SI Vault: Young Gun Eric Lindros, 18, poised for NHL stardom his way
As the 2015 NHL Draft and the arrival of two potentially generational players, Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, loom, SI.com looks back at other notable teen phenoms with a series of features from the SI Vault. The second part of our series is this story, which originally appeared in the September 23, 1991 issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to SI magazine here. Special Championship Offer: Get a Commemorative Chicago Blackhawks Book and Framed Cover.
He should be a freshman at some college somewhere in this September of 1991, feeling out his first days away from home on some campus, walking with a map in his hand and maybe a few virgin spiral notebooks under his arm. Where does Political Science 101 meet? Am I on the right street for the humanities building? Eighteen years old.
There should be a name tag on his sports coat—HI! MY NAME IS ERIC LINDROS!—and he should be meeting the good brothers of Sigma Something-or-Other. There should be coeds to catch his eye and maybe beer kegs in the basement and loud music everywhere and at least a couple of serious all-night discussions in a dormitory room about how a benevolent god sometimes can allow bad things to happen to good people.
He finds himself instead listening to talk about couches.“Couches!” he says. “That was the big subject the other day. Where can you get a good couch? How much it costs. Whether it would fit into the decor of the room.”
Or car seats for babies.
“That was another one,” he says. “About how hard it is to find a baby seat that matches the interior of the car. Guys were saying it’s really hard to find a baby seat for a Porsche.”
Or simply world news. “I’ve never been so informed in my life,” he says. “All these guys watch is CNN, 24 hours a day.”
He is in the company of grown men. That is his problem. That is his joy. Most of his old friends have gone off to college, and his new friends have families and Weedwackers and credit ratings. He is a star, the latest in the string of Canadian hockey phenoms who arrive every generation or so from the midst of the country’s imagination as full-blown wonders, playing with Team Canada in its run for the Canada Cup.
He has skipped grades and years and social boundaries. His name is in the headlines. His face is on magazine covers. He has outraged the French-speaking corner of Canada, refusing to consider a contract with the Quebec Nordiques. He has astounded all of Canada with his considerable talent. That is his problem. That is his joy. He is too good to be 18.
He has more than held his own against those grown men, getting three goals and two assists in eight games as Canada’s star-studded, otherwise all-NHL contingent won this year’s Cup. A 4–2 win on Monday night gave the Canadians a sweep of the best-of-three finals against a strong U.S. team. Throughout the six-nation tournament, Lindros established himself as a force on the power play and terrorized just about anyone who came close to him.
Fresh from the cramped obscurity of Oshawa, Ont., where he played junior hockey, he is a blend of size and skill and presence. He is 6' 5", 225 pounds. He is playing with Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier and other familiar NHL names, playing against the Americans and the Soviets and the Czechs and the Swedes and the Finns. There has been no intermediate stop on an NHL roster. He has fast-forwarded himself into his own future.
If there were any doubts about his abilities when he appeared at Team Canada’s Maple Leaf Gardens training camp six weeks ago—none of the coaches had seen him play, and only a few of the players had been on the ice with him—there are no doubts now. He has proved himself to be a different sort of threat, a power player in what is largely a finesse game. The best comparisons seem to come from other sports. He is Charles Barkley on skates. He is a tight end, running patterns through undersized defensive backs, a fine touch of malevolence in his stride. He has fit in. More than fit in.
“I never was worried about the hockey,” he says. “I’d played with enough of these guys in summer leagues to get an idea of what I could do. It’s not the same, summer hockey, but then again it is. You get the idea, anyway. My only worry about coming to the training camp tryouts was whether I’d make anyone mad. I didn’t want to take someone’s spot on the team, not having played in the league, and have a lot of guys mad at me. I only came when I found out that over 50 guys were invited for tryouts. I figured, what the heck, that’s over a sixth of the league. I figured anyone who had a chance had been invited.”
He says the acceptance of him has been fine, but the life obviously has been different. Why shouldn’t it be? His first roommate was a man, Brent Sutter, 29 years old, married, father of two children. Everyone is a man, at least four years older. Gretzky is 30. That is a 12-year difference.
“It’s all really weird,” Lindros says. “I’m living a life no one else is living at my age. A year ago, playing in the juniors, it was a blast. I was going to school with all of the guys on the team, all of us in the same classes. We’d hang out together every night, all of us. Here? Guys are talking about mowing the lawn. Guys are talking about buying houses. Everyone’s going his own way. Everyone’s married.”
