Let the record show that the NHL's next great star, Eric Lindros, entered the league through a freight elevator. Lindros had been called to testify before arbitrator Larry Bertuzzi, a Toronto lawyer who was conducting a hearing in Montreal's Radisson Hotel to determine which of two trades involving Lindros would stand. Would it be the one made on June 20, at 10:30 a.m., that sent Lindros from the Quebec Nordiques—for whom he had steadfastly refused to sign—to the Philadelphia Flyers, or the one made an hour and 20 minutes later that sent Lindros from Quebec to the New York Rangers?
A group of reporters was waiting inside the hotel. So Lindros and his father, Carl, were ushered in a back door, up the freight elevator, through the kitchen and into a conference room for their audience with Bertuzzi. Four hours later they departed by the same humble route. The 6'5", 230-pound Lindros, at 19 years old the brightest prospect to enter the league since Mario Lemieux in 1984, was being trundled around the hotel like a hamper of towels. Welcome to the big time, kid. It doesn't get any better than this.
Yes, even by the dismal standards of the NHL, this was a tawdry show. Bertuzzi, as you surely have heard by now, ruled on June 30 in favor of Philadelphia. Bertuzzi decreed that a deal is a deal, even if it was sealed by a thumbs-up and not in writing. In effect Bertuzzi said that the Flyers' thumbs-up came before that of the Rangers. As a result, the Nordiques received five players from Philadelphia: combative goalie Ron Hextall; centers Mike Ricci and Peter Forsberg, who were the Flyers' first-round draft picks in 1990 and '91, respectively; and defensemen Steve Duchesne and Kerry Huffman. Quebec also got Philadelphia's first-round pick in 1993, plus future considerations—most likely another No. 1 pick. Oh, yes, and $15 million in cash.
In return, Broad Street got a bully with enormous talent: Lindros is the type of player around whom Stanley Cup teams are erected.
Lindros got out of Quebec's clutches and also stood to get a multimillion-dollar, multiyear contract. The details of the pact had not been hammered out as of Monday, but the Flyers could lock Lindros up for as many as five years.
Lindros's parents, Carl and Bonnie, got peace of mind after a difficult year in which they were criticized throughout Canada for thumbing their noses at the Nordiques, the NHL draft and Canada's don't-rock-the-boat mentality.
New York got the shaft.
This tale begins with the 1991 draft, in which the Nordiques, by virtue of having the league's worst record, got the first selection and chose Lindros. The pick was a no-brainer; as a junior player Lindros had been considered the heir to Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky, Guy Lafleur and Bobby Orr. In the past 23 seasons those four players have put their names on 13 Stanley Cups. As we said, a no-brainer.
The problem was, Lindros did not want to play in Quebec. The negatives were the province of Quebec's oppressive tax structure, its separatist leanings and Quebec City's small market. Lindros also seemed put off by the Nordiques' ownership. "I just don't sense any of that...burning desire to win in the Nordiques' organization," Lindros wrote in a new edition of Fire on Ice, published last year, the most, um, premature sports autobiography since Nails by Lenny Dykstra. "I think there was a strategy to make it look like it was the people of Quebec I was rejecting, when in fact it was the Nordiques' management."
Not to contradict a legend in the making, but if Quebec has as little desire to win as Lindros suggests, why did it offer him a 10-year, $50 million deal, which he rejected? No, the Nordiques want to win as much as the next team. They just didn't want to win in 1990-91, when they dressed 54 different players and made a couple of highly dubious deals in order to secure a spot in the cellar of the Adams Division. The Pittsburgh Penguins were accused of doing the same thing the year that Lemieux was entering the draft. If the NHL were to adopt a lottery draft system similar to the NBA's, the unseemly practice of teams trying to lose and then being rewarded for it would come to an end. But if the NHL were to adopt a lottery system, it would be a sign that there is intelligent life in the league offices. To date, there have been no detectable traces of that.
The Lindros mess is the most recent example of black comedy in the NHL, with Quebec's president and co-owner, Marcel Aubut, playing greedy Snidely Whiplash. After finally becoming convinced this spring that Lindros would never play for the Nordiques, Aubut sought to make the best deal that he could. Quebec would own Lindros's rights until June 1,1993, at which time Lindros could reenter the draft. But Aubut was eager to receive some compensation for Lindros and decided to take advantage of the bargaining atmosphere that surrounds the annual draft-week gathering of NHL brass. So he invited offers, which, he insisted, had to contain three elements: players, draft choices and cash.
