They may not have had the longevity of the “LCB” line of Reggie Leach, Bobby Clarke and Bill Barber, but for the short period of time when all three members were healthy, the Legion of Doom line of Eric Lindros, John LeClair and Mikael Renberg was the most dominating trio in the NHL.
In 1995, before constant injuries and other issues began to overshadow Lindros’ achievements on the ice, a succession of serious injuries curtailed much of Renberg’s effectiveness, and long before LeClair started having back problems, the Legion of Doom was a source of pride and hope to a Philadelphia fan base starved for winning hockey.
|The Legion of Doom line of John LeClair, Eric Lindros and Mikael Renberg poses for the cover of FLYER Magazine in 1995. (Flyers archives) |
After a strong start to the 1993-94 season, the Flyers fell apart in the second half of the year and missed the playoffs for the fifth consecutive time. For the second straight year, Lindros was lost for long stretches of the season, due to a knee injury in November and a separated shoulder in April. Even so, the sophomore NHL center posted 45 goals and 97 points in just 65 games. A defensively shaky team in 1993-94, when the Flyers lost Lindros, the club fell apart offensively as well.
An assistant captain in 1993-94, the 21-year-old Lindros was given the Flyers’ captaincy the following season. Years later people wondered if it was the right move, but at the time it seemed like the most logical next step in Lindros’ development.
Out of the rubble of another season gone awry, the Flyers found a new young star in 1993-94. Mikael Renberg's 82 point campaign as a rookie was the highest output produced by any rookie in team history and his 19.5 shooting percentage made him one of the most efficient rookie finishers in NHL history. What’s more, he did so splitting time between left wing on a line with Lindros and Mark Recchi and right wing on units centered by Rod Brind’Amour and, early in the season, Slava Butsayev.
No matter which line he played on, Renberg produced. His 38 goals were the most by any Swedish-born rookie in NHL history. There would not be another NHL rookie from any European country to top 80 points until Alexander Ovechkin’s spectacular 2005-06 rookie season with the Washington Capitals.
“Renberg is just going to get better and better," Lindros said to The Hockey News in 1995. "Mikael is a very honest player, and he’s a tremendous linemate. He never stops working, (and) he expects himself to have a good shift every time out.”
The Flyers’ late-season collapse in 1993-94 cost head coach Terry Simpson and general manager Russ Farwell their jobs. Terry Murray stepped in behind the bench, while Bob Clarke returned for his third stint in the Flyers front office, and second in the GM chair.
There was also the looming threat of a work stoppage. The current NHL collective bargaining agreement was set to expire and Players' Association and the NHL were at an impasse over several key issues.
The Flyers had an up-and-down 1994 preseason. Murray was unhappy with the defensive commitment of several players on the team and dissatisfied with the personnel on the blue line and in the crease. Clarke addressed the goaltending problem by trading Tommy Söderström to the New York Islanders for Ron Hextall.
In the meantime, Murray tried to figure out what he could do with his forwards. Impressed with Renberg, the second year pro was considered one the few "givens" in the lineup. The dilemma was whether to play him at left or right wing and whether to start him with Lindros or Brind'Amour.
On September 30, 1994, the night before the Flyers’ scheduled season opener, talks broke off between the Players Association and the league. Upon settlement of the lockout in January, a 48-game regular season schedule was created.
There would be no inter-conference play. Returning to the Flyers, the Philadelphia players pronounced themselves ready to attack the briskly paced schedule. Unfortunately, the team came stumbling out of the gates with a 2-5-1 mark.
Although the Flyers won their next game, Clarke and Murray decided major personnel changes needed to be made. Shockwaves rippled through the hockey world when the Flyers announced a trade sending superstar right winger Mark Recchi to the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for steady young defenseman Eric Desjardins, underachieving left wing John LeClair and former rookie phenom Gilbert Dionne.
The trade with Montreal represented a huge gamble for the Flyers. Recchi was still young and was a proven 100-point per season player. While Desjardins was sorely needed on the Flyers blue line, no one knew what to expect from LeClair or Dionne.
LeClair was a hero during the 1993 Stanley Cup Finals, but for all of his strength and booming shot, had never even reached the 20-goal mark in a season. Dionne, meanwhile, was a one-dimensional talent who was not scoring enough to keep his place in the lineup.
Murray decided to create a new first line. Moving Renberg from Rod Brind'Amour's left wing, the Swedish sophomore was placed on Lindros' right wing. Murray then placed LeClair as the left wing.
“I never expected John to score the way he did,” said Murray, now a Flyers assistant coach. “That was a great bonus. When I put that line together, I thought LeClair would help win the battles down low and create some room for Lindros and Renberg.”
