to the New York Rangers in August 2001.
While his life moves along an often acrimonious path, Lindros has played at an elite level despite numerous injuries, including eight concussions, the first six with the Philadelphia. A six-time All-Star, he's averaged more than a point a game (865 points on 372 goals and 493 assists in 760 games) in 13 seasons. The big center won the Hart Trophy in the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season as the league's Most Valuable Player.
He recorded 57 points in 53 playoff games and in 1997 led the Flyers to the Cup finals. He has competed in the Canada Cup and Olympics.
From the start, Lindros displayed five-tool talent -- skating, passing, shooting, hitting and fighting -- and hockey people took notice. Rangers general manager Neil Smith analyzed the NHL landscape in 1993 and said, "With Gretzky, Lemieux, Steve Yzerman, Pat Lafontaine, you've got a group of superstars who are tremendously skilled, dominant athletes. But they don't have the physical presence to dominate a game. Lindros does."
Eric was born on Feb. 28, 1973 in London, Ontario. His father, Carl, who would become his agent, was an accountant, and his mother, Bonnie, a registered nurse. They would have two more children -- a son Brett and daughter Robin.
Carl, a former hockey minor leaguer, and Bonnie drew criticism for pushing Eric too hard in hockey, but they insisted they took a sensible course, even seeking advice from people such as Bobby Orr's father. "He pushes us," Carl said of his son. "We don't push him."
Lindros dominated youth games, often practiced with players three years older, and received an opportunity to scrimmage with the Toronto Maple Leafs when he was 14. Two years later, the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League drafted him from his Toronto-based Junior B team.
His parents, though, didn't want him bussing for hours, and Eric refused to go. Instead, he played for a lower-level junior team in Michigan before the OHL changed its rules and allowed his rights to be traded to the Oshawa Generals, closer to home. The Generals became Memorial Cup champions, and Greyhounds fans booed him in the playoffs, taunting him with pacifiers and signs, one that read: "Lindros wants his mommy."
In June 1991, the Nordiques drafted him No. 1 even after the Lindroses told them not to bother. The issues: money, Quebec's small size and unsettled political situation, and the belief that ownership wasn't committed to winning. "He's not going," Bonnie said. Instead, the 18-year-old helped Canada win the six-team Canada Cup, notching three goals and two assists in eight games. But he didn't sign with Quebec.
After a year, the Nordiques dealt Lindros to the Flyers for six players, two No. 1 draft picks and $15 million. He signed a $21.8-million, six-year contract (only Lemieux earned more), but he was no savior for Philadelphia, which hadn't had a winning season in four years. The Flyers had two more losing records before their big center led them to winning seasons in his last six years with the team.
Injuries and squabbles, though, marked his Flyer days almost as much as his sparkling performances. Only twice did he play more than 65 games in the regular season and sometimes spent large amounts of time in the penalty box.
Two knee injuries cut into his rookie year, during which he scored 63 points (36 goals and 27 assists) in 51 games and kept running over people at every turn. The league hadn't seen anyone with such skills and size and a mean streak to match. "Eric can hurt you legally more than any other player in the league," Flyers coach Bill Dineen said.
He also hurt rivals with his speed, deft passing touch and knack for scoring in front of the net. In Lindros' third year, the package unfurled a winner. A labor impasse reduced the season to 48 games, but Lindros, named the team captain in 1994 when he was just 21, and the Flyers flourished. He stayed healthy, scored 70 points in 46 games, and led Philadelphia to a 28-16-4 record and the Eastern Conference finals.Lindros had his biggest numbers the following season, 47 goals and 68 assists for 115 points in 73 games as the Flyers repeated as Atlantic Division champions.
He played poorly in the Cup final, though, scoring only one goal as Detroit swept the series, and the Flyers never again made a serious title run with him.
After Buffalo ousted Philadelphia in the first round in 1998, Clarke blistered his franchise player publicly that summer. "If you want to be the highest-paid player in the game or close to it, you've got to play that way," he said, threatening to trade Lindros before he became a free agent in 1999.
The Flyers kept him, but four concussions in a five-month span in 2000 threatened his career. Lindros and his parents speculated that the Flyers' medical staff rushed him back to the ice too fast in one instance and in another misdiagnosed his problem as migraines.
A restricted free agent, Lindros rejected Philadelphia's $8.5 million qualifying offer and said he wanted out, preferably to Toronto. Clarke said he wouldn't deal Lindros without getting full value.
After a reported near-deal with the Maple Leafs collapsed in February 2001, the Flyers dealt Lindros to the Rangers six months later for Jan Hlavac, Kim Johnsson and Pavel Brendl.
In his first season with the Rangers, Lindros suffered his seventh concussion. But he missed only four games with the injury and for the campaign he scored 37 goals and 73 points in 72 contests. He was not so successful in his second and third seasons: In 2002-03, he had just 19 goals and 53 points although he played in a career-high 81 games and the next season his eighth concussion, an eye injury and a torn labrum in his right shoulder limited him to 39 games and he scored only 10 goals and 32 points.
Then, after the 2004-2005 season was canceled because of a lockout, Lindros finally made it to Toronto. A free agent, he signed with the Maple Leafs in August 2005. But he failed to have a happy homecoming as injuries to his right wrist limited him to 33 games and he scored just 22 points. By the next season, Lindros was gone from Toronto, having signed with Dallas as a free agent in July 2006. Slowed by foot and lower-body injuries with the Stars, he scored just five goals and 21 points in 49 games in the 2006-07 season.
"He could have been up there with Lemieux and Gretzky," said former Flyers teammate Rick Tocchet. "But with a lot of stuff that hampered him, with injuries and outside stuff, it's not a sad story but a story that is unfulfilled."