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Injuries conspired to shorten Lindros' career

by Adam Kimelman
Eric Lindros amassed 372 goals and 493 assists during his 14-year NHL career.
Long before Sidney Crosby was anointed the game’s next superstar, there was a player bigger, faster and stronger who was supposed to revolutionize the sport of hockey.

While Eric Lindros never quite made the mark on the game many people thought he would, he did things on and off the ice that indelibly impacted the game.

Lindros, who announced his retirement Thursday to take a job with the NHL Players’ Association, leaves the game after a career that featured numerous highs -- four 40-goal seasons, the 1994 Hart and Lester B. Pearson trophies -- and painful injury-related lows, as well as his contentious career with the Philadelphia Flyers.

Yesterday’s announcement came as no surprise, as he rejected overtures from teams to attend training camps, instead throwing himself into helping rebuild the NHLPA.

He said in a recent interview with the Toronto Star the effects of all the head injuries he’s suffered over his career is what led him to this final decision.

"I don't think I would ever admit it while I was playing, but that's what I feel," Lindros said. "And then you get enough of them and then you're targeted. You've got young guys that come up and they want to make a name for themselves and you're not in the position physically to battle that, where in earlier years, no problem.”

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The official announcement came, ironically, at a dinner to honor a doctor, orthopedic surgeon Dr. Peter Fowler, who treated Lindros for a number of injuries throughout his 14-season career.

It was a career that began with off-the-charts promise.

Lindros exploded onto the hockey scene in 1990-91 with the Oshawa Generals of the Ontario Hockey League, totaling 71 goals, 78 assists, 149 points and 189 penalty minutes in just 57 games.

The legend of Lindros spread fast -- a player with Wayne Gretzky’s touch and Mark Messier’s penchant for physical play in a double-XL body.

“He really revolutionized the power forward of the modern era,” said Messier, who played with and against Lindros. “He was a guy, 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, who could skate and had the agility of a guy 5-9, 180 pounds. … On top of that, with the skill and a mean streak, he really epitomized what a power forward was and was going to be leading into the next era of hockey players.”

He cemented his place as a future great at the 1991 Canada Cup. An 18-year-old playing with and against established NHL stars, Lindros had three goals and two assists, and punishing hits left Ulf Samuelsson and Martin Rucinsky with broken collarbones.

Drafted by the Quebec Nordiques with the first overall pick in the 1991 draft, Lindros held out rather than play for the Nordiques. As a result, Lindros was caught in the roiling waters of a long-simmering cultural divide between Quebec and the rest of Canada. The Lindros family believed Nordiques owner Marcel Aubut couldn’t afford to pay Eric his true value and build a team around him, while Quebecois rebelled at the apparent snub of their culture, a charge Lindros always denied.

On the eve of the 1992 draft, the Nordiques finally gave in, and after a two-day auction, finalized a trade with Lindros -- to two teams, the Flyers and New York Rangers.

The Flyers claimed they had a deal with the Nordiques when Aubut gave Flyers President Jay Snider and General Manager Russ Farwell permission to call the Lindros family; the Nordiques had been steadfast in saying no one could speak with the family until a deal had been agreed to.

Originally selected first overall by the Quebec Nordiques in the 1991 NHL Draft, Eric Lindros was dealt to the Philadelphia
Flyers after a lengthy holdout, which has
impacted how transactions are handled.

But once the Flyers submitted what they thought was a done deal, Aubut went to Rangers GM Neil Smith and used the Flyers proposal as leverage for a better trade.

On June 30, 1992, an arbitrator ruled in favor of the Flyers. Going to Quebec were goalie Ron Hextall, defensemen Kerry Huffman and Steve Duchesne, forwards Mike Ricci and Chris Simon, the rights to unsigned center Peter Forsberg, first-round draft picks in 1992 and 1993, and $15 million.

The entire episode changed one way the League handles transactions.

“The Lindros deal changed how deals were made,” said Farwell. “Every deal was a handshake or (written on) a napkin and you just worked it out. But that deal went sideways and now it isn’t a deal until everything is on paper and a league person sees it.”

Lindros made an immediate off-ice impact in Philadelphia; despite three seasons out of the playoffs, Flyers season tickets became hot items and No. 88 sweaters flew off store shelves. Lindros also gave owner Ed Snider a marquee attraction for the new home he was building, what now is known as the Wachovia Center.

Lindros’ early years in Philadelphia were filled with tantalizing bursts of excitement tempered by nagging injuries.

“The fans here embraced him immediately because of the way he played,” said Correspondent and long-time Flyers beat reporter for the (Camden) Courier Post Chuck Gormley. “I remember him crunching people into the glass, punching the glass. He was such an emotional player on the ice, fans loved watching him.”

It wasn’t until his third season, when Bob Clarke returned as GM and traded for John LeClair, that Lindros was able to lead the Flyers back to the playoffs. Lindros, LeClair and Mikael Renberg formed the Legion of Doom, and over the next three seasons, Lindros led the Flyers to the Eastern Conference final in 1995 and the Stanley Cup Final in 1997.