The Flyers got a lot more than they bargained for. But it didn't happen immediately.
In the first two games after the Recchi trade, the Flyers got shut out twice, including an ugly 3-0 blanking at the hands of the dreadful Ottawa Senators.
On February 11, 1995, the Flyers dragged their last-place 3-7-1 record into the Meadowlands in New Jersey. Renberg had a mere one goal on the season, as did LeClair. Lindros was only doing modestly better with four goals and eight points.
Little did anyone suspect it at the time, but the game in New Jersey turned out to be a major turning point for both the Flyers team and the three players on their top line.
Although they only connected for one goal - LeClair's first as a Flyer - in this game, they began to exhibit remarkable chemistry. Shift after shift, they kept the Devils pinned deep in their own end. The Flyers won 3-1.
|Mikael Renberg and John LeClair collide with Buffalo's Pat Lafontaine in the 1995 Stanley Cup Playoffs. (Flyers archives) |
The line looked equally strong in the next game, a 5-3 win over the Capitals. In the game after that, the top line exploded against Tampa Bay. LeClair tallied a hat trick and Renberg buried a pair of goals. The Flyers were starting to roll.
After LeClair tallied his second hat trick in a 7-0 Forum shellacking of Montreal, journeyman Flyers forward Jim Montgomery commented on the trio, saying they looked like “the Legion of Doom out there.”
Flyers announcer Gene Hart loved it. He began to call the Flyers new top line the Legion of Doom during his broadcasts. Soon, the nickname spread to the newspapers and to national hockey broadcasts.
Several other nicknames were floated around in the media, including “Bob's Big Boys,” the “Doom, Gloom and Zoom Line,” “the JEM [John, Eric, Mikael] Line” and even “The Crazy Apes” (a pun on the former “Crazy Eights” line of Lindros, Recchi and Brent Fedyk). But Legion of Doom is the sobriquet that stuck.
Whatever they were called, the LeClair-Lindros-Renberg combination appeared practically unstoppable. All three players were unselfish with the puck and had soft hands to go along with their strength down low. Each player seemed to know where the other two were at all times.
Once they caught the opponent in their deadly forechecking and cycling game, there was little the defense could do but take a penalty or ice the puck. Lindros presented a deadly combination of freight-train force and subtle finesse, with a sizeable mean streak. LeClair was almost impossible to take off the puck or move from in front of the net and also possessed a rocket of a slap shot. Renberg's speed on the off-wing and willingness to cover up high when the defense pinched added yet another dimension to the assault.
With Desjardins anchoring a suddenly improved blue line and Ron Hextall providing a significant upgrade over Tommy Söderström in goal, the Legion of Doom carried the attack. It did not let up for the rest of the season.
Beyond the top line, only Brind'Amour could be counted on for regular offensive contributions. But the Legion of Doom was so dominant that it seldom mattered. The Flyers steadily rose in the standings.
On April 20, 1995, Renberg scored a third period game winner against the New York Islanders, clinching the Flyers first playoff spot since the 1988-89 season. Two days later, LeClair followed up a Renberg stuff-in attempt to give the Flyers an overtime victory against the Devils. The win clinched first place in the Atlantic Division.
“To win first place is a good accomplishment. I just wanted us to get into the playoffs,” Renberg said. “The way things started this year, I was worried about our chances. But I knew we had a good team. Our confidence is very strong right now. We want to win in the playoffs, too.”
After their second half collapse in 1993-94 and their horrible start in the lockout season of 1994-95, the Flyers sudden turnaround was amazing. At the forefront, of course, was the Legion of Doom.
Lindros, named the Hart Trophy winner, tied for the NHL scoring title with Jaromir Jagr
. Renberg overcame his sluggish start and played consistent, solid hockey on a nightly basis, finishing eighth in the NHL scoring race with 26 goals and 57 points in 47 games.
The biggest surprise of all was LeClair, who blitzed his way to 26 goals and 54 points, one spot behind Renberg on the league charts.
Going into the playoffs, however, the Flyers still had plenty of critics. Lindros went down with a scary-looking eye injury in the final weekend of the season and would be lost for at least the first couple of playoff games.
As the Flyers braced for a first round playoff matchup against the erratic Buffalo Sabres, many critics claimed that Philly's first place finish was a fluke of the shortened schedule and without Lindros, the team would be exposed as frauds in the playoffs.
Although the Sabres were inconsistent, they had the potential to be a dangerous opponent. Goaltender Dominik Hasek was the best in the league and the Sabres had a trio of standout forwards in Pat LaFontaine, Alexander Mogilny and Dale Hawerchuk.
