Ultimately Lindros’ 13-year career was compromised by physical issues, notably concussions. But as a 21-year-old, he feared his time would be even shorter than some of the linemates he played with during his first two Flyer seasons.
“My body can’t go through the abuse I was giving it the first year or two,” Lindros said in 1996. “You can’t just charge into the opponent’s zone like a bull in a china shop, trying to cause havoc for 15 years.
“The acquisition of John LeClair saved my career. I got a winger with speed in addition to size, so I didn’t have to be as physical. I think I have the best job in hockey right now.”
Either he did or LeClair did. But for their six seasons together, they were too busy combining for 465 goals, 519 assists, a trip to the Stanley Cup finals and another to the semifinals, and earning ten end-of-season first or second team All Star berths to waste time figuring out whose gravy was thicker.
Lindros carried 240 pounds, not counting that anvil he carried from being projected the game’s next great player when he had barely turned a teen. In contrast, LeClair had such small expectations for his 226 pounds that he was surprised when the Canadiens, who drafted him 33rd overall, wanted him to leave the University of Vermont early.
Even Bob Clarke, in making the best deal of his career – Mark Recchi to Montreal for Gilbert Dionne, Eric Desjardins, and LeClair on February 9, 1995 -- had no idea he was getting a three-time 50-goal scorer, never mind the two overtime winners LeClair scored for the Canadiens in the 1993 Stanley Cup final.
“Eric Lindros was playing with Brett Fedyk,” recalls Clarke. “Every huge defenseman was going after Lindros. Common sense said we had to get some big guys. We needed a big winger and a defenseman who would work the power play, do a lot of penalty killing and take the first and last shift of the period.”
Montreal felt it had a surplus of both. Desjardins had fallen short of the great expectations his play had raised during Montreal’s 1993 Stanley Cup championship season and LeClair, who had scored two overtime goals in the final, kept falling down. Curiously shaky on his skates for a 6-3, 225-pound guy, LeClair had not broken 20 goals in three full NHL seasons.
Desjardins proved enormous value alone for Recchi. LeClair turned out to be the jackpot.
“I thought [LeClair] was a checker,” said Clarke. “We thought we would try him on wing with Lindros and if that didn’t work out, we would make John a checking center.”
The perceived potential of two players fittingly being co-inducted into the Flyers Hall of Fame couldn’t have been more in contrast. But they hardly could have complimented each other any better. Power and power, they quickly empowered each other.
“The first thing John said [to me] when he came to town was, ‘I’ll take myself out of the play to allow you to come out in front of the net.’” recalls Lindros. “John will give himself up as a pick to make a play in the offensive zone.
“He created a lot of space. Johnny was very good at digging pucks and finding a place to shoot. In front of the net he was so strong that many times one person wasn’t strong enough to keep him from getting get his stick open.
“He had a wonderful shot, could score from anywhere, don’t get me wrong. But I think he scored 55 percent of his goals within eight feet of the net. He was that strong.”
“[LeClair] wasn’t Brett Hull with a deft scoring touch,” recalls Ron Hextall. “In practice, he wasn’t a real hard guy to stop, but in the game he would power himself to the net and just bang away. Timmy Kerr knew how to get open and had the real quick release but he was more stationary. Johnny was more the driving, nose down, big horse.”
Clarke’s aforementioned Plan B went into the wastebasket in the second game after the deal, when, playing together with the 6-2 rookie Mikael Renberg, the 6-4 Lindros chased down a Desjardins rebound and fed the 6-3 LeClair in the slot for the first goal of the Flyers’ first win in 13 games at the Meadowlands.
“They looked like the Legion of Doom out there,” said Flyers center Jim Montgomery.
Injuries and anxieties shortened the career of Renberg, the right wing on the legendary line that looked set for a 10-year run. And they eventually wore down first Lindros and then LeClair, too, but not before LeClair scored 333 Flyer goals in 10 seasons, including years of 51 (twice), 50, 43 and 40 goals, and not before Lindros averaged a best-in-Flyers history 1.36 points per game and led the team to a semifinal and a final.
At their peaks, the two not only led the Flyers’ renaissance from the most sustained losing period of their history, but devastated the Rangers and Sabres twice and the Penguins once during the 1995 and 1997 playoff runs.
LeClair’s signature contest as a Flyer probably was Game One of the second round series against the defending champion Rangers in 1995. He jammed his own rebound between Mike Richter’s legs and converted a behind-the-back feed from Lindros to complete a hat trick as the Flyers rallied from a 3-1 to a tie that Desjardins broke in overtime. The Flyers went on to a sweep.
Their most memorable single play together was the power play feed Big John threw through the slot to Lindros, who buried a backhander behind Richter with six seconds remaining in Game Five at Madison Square Garden, giving the Flyers a commanding 3-1 lead in the 1997 semifinal series.
That backhand almost was the equal of Lindros’s devastating forehand. A steamroller who also imprinted designs, he used the most perfect hockey body ever to shield the puck and deliver it with a touch that belied his brute force. One of the best wrist shots in the game rose from one of its quickest releases. And his vision and sense of anticipation became better by the season.
A primer in his dominance was the clinching Game 5 in Buffalo in 1997, when Lindros scored one goal on a breakaway, another on the first successful playoff penalty shot in Flyers’ history and then, after the Sabres closed to within 4-3 in the third period, set up a putaway goal by Shjon Podein.
The 1997 first round against Pittsburgh began with him losing his stick, then controlling the puck in his skates for 38 seconds as the Core States Center crescendo built. While play continued, LeClair -- who else? -- brought Lindros a new stick he used to score a goal and an assist in a 5-1 Flyers win.
“You’re probably not going to get to the finals if your top guy doesn’t put it on his shoulders and say he’s going to get you there,” says Terry Murray, who coached the 1997 finals and 1995 semifinals teams. “And Eric did that."
Not intimidated by his burdens, let alone any opponent, Lindros scored in his first game as a Flyer, then won his first Spectrum debut by stealing the puck from Hall of Famer Scott Niedermayer and soloing for a late goal. In his first game at Quebec City, from where he had forced the biggest trade in hockey history, Lindros scored two goals while fans chanted organ-led obscenities and sucked on mocking pacifiers.
“The guy is just an absolute hockey machine.” teammate and early mentor Craig MacTavish once said.
Worthy of five Flyers, two draft choices and $15 million in the 1992 deal, Lindros was the most compelling player in the game and in his third season, judged the best, too, winning the Hart Trophy.
If it is Eric’s contention that his career was saved by John, LeClair in turn is sure his was made by Lindros. This is why, after originally the two were scheduled to be inducted on separate nights, they decided together to make it one, thus creating space for each other one more time.
“After all,” said LeClair. “I don’t think I would be in this Hall of Fame without him.”