Change of scenery, expectations could help Big E
A week ago, Eric Lindros was about to watch a Dallas Stars home preseason game in street clothes.
"I went to walk in one of the doors and showed my ID," Lindros recalled with a smile. "They said, 'That doesn't work here. Who are you?'"
No, that wouldn't have happened in Toronto, where anyone working at the arena most likely would have known that the big guy in the suit has been in the Ontario hockey spotlight, and thus, the sporting spotlight, since he was a teenager, even when he was with St. Michael's in Toronto at age 14. St. Mike's hadn't yet jumped to the major junior level, but Lindros already was being touted.
"We had guys who were up to 20, 21 [years old]," recalled Colorado defenseman Ken Klee, who was a 17-year-old on that St. Mike's team and also was Lindros' teammate with the Maple Leafs last season. "He was just a big, tall, gangly kid, but he was growing into his body as the year went along. By the end of the year, he was one of the dominant players on the team, so I could tell then. He has a great attitude and a great work ethic, and if he kept that up, he was going to be a force.
"He's had pressures, being a Toronto kid, growing up in that kind of a media spotlight. Since he was 15, he was supposed to be the next coming. I think he gets more criticism than I think others would get. It comes with the job. I don't think he shies away from it or says he doesn't expect it. He's a man now and professional about it."
But it might be good for him to get out of Toronto.
It isn't that the NHL has a low profile in Dallas, where hockey fans, Texas natives and otherwise, abound, and rink construction continues unabated.
It's just different. And maybe that's good for Eric Lindros.
"I don't know if it's a positive or a negative, but it's a change," he said at the Stars' morning skate on opening day in Denver.
Lindros is as big as ever. Well, except for some dropped poundage. This also was true, to a point, during his post-Flyers stays at New York and Toronto, where his injury-marred history preceded him. But if he can stay healthy for an entire season and make tangible contributions, acquiring him was a brilliant move by the Stars. With Lindros getting a $1.5 million salary and $1 million in possible incentives in the one-year deal, there isn't much of a potential downside.
In the Stars' come-from-behind, 3-2 overtime victory over their playoff nemesis of the last two seasons, Colorado, on opening night, Lindros was where he is expected to play this season, on the wing. He started out with Jeff Halpern and Brenden Morrow, but ended up with Mike Modano and Jussi Jokinen as the Stars sought an offensive infusion after trailing 2-0. He assisted on the second-period Modano goal that got Dallas on the scoreboard.
"I think you have to do what you've done in the past and what you feel has contributed," Lindros said. "It's a little bit different playing the wing, I don't cut to the center of the ice and things like that. In a sense, it's kind of a new beginning here and I'm looking forward to giving the wing a go."
He had a tantalizing cameo appearance on Mats Sundin's wing at Toronto last season before a wrist injury took him out of the lineup. Dallas coach Dave Tippett is hoping that spark and Lindros' work in preseason games and camp are harbingers of a successful transition to a new position and a new team.
"He's been excellent on the ice, and I've been real happy with his work ethic and determination," Tippett said. "In the dressing room, he's been an excellent teammate and fit in with our group real well. So he's a very driven person right now. The last exhibition game we played against Tampa, he was just a dominant player. If we can get that kind of approach from him night after night, I think he'll be a very good player for us."
Ah, but the questions.
Can he stay healthy in his first season in the Western Conference?
Can he avoid that proverbial next hit that could leave him with another concussion and send him, fog-draped, into retirement?
Can he even avoid a recurrence of the wrist problems that limited him to 33 games last season?
Can he play with discipline and stay away from the running around that helped make him so vulnerable?
"Yeah, when he was with Philly, he was crushing guys on a regular basis and playing a little reckless," Klee said. "After he's been stung a couple of times, I think he tries to play a little more in control. He can hold you off and keep you away from the puck by his sheer size. It will be interesting to see how he does this year, coming off the wrist injury. He's obviously someone you have to pay attention to."
Tippett ruled out the notion that Lindros might have some tentativeness in his game.
"No, I think when you're a hockey player, when those things are prevalent, you talk about them, but when they're not, they're out of your mind," said Tippett. "He just wants to play. He's more focused on his sticks and his skates and feeling good than the medical issues he's had."
He is only 33. The Flyers-Nordiques trade that affected the NHL power structure and indirectly helped turn Denver into a successful hockey market happened 14 years ago. That's history, as are Lindros' dark 2000-01 and 2004-05 seasons, the first because of his concussion problems and the second during the lockout. His future is unknown territory, but at least he is still playing.
"Despite some of the bumpy roads, I've had a great time playing," he said. "At various points, you have some nights where you're upset and depressed, and you're in a 'Here-we-go-again' frame of mind. But the next day is a new day.
"I had a really difficult time my last year in New York. Not being able to play in Toronto that much was tough. They've been long years and unforeseen situations. It's nice to come in here, and we've got a real solid group. The depth of our hockey team might be our biggest strength. There are guys I knew from World Juniors and guys I played with on other teams. And the guys here that I never knew before have made the transition real easy.
"It's all refreshing, it's all new to me. The city of Dallas is a wonderful place to play. It's a great organization. The practice facility is fantastic, with great ice down there for being so hot all the time. Really, the ice is fantastic, which in turn helps in our practices and our skill level."
That statement might seem predictable and mundane. But here's what is striking about Lindros. As he talked about the practice ice, there was genuine excitement in his voice. Practice ice! And this from a man with a reputation for dispassionate, guarded detachment when in the spotlight.
We are rooting for him.
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."
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