The Flyers needed to be on their toes to avoid falling behind early in the series. Until Lindros could return, Renberg and LeClair were centered by recent acquisition Anatoli Semenov. In Game 1, the Flyers quickly trailed 2-0 before rallying to win the game 4-3 in overtime. The Flyers also took Game 2 at home. They lost Game 3 in Buffalo.
In the first three games of the Sabres series, neither Renberg nor LeClair scored. Lindros returned for Game 4, which the Flyers won 4-2. The Flyers then dominated Game 5 to close out the series, as the Legion of Doom and Brind'Amour ran roughshod over the Sabres.
At one point in Game 5, Buffalo coach John Muckler called timeout in order to plead with his players not to be spectators while Lindros and his linemates did as they pleased.
“They sure are something to see when they get going out there. The three of them can just take over a game,” said Hextall in the victorious locker room after the game.
The Flyers second round opponent was the New York Rangers. The Rangers, the defending Stanley Cup champions, slogged through a disappointing regular season before stunning top-seeded Quebec in the first round of the playoffs. A long, tough series was predicted by the hockey media, with many predicting the Blueshirts to win.
Instead, the Flyers swept the series behind a pair of overtime wins in Philadelphia and two lopsided wins in Madison Square Garden. After garnering just a pair of assists in the Sabres series, Renberg led the attack against the Rangers. He scored a team-best seven points, including three goals.
|Flyers fans react to another goal from the Legion of Doom line in 1995. (Flyers archives) |
“Rennie has been our best player in the series, and Eric has been unbelievable from Day One since I got here,” said LeClair, neglecting to mention his own contributions.
Murray didn’t let LeClair’s work go unacknowledged, either.
“The way LeClair gets the cycle game going for our club, he can just wear down the other team. He’s incredibly strong and he adds another dimension when he’s around the net,” said Murray.
In the last two games of the series, the outmuscled Rangers could no longer get out of their defensive zone with any regularity as the Legion of Doom forechecked the defending champions into oblivion.
Suddenly, people throughout the hockey world were starting to believe in the resurgent Flyers. The Atlantic Division champions were picked as the favorites to win the Eastern Conference Finals against the low scoring, neutral zone-trapping New Jersey Devils.
The Devils bottled up the Flyers, however, and contained the Legion of Doom better than any opponent had to date. The trio was blanked as the Devils took a 4-1 decision in the first game in front of a disappointed Spectrum crowd.
While both Lindros and Renberg tallied goals in Game 2, the Devils controlled the tempo and won 5-2. The Flyers were now in dire straits, trailing the series 2-0 and heading back to New Jersey.
With the Flyers in desperate need of a hero, Renberg and Lindros stepped back to the forefront. Shut down early in Game 3, the Legion of Doom slowly began to assert itself. In the third period of the game, the tempo of the game was in the Flyers favor, as the Devils fought to preserve a 2-0 lead. Suddenly, fluky goals by Kevin Dineen and Rod Brind'Amour forced overtime. The Legion took it from there.
Early in the overtime, Renberg created some room with his stickhandling, drawing two Devils toward him. He drop passed the puck in the high slot right onto Lindros' tape. A quick snap shot later by the Flyers captain, and Philadelphia skated away with a 3-2 victory.
Early in Game 4, Renberg was denied by a pair of spectacular saves by Brodeur. The third time was the charm. Renberg one-timed a Lindros feed top shelf to break a 1-1 deadlock. The Flyers led the rest of the way and went on to win, 5-3.
Unfortunately, the series did not turn out in the Flyers’ favor. Claude Lemieux broke a 2-2 tie late in regulation of Game 5 in one of the most heartbreaking finishes in Flyers’ history. The Devils went to take the next game by a 4-2 score and win the series en route to winning the Stanley Cup. Renberg scored late in regulation to but it was too late to mount a comeback.
Once the sting of defeat subsided, Flyers players and fans alike were able to sit back and savor the fruits of one of the most enjoyable seasons in club history.
Along with the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s Most Valuable Player, Lindros won the Lester Pearson Award as the Most Valuable Player chosen by NHL players, as well as NHL first-team All-Star honors. LeClair won first-team left wing honors, while Renberg and Eric Desjardins narrowly missed out on postseason All-Star awards.
At the NHL Awards ceremony, Lindros got choked up as he accepted his Hart Trophy. “I want to thank the fans for supporting us when we weren’t so good,” he said, tears starting well up. “We’re getting better, and we’re gonna do it.”
The Lindros-led Flyers were never destined to reach the promised land of the Stanley Cup championship, and the relationship between Lindros and the club later deteriorated. But back in 1995, the sky was the limit for the Philadelphia Flyers and the Legion of Doom line.