He says even his best friend on the team, 22-year-old Brendan Shanahan of the St. Louis Blues, is buying a house. Shanahan? Buying a house? Incredible. Lindros has never before known anyone to buy a house who wasn’t a member of a PTA somewhere.
“Couches,” Lindros says with fine adolescent disdain.
But he is determined to enjoy himself. No matter how good he becomes. No matter how many people start to holler. No matter how much money is placed in front of him. The company of men is fine, perhaps, but he is also going to be a kid. That is one of the reasons he is not going to Quebec to play for the NHL team that drafted him.
“Suppose I were going to college instead of the NHL,” he says. “How does that work? You have to take the SATs. How does that work? Well, there are kids who get 1,500 (out of 1,600) on the test. They’re the ones who get to choose whatever college they want. They’re the best. Next are the kids who get under 1,500 but over 1,000. They also get to choose, but they don’t have as many choices. Then there are the kids who get under 1,000. Now they can go to college, but they mostly have to go where they can.
“Why should it be any different in the NHL? Why should someone have to go to some underwater, door-slamming school when he could go to Yale or Harvard?”
“I’ve made up two lists,” says his mother, Bonnie. “Do you know how you make up two lists when you make a decision? Pros and cons? Here are my lists. Here is the list of pros, for going to Quebec.”
She holds her index finger and thumb about a quarter of an inch apart.
“Maybe there isn’t even a list,” she says. “Here’s my list of cons.” She holds her right and left hands about three feet apart. “Do you understand what I’m talking about?”
“It’s very important that Eric be a kid,” says his agent, Rick Curran. “That’s been the most important thought in all of our negotiations. I’ve worked a lot with Bobby Orr, and I’ve talked with Bobby about Eric. The one piece of advice, above all, he gave is, 'Don't let him lose those teenage years.' (It's) not so much where Eric plays. I'd like to see him playing in a city where he would find a comfortable living environment and be happy and enjoy his late teenage years. That's what Bobby regrets most, missing those years. Well, it isn't going to happen with Eric.''
The idea that a player can choose his professional fate—raised here in the NHL for the first time—has been the subplot to the Canada Cup proceedings. That Lindros has played so well, better and better in every game, and shown on this higher level of hockey how important he could be on the lower level of the NHL, has made the intrigue even more intriguing. Is he so good that he can defy the stodgiest rulings of what is certainly the stodgiest labor-management group of them all? That he can demand to be traded before he has even signed a contract? He is that good. He is doing it.
He was drafted in June by the beleaguered Nordiques as a matter of course. He had dominated the junior ranks for Oshawa and become so celebrated that T- shirts and bubble gum cards with his face on the front were on the market. How could Quebec not draft him? In more than one city, in a grand Lindros Draft Watch, standings were studied upside down, the loser with the worst record becoming the winner in the end.
There had never been a flat-out pronouncement before the draft that Lindros would not go to Quebec, but there had been rumblings. Carl, Eric’s father, and Bonnie had challenged the junior draft two years ago, opting to send him to Farmington, Mich., to live with friends, attend high school and play for an amateur team there for six months rather than play in remote Sault Ste. Marie for the Greyhounds, who had drafted him. Wouldn’t the Lindroses challenge again? They won the first time, and the rules were changed, allowing the Greyhounds to trade Eric’s draft rights to Oshawa so he could return home to Toronto to play out two years of junior hockey with the Generals. It was no surprise when the family also said that Quebec was out of the question.
“We’re being consistent,” Bonnie says. “We had nothing against Sault Ste. Marie, except playing there would have interfered with Eric’s schooling. We wanted him to grow up in as normal an environment as possible. He would have been on buses, traveling all the time. We didn’t want that. We don’t have anything against Quebec, either. It’s a fine place for a lot of people. It’s just not the place for Eric. It’s not the environment we want for him.”
The headlines have centered on money—one tabloid printed a Lindros demand of $3 million per year—but money has not been the major issue. Quality of life. Fun. Being a kid. The Lindros family and Curran have said that Quebec is too small, too provincial for an 18-year-old hockey star to grow up in. Also too French. He would be a convenient lightning rod during these separatist times, an English-speaking oddity in a French-speaking city.