Lindros also posted the best three-season stretch of his career. He had 70 points in just 46 games in the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season and took home the Hart and Pearson trophies. In 1995-96, he posted career-bests in goals (47), assists (68) and points (115) in 73 games. In 1996-97, he posted 32 goals and 79 points in 52 games, and another 12 goals and 26 points in 19 playoff games.

In the Stanley Cup Final that year, Lindros was held to just one goal and two assists.

Things started to go downhill fast for Lindros in 1997-98. He suffered his first concussion, on a hit by Pittsburgh’s Darius Kasparaitis on March 7, 1998. Over the next 16 months, Lindros would suffer five more concussions, as well as a near-fatal collapsed lung on April 1, 1999.

"He really revolutionized the power forward of the modern era. He was a guy, 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, who could skate and had the agility of a guy 5-9, 180 pounds. … On top of that, with the skill and a mean streak, he really epitomized what a power forward was and was going to be leading into the next era of hockey players. "

-- Mark Messier on Eric Lindros

During the 1999-2000 season, he suffered a concussion in January, and another in March on a hit by Boston’s Hal Gill. Lindros played four games after the Gill hit, but was removed from the lineup when the aftereffects became too much.

Lindros than criticized the team’s medical and training staff for misdiagnosing his injuries while also arguing with Clarke.

The Flyers responded by stripping Lindros of his captaincy. Still, he returned – after suffering another concussion, during a practice the same day the Flyers were playing their memorable five-overtime game against the Pittsburgh Penguins – for Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final against the New Jersey Devils at the Meadowlands. Lindros had a goal, and his biggest rooting section came from a surprising place.

Recalls Gormley; “I sat there in the press box for Game 6 right next to Clarke. … I never saw Clarke root harder for somebody than for Lindros that night. He was just; ‘Come on Eric, come on Eric.’”

The end came in Game 7, when Devils defenseman Scott Stevens laid his now-legendary hit on Lindros in the first period.

After four concussions in a four month period, Lindros returned to his Toronto home and as a restricted free agent, plotted his next move.

The Flyers wanted to re-sign him, but the rift was too large. Lindros rejected the Flyers’ offer of a one-year, $8.5 million contract. He sat out the 2000-01 season demanding a trade to his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs, but finally relented to go to the New York Rangers on Aug. 20, 2001, in exchange for forward Jan Hlavac, prospect winger Pavel Brendl, defenseman Kim Johnsson, and a 2003 third-round draft pick.

A decade after an arbitrator’s decision sent Lindros to Philadelphia instead of New York, Lindros finally was going to play Broadway. But all the injuries had turned him into a shell of the devastating power forward who was supposed to revolutionize the game.

“In Eric’s case, concussions were an issue to the point where even when he gave a hit, it impacted him,” said Messier, who captained the Rangers when Lindros arrived.

In his first season, Lindros played 81 games, the most of his career, but scored just 19 goals and 53 points. The next season, injuries limited him to just 39 games.

Eric Lindros played three seasons with the
New York Rangers from 2001-2004.

After the lockout, he finally got to play for the Maple Leafs, but a serious wrist injury limited him to just 39 games. He played last season with the Dallas Stars, scoring just five goals in 49 games.

In 760 regular-season games, Lindros finished with 372 goals, 493 assists and 865 points; his 1.14 point-per-game average is higher than Hall of Famers Mark Messier, Gordie Howe and Cam Neely, a player often compared to Lindros in size, style of play and a career shortened by injuries.

So the question is asked, is Lindros a Hall of Famer? A surprising source says yes.

"I believe he should be in," Clarke said in an interview. "This was the first big, powerful, dominant forward with the skill, not (Wayne) Gretzky or (Mario) Lemieux, but close.

“He won MVP, he was an All-Star, he went to the Stanley Cup final. If you eliminate the crap that circled him, he is easily a Hall of Fame hockey player.”

Mike Milbury, speaking on the same panel as Clarke, disagreed.

"Statistics are great, but he wasn't a good teammate, he wasn't a good captain, he did not promote the game of hockey the way it should be promoted."

On the point of being a bad teammate, those who played with him will dispute that fact.

“I always got along great with Eric,” said Rod Brind’Amour, a teammate for eight seasons in Philadelphia. “I thought he cared, I thought he played hard and I always supported him. My only thing with him was he was maybe trying to live up to an image. I always told him just go play and that was enough. I think he got caught up in trying to be that little bit more. And that’s what brought him down, always trying to impress everyone. If he had just gone to play, that would have been enough.”

“He opened his home to us when I first got here,” added Keith Primeau, another former Flyers teammate. “Eric was a very nice person, he was a really nice guy. … I think he wanted to be part of something. He didn’t want to be any different than anybody else even though he had this tremendous ability.”


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