The canary in the coal mine, Eric Lindros, at long last, goes into Hall of Fame today
Into the Hockey Hall of Fame, after six times being passed over, goes Eric Lindros on Monday. Lindros was selected No. 1 overall 25 years ago, in 1991, and even now he remains one of the most improbable fusions of talent, size and toughness the sport has ever seen. He is 19th all-time in points per game, owns one Hart Trophy and six All-Star nods, with most of his scoring (and all of his honors) coming before his 27th birthday.
What took the Hall so long? Surely Lindros had the résumé; Pavel Bure’s and Cam Neely's cut-short careers, as Cup-deprived as his, had put them in. Could it be that lower-body injuries (in puck parlance) sapped the two wingers, while upper-body injuries—concussions, lots of them, including six from 1998 to 2000 (wrecking what should have been the best years of his career)—did in Lindros? Could it be that that the sport couldn’t bear to reckon with what he signified about its not-so-distant past?
Every league's Hall of Fame ceremonies aim to trigger the nostalgia at the heart of sports’ sales pitch. We're not talking card shows here: Teams want to be enduring presences in our lives, like family, complete with a similar capacity for draining us emotionally and financially. These inductions are our Thanksgivings.
The stars of yesterday may be gimpy or embittered, broke or demented—so too may be the fans who grew up rooting for them. At least the players had their share of glory once! When the game itself has gambled away a player's long and peaceful retirement, that fact is suppressed like a second family at a memorial service. (Recall the late CTE-afflicted linebacker Junior Seau’s daughter being denied the chance to give a full speech upon his enshrinement in Canton.)
Lindros, though, offers another case entirely. He is happy, active and at peace, living in Toronto, in the Hall’s backyard, raising three young children. He serves as an occasional presence in the Canadian hockey media and plays shinny with other retired pros. He’s not scared of hockey. So why has hockey spent so much time fearing him?
GALLERY: ERIC LINDROS THROUGH THE YEARS
Lindros entered the league on draft night ’91 as its most hyped prospect and its most controversial. His family and his agent had told the hapless Quebec Nordiques, who had the first pick, that he would not sign there. Quebec picked him anyway. When owner Marcel Aubut handed Lindros a Nordiques jersey, Lindros refused to wear it. Resistance like this was no small thing back then, considering the little clout even star players had; owners kept players subjugated, and later that year it would emerge that players’ union boss Alan Eagleson had been stealing from all of them.
Lindros sat out the whole season. The story that spread was that his domineering parents had wanted to keep him out of Francophone territory, afraid that it would forever cap his marketability in an age of booming endorsement deals. But in a press conference after being traded to Philadelphia during the 1992 draft, Lindros offered vague, negative commentary on the Nordiques’ owner. “I’m sorry that things couldn’t work out, with the circumstances in Quebec, the way that they were, with the ownership, and basically a lack of winning spirit,” he said.
He could have been talking about the fact that financial difficulties would in 1995 force Aubut to sell the team, which became the Colorado Avalanche. Or it could have been something else: In fall 2015, Aubut had to step down as president of the Canadian Olympic Committee after multiple women accused him of sexual harassment. And in an interview with ESPN earlier this year, Lindros made the matter seem personal. Said Lindros, “The decision to not play for Quebec was based solely on the owner... I was not going to play for that individual—period."
Once in Philadelphia, Lindros earned the Flyers’ captaincy and became the fourth-fastest player to 300 points. In the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season, he won his Hart (70 points in 46 games) and brought Philadelphia back to the playoffs for the first time in six years. The next season his team had the best record in the East. The season after that the Flyers made the Cup Finals, losing just once in each of the first three rounds before a sweep at Detroit’s hands. Lindros led the playoffs in points—he was only 24.
And then? March 7, 1998. The Flyers were in Pittsburgh. Lindros had the puck in his skates and was trying to find it as he skated, head down, across the Penguins’ blue line. Darius Kasparaitis, a shut-down defender, popped Lindros in the face with his shoulder. Lindros was instantly stopped; his teammates had to help him off the ice. More concussions would follow, as would other misfortune: After one road game in April 1999, he was diagnosed with a rib injury. Turns out Lindros’s lung was punctured and collapsed, and he had been bleeding internally. The Flyers asked him to fly back to Philadelphia for X-rays; the flight, Lindros’s father told the team owner, could have killed him.
Yet the concussions, given everything we know now, posed the graver threat. He had one in January 2000, and sat out four games. Another followed in March of that year—he would play the next four games—after which he sat out and criticized the training staff for misdiagnosing his condition. The Flyers responded by stripping him of his captaincy. He was concussed anew in a scrimmage in May 2000.
If Lindros was ill-served by having his father represent him and defend him in the press, he was doomed even more by having to play for general manager Bobby Clarke. Clarke had won two cups in Philadelphia while captaining the revered, violent Broad Street Bullies. Nastier than his play was his personnel management; he once fired coach Roger Neilson after he went on medical leave with multiple myeloma. Clarke would bait Lindros endlessly, calling him a baby and a mama’s boy.
In spite of—or because of—Clarke’s goading, Lindros returned from his third concussion that season to appear in Game 6 of the 2000 Eastern Conference Finals against New Jersey. Philly lost, forcing a Game 7.
A little less than eight minutes into the decisive game, Lindros rushes over Jersey’s blue line, bearing down on Scott Niedermayer. As Lindros works around Niedermayer and puts his head down, Scott Stevens comes from the left. Lindros doesn’t see Stevens’ shoulder as it hits his jaw. Lindros again lays motionless as he hits the ice. Four concussions in fewer than five months.
You know what happens after that, don’t you? The Devils win the Cup. Lindros misses all of the next season as he recovers and squabbles with Clarke. Says Clarke, "I'm just so tired of our organization getting beat up so badly by all the accusations the family makes. I don't dislike Eric. I pity him. What's it like to be 27 years old and have your mom and dad running your life?"
Lindros holds out and gets traded to the Rangers, wrapping his career with forgettable seasons in New York, Dallas and Toronto. After the lockout, the league changes the rules to favor offensive players. Scott Stevens is inducted into the Hall of Fame. As for Bobby Clarke? He was already in.
Clarke and Lindros made amends after he retired, and Clarke, who is on the Hall of Fame selection committee, lobbied this year for Lindros’s overdue induction. His wait was punishment for being the canary in the coal mine. Today, as the league’s player-safety apparatus grows, and players’ autonomy does too, Lindros can think to himself that it was an honor just to have been blacklisted.