“There’s a lot of stuff that’s going to happen there in the next 10 years, and we don’t want him to be part of it,” Carl says. “Eric’s not a kid to sit back. He’ll speak his mind. We don’t want him there. Is that wrong? For a parent to want his kid to be in a good environment?”
“Quebec now has the commodity, this right, which it can trade,” Bonnie says. “We’re not saying what city he has to be traded to. There are any number of cities that would fit our formula. They all have pluses and minuses. People asked about Montreal. We’re not against him playing in Montreal. It’s a large cosmopolitan city.”
The Nordiques have replied with a stand-pat politeness. There has been a certain amount of commotion among the public—the winner of a Quebec radio station’s Bonnie Lindros joke contest was: Q. What's the difference between Bonnie Lindros and a pit bull? A. Lipstick—but the Nordiques’ management has said it is going to try to convince the parents and the phenom that the city is a good place to live. Why make a trade? There is no comparable value on the market. A kid like this arrives once in a generation.
“This is a new sort of negotiation for hockey, but it is not new for other sports,'' says Nordiques general manager Pierre Page. “In hockey we tend to get upset about something like this, but hockey is just turning the page. We understand this. This is like John Elway in Baltimore, like Jim Kelly in Buffalo. We can wait.
“Look at what has happened in those cases. Do you think the people of Baltimore are happy the team traded John Elway? There is no team in that city any more. Do you think the people in Buffalo are happy the Bills kept the rights to Jim Kelly, even when he went to the other league? He came back eventually. Buffalo was in the Super Bowl last year.”
The rules of the NHL draft say the Nordiques have two years to sign Lindros. If they don’t, he’ll go back into the draft pool. Lindros and his people say they can wait. They say they have their options. “Without playing a game for anyone this year, he will make over $500,000 (in endorsements),” says Carl, an accountant.
The obvious option is to return to Oshawa for another season. He is eligible to play junior hockey until he is 20. He would leave the team to play for Canada in the world junior tournament, an event he already has helped his country win twice. He would go back to Oshawa again and then leave again as part of the Canadian Olympic team. Back in Oshawa he would try to help the Generals win back the Memorial Cup, which they won with him two years ago but lost last season. He would go to school at the same time, taking courses at York University in Toronto, where he already has completed two courses and is registered for the fall. As an added challenge, he would try to win the junior scoring championship, even though he would miss almost half of the Generals’ games.
“I do not say Quebec is not different,” says Page. “It’s a European city. You land here and you land in Stockholm, Sweden. You are that far away. It’s our job, though, to convince Eric that he can live here and like it here. It’s Eric’s job to be convinced.”
“He’s not going,” Bonnie says. “Understand? He’s not going to play there. Life’s hard enough without adding to it.”
In the hallway of Copps Coliseum in Hamilton, Ont., the kid stands a few feet away from his parents. A woman is taking his picture. He has been posed with his arms around the shoulders of two small children. He looks huge. Most of the other players have left, heading for a team dinner. Canada has defeated the U.S. 6–3 in a first-round game. The kid has scored the first goal and assisted on the last one, both times teaming up with Gretzky. He has played, well, great, thumping around on the ice with uniform number 88, booed by the crowd because of the publicized contract standoff, but cheered in the end, especially on a couple of trips to the penalty box after skirmishes with the pesky Americans. His parents are pleased.
“Do you know what’s another option?” says Bonnie. “Baseball.”
“He’s starting too late to play one of the skill positions, but I think he can hit,” Carl says. “He could play first base, maybe the outfield. He could be a designated hitter. He could play baseball, and he could play hockey. It’s a better fit than Bo Jackson has, don’t you think?”
The picture is taken, the flash lighting the corridor. The kid smiles. He has said earlier that he enjoyed playing softball for a coed team this summer that finished third in an Oshawa league.
There is not a mark on his face, not a worry line in his forehead. He is wearing the blue Canadian team blazer with a red maple leaf stitched across the breast pocket. He is wearing a tie. Hi! My name is Eric Lindros. He is 18 years old.
“Hockey is a game that when you’re young they want you to be older, and when you’re old they want you to be young,” he says. “I figure I’m just going to be young now, so they can’t bitch when I'm older.”
Anything is possible. He might even buy a couch someday.