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Hall of Fame

Eric Lindros honors childhood rink

Calls North Toronto Arena, men who work there, special ahead of Hall of Fame induction Monday

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

TORONTO -- As he listened to Eric Lindros, Eric Anweiler wiped away tears.

Lindros had waxed poetic about his love of the game after the ring ceremony at the Hockey Hall of Fame on Friday, how he enjoyed the rink, the ice, the sounds.

He had mentioned how he skates at a place called North Toronto Arena, the same place he had skated since he was 10 years old, and how the same guys were there sharpening skates and driving the ice resurfacing machines. He had named Anweiler, the manager, who has been working there full time for 41 years, and Mario Copelli, the foreman, who has been there for 40.

"That's home," Lindros said. "That's a pretty special feeling."

Now a writer was at the rink playing the recording for Anweiler on Saturday, and, well, the feeling was mutual.

"I'm a little touched," Anweiler said.

In interviewing Lindros and those who know him ahead of his Hockey Hall of Fame induction Monday, a theme emerged: Amid all the accomplishments and controversies was a person who just enjoyed the simple pleasures of hockey. He loved to play. He loved to practice. Still does.

Visiting North Toronto Arena made that even more vivid.

Lindros has skated in countless rinks in his life and still skates in others. But he has kept coming back to this one. Built in 1965, tucked into a neighborhood 20 minutes north of downtown Toronto, it has a single sheet surrounded by cinderblock. It has a low, slanted roof with wooden beams; cement risers with wooden benches painted green on one side.

And now it has "LINDROS 88" painted in orange on the ice behind each net to honor the soon-to-be Hall of Famer and inspire the next generation.

When Lindros was 10, his family moved from London, Ontario, to Toronto and moved into a home near North Toronto Arena. Anweiler was a maintenance man then. He remembered Lindros' father renting the ice at 7 a.m. on Tuesdays to put Lindros and his brother, Brett, through drills before school. He remembered Lindros in his early teens playing for the Toronto Young Nationals and packing the building beyond its official capacity of 1,400.

"By then everybody knew about him," Anweiler said. "He was a big kid on the ice, and he was the best kid on the ice."

At 15, Lindros went off to play Junior B for the St. Michael's Buzzers and the rest is history. But for years, his parents continued to rent ice on occasion at North Toronto Arena, or Lindros would rent ice himself and bring guys to skate.

"His parents were great to us when he was playing here," Anweiler said. "His mom and dad were always really nice people. … He's a rink rat. That's what he is."

Lindros wasn't around much when he played for the Philadelphia Flyers from 1992-93 through 1999-2000. But while he was sitting out the 2000-01 season, Anweiler wrote a note on his stationery and mailed it to Lindros' father, saying the ice was available if Lindros needed it. One day, Lindros showed up with the note in his hand and started renting the ice again.

When there was no NHL season in 2004-05, Lindros and Tie Domi organized skates at North Toronto Arena that included NHL players Gary Roberts, Curtis Joseph and Kris Draper.

Nowadays Lindros skates at another rink on Tuesday nights and at North Toronto Arena on Thursday mornings. Anweiler leaves the snack bar open so Lindros can make himself coffee. Lindros plays shinny with a group that includes former NHL players Darcy Tucker, Tomas Kaberle and Nick Kypreos.

But they don't just play shinny.

They practice first.

For 15 or 20 minutes, they do drills -- handling the puck, passing back and forth, skating circles, shooting on the goalies. 

How many Hall of Famers practice for the sake of practicing?

"It's unbelievable to see," Anweiler said. "Buddies of mine will come here and watch them, and they can't believe it."

Sometimes fans show up, and Lindros signs autographs. Anweiler has a frame in his office with two photos of Lindros in his St. Mike's uniform and one of him in a Canada IIHF World Junior Championship uniform.

"Eric," Lindros writes. "Thanks for the ice!"

Remember that Lindros entered the NHL with the highest of expectations and was a dominant force at his peak, and his career was cut short by injuries, particularly concussions.

He wasn't the same after New Jersey Devils defenseman Scott Stevens put a shoulder into his jaw in Game 7 of the 2000 Eastern Conference Final. He retired at age 33 having played 760 regular-season and 53 Stanley Cup Playoff games.

The game he loved stopped being fun, and then it stopped altogether, and he struggled with it.

"I think transition is always difficult," Lindros said. "This is what we've known. This is what we've done since 5, 6 years old. It really is. It keeps intensifying and intensifying and intensifying, and then it's over."

But eventually he made peace with it and rediscovered the fun. Looking back, he feels fortunate.

"There's just so many selfless people out there that have spent time with you as a coach, as a trainer, the team managers, obviously my parents, their sacrifices," he said. "It's incredible. It really is. There's a lot of luck that gets involved with all this, but there's a lot of support behind the scenes that you get a chance to look back at and truly appreciate."

No wonder he feels at home at North Toronto Arena, where, at 43, he can be 10 again.

"He's just a great, great kid," Anweiler said, his eyes welling up once more. "And I still think of him as a kid."

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