Commentary

With Lindros, nothing was a given

Updated: November 8, 2007, 5:25 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

The first time we met Eric Lindros, he wasn't in a locker room or at a fan event. He was in the back of a Durham Regional Police car back in late 1992.

Lindros, already a household name in Canada, had been accused of pouring beer on a woman in a bar named "Koo Koo Bananas" just east of Toronto in Whitby, Ontario. Lindros turned himself into police on a Sunday morning, but there must have been some Quebec or Sault Ste. Marie Greyhound fans in the local police force because a few calls were made to local media, including this news writer working at the time for The Toronto Sun.

As the squad car pulled into the station, police officers tossed Lindros a set of handcuffs and instructed him to put them on. Then, instead of pulling discreetly into the garage, they stopped short and paraded Lindros into the station past the assembled media throng.

Needless to say, the picture made its way onto the front pages of newspapers and into newscasts across the country.

Police were later forced to apologize for the incident, which broke a number of protocols.

But that was Lindros. Love him. Hate him. But try to find some middle ground.

It's strange, perhaps even sad, that it seemed to take Lindros until the very end of his career to actually find that comfort zone, a place where he was accepted and comfortable. But there he was Thursday afternoon, a player who promised greatness from the earliest age but left almost everyone connected to him in the hockey world wanting more, suddenly the poster boy for the new players' union.

Eric Lindros
Rick Scuteri-US PresswireSince Eric Lindros was drafted by the Nordiques in 1991, controversy, injury and disappointment followed.

Instead of appearing to care only for his own situation and best interests, as he did for much of his career, Lindros in the final days has morphed into a person who has selflessly given his time and is committed to the common good, albeit the common good of multimillionaire hockey players, but the common good nonetheless.

Worker players of the world, unite!

On Thursday afternoon, Lindros made formal what had been expected for months -- years if you count Lindros' forgettable turns in Toronto and Dallas since the lockout.

His time on the ice had come and gone.

He made the announcement in his hometown of London, Ontario, in conjunction with a new medical initiative by the players' union. No missing the irony there.

Lindros, almost incomprehensively, is just 34. Given the way he played and the injuries he collected, he likely feels more like 55.

Lindros, who is expected to take on the role of the NHLPA's new ombudsman, was at the vanguard of the push to bring order to the players' association after the chaos that marked the union during and after the lockout. Lindros, always deceptively bright and thoughtful (qualities that might have been mistaken for being aloof or difficult at times), was on the search committee that recently turned up Paul Kelly, the NHLPA's new executive director.

All of this "Lindros: The Extreme Makeover" runs so contrary to the persona that Lindros either cultivated or foisted on himself over the course of his career.

It began with his refusal to play junior hockey with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. He ended up getting his way and played in Oshawa, Ontario, closer to parents, Bonnie and Carl.

Touted as the game's next "big thing," the heir to the thrones occupied by Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux and Mark Messier, the Big E refused to don the jersey of the Quebec Nordiques when they made Lindros the first overall pick in the 1991 draft. He made it clear that while Quebec City might be a nice place to visit, it wasn't going to be his hockey home.

A short time later, Lindros was the only non-NHLer named to Canada's entry in the Canada Cup, which was won by the host country, and he showed a glimpse of what the Nordiques would be missing.

Although the big forward immediately became Public Enemy No. 1 in La Belle Province, the Nordiques ultimately acquiesced and dealt Lindros a year later to Philadelphia for a package that included Peter Forsberg, Steve Duchesne, Kerry Huffman, Mike Ricci, Ron Hextall, Philadelphia's first-round choice (eventually Jocelyn Thibault) in 1993 draft, $15 million and future considerations.

The deal would ultimately pave the way for the Colorado Avalanche to win Stanley Cups in 1996 and 2001 and would spark debate over what might have happened if the trade was never made.

As for Lindros, he would know his greatest successes, and greatest disappointment, with the Flyers.

He won both the Hart Trophy and Lester B. Pearson Award as the players' MVP in 1995. Two years later, he would lead the Flyers to the Stanley Cup finals, but the favored Flyers were swept by the Detroit Red Wings. During that series, Flyers coach Terry Murray would utter the famous line that his team was in a "choking situation." It would cost Murray his job, but it was true. And while it wasn't necessarily Lindros' fault (he would score just once in the series), he bore the brunt of criticism as the team's captain.

The next winter, perhaps in an attempt to make Lindros the leader everyone expected him to become, Flyers GM Bob Clarke made Big E captain of the Canadian Olympic team in Nagano, Japan. It was the first time NHL players would take part in the Olympics, and with a powerful lineup led by Wayne Gretzky and Patrick Roy, the Canadians were expected to win gold. They didn't, losing to the Czech Republic in a shootout in the semifinal and dropping the bronze-medal game to Finland.

Eric Lindros
AP PhotoThe Scott Stevens hit Eric Lindros sustained in the 2000 playoffs almost ended his career.

A nation mourned and Lindros was again a lightning rod for fan discontent.

Although he would win a gold with Canada in Salt Lake City in 2002, he would do so not in the commanding role, but as a bit player.

Back in Philly, Lindros' relationship with Clarke would deteriorate in large part due to what Clarke would call meddling on the part of Lindros' parents, specifically his father, Carl, who acted as his son's agent for part of his career.

There was also Lindros' near-death experience in April 1999, when he was believed to have a rib injury only to find out he had a collapsed lung, the result of internal bleeding. Roommate Keith Jones, now a television analyst, is credited with saving Lindros' life. He discovered the big man in the shower in the middle of the night and insisted Lindros go to the hospital instead of boarding a team flight as the team wanted.

If there is a moment that seems to define Lindros' career, it was during the 2000 playoffs. The Flyers appeared poised to return to the Stanley Cup finals, leading the New Jersey Devils 3-1 in the Eastern Conference finals. But in the seventh game, New Jersey defenseman Scott Stevens caught Lindros with his head down coming across the New Jersey blue line and delivered a devastating open-ice hit.

Was Stevens' elbow up? Maybe a bit. But the results were significant. The Devils completed their stunning comeback and went on to defeat Dallas for the Stanley Cup.

Lindros, who had suffered through an injury-plagued season and played in just two postseason contests, would go on to miss the entire 2000-01 season recovering from yet another concussion and unable to reach a new contract agreement with the Flyers.

Lindros would eventually land on Broadway, where he enjoyed a stellar 2001-02 season with 37 goals in 72 games. But the Rangers missed the playoffs and it would mark the last time Lindros would break the 20-goal mark.

It seems almost impossible, but after the Flyers' appearance in the 1997 finals, Lindros would play in only 10 playoff games during the last decade of his career.

And there's the rub. For all his talent and promise, Lindros seemed more capable of generating strong emotions than lasting hockey memories. There is more than a little irony at play with Lindros' announcement coming on the eve of the Hockey Hall of Fame weekend in Toronto. Among those who will be inducted Monday night will be Stevens.

Naturally, Lindros' retirement has sparked significant debate about whether he is Hall of Fame material. Maybe he is, maybe he isn't. One thing is certain: A long time ago, all of this -- the Hall of Fame, finding a place to belong -- would have seemed a given.

But for the man they called the Big E, nothing was a given.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.