On the night of June 19, no fewer than seven teams—the Rangers, the Flyers, the Calgary Flames, the Chicago Blackhawks, the Detroit Red Wings, the New Jersey Devils and the Toronto Maple Leafs—were said to be in the auction for Lindros's rights. Aubut went from one team to the next, dangling competing bids in front of rivals from the same division, trying to get each team to sweeten its offer.
And Aubut's strategy worked. Knowing that the Nordiques were close to completing a deal with either the Devils or the Rangers (both members of the Patrick Division), Philadelphia's president, Jay Snider, made a revised offer to Aubut around 8:30 p.m. The Flyers, also of the Patrick Division, had missed the playoffs the past three years, and Lindros fit the Broad Street mold perfectly—big, tough, hard-hitting, zealous. At 1 a.m. Aubut went to Snider's suite on the 28th floor of the Radisson. "This is the deal," Aubut said, showing Snider a list of the Flyers' players and draft choices he wanted, plus a demand for $15 million. Snider took the proposal and studied it.
Meanwhile, Ranger general manager Neil Smith was in the midst of an all-night negotiating session with Pierre Pagè, his counterpart on the Nordiques, which wrapped up at 5 a.m. The players New York was reportedly offering Quebec were forwards Tony Amonte, Sergei Nemchinov and Alexei Kovalev, defenseman James Patrick and goalie John Vanbiesbrouck. Plus two first-round draft picks. Plus an amount of cash to be negotiated immediately by Aubut and Stanley Jaffe, the corporate operating officer of Paramount Communications, which owns the Rangers.
The cash was the key to the deal. That is to say, it was the only substantive difference between the New York and Philadelphia offers. At 10:30 a.m., before Jaffe and Aubut had completed their negotiations, Snider phoned Aubut to say that the Flyers would agree to the terms that Aubut had laid out at 1 a.m. He asked for Lindros's phone number, since the trade hinged on Philadelphia's ability to sign Lindros. The Flyers wanted assurances that Lindros was not only willing to sign but was also willing to sign for longer than one year plus an option year.
Aubut went to Lindros's agent, Rick Curran, and asked him to call the Lindroses and get those assurances. But in Aubut's mind, the deal with Philadelphia had not yet been made. He wanted to use the Flyers' offer as leverage to pry even more cash, $20 million, from the Rangers.
The Lindroses, however, wanted to talk directly to the Flyers. They, too, wanted assurances. "Eric wanted to be part of an organization that would treat him more as a member, a partner type, than as a commodity," says Carl, who is an accountant.
Curran gave the number of the Lindros cottage at Georgian Bay, Ont., to Aubut, who passed it on to Snider. That would turn out to be Aubut's fatal mistake. Snider called the Lindroses, and both parties expressed a willingness to negotiate a long-term contract. "They wanted confirmation that I'd show up," says Eric. "I ran some numbers by them, and they said the numbers were O.K. I just wanted to get out of Quebec."
When Aubut dropped by to see how the phone call had gone, Snider gave Aubut the thumbs-up sign.
But Aubut wasn't through bartering. Described in Bertuzzi's subsequent report as "constantly hurried and agitated," Aubut continued to negotiate with the Rangers. And he could now use the Philadelphia deal as a hammer. At 11:50 Aubut got Jaffe to agree to fork over $20 million in cash along with the players and draft choices on which Smith and Pagè had settled. Aubut told the Rangers the deal was theirs. Then he went to see Snider in the Flyers' suite, where Aubut claimed that the Quebec board of directors had told him to take New York's offer. "We had a deal!" Snider raged.
The Rangers, meanwhile, had made up a sweater with Lindros's name on it and had already begun making plans to hold a press conference. The Flyers, furious, informed John Ziegler, who at that time was still the NHL president, of the controversy. Ziegler properly refused to rule on the matter at that point. When Ziegler's spokesman, Bill Wilkerson, was asked later, "In the NHL, when is a deal a deal?" he replied, tellingly, "I don't know."
The league quickly decided to appoint Bertuzzi to arbitrate, and Bertuzzi ruled nine days later that the deal had become a deal when Aubut gave Snider Lindros's phone number. "Witnesses from more than one Club clearly stated that Aubut would only permit the Club to speak with Lindros once it had agreed on a deal with Quebec," Bertuzzi wrote. "If that be the case...[Aubut's] providing of Lindros' phone number to Snider is clear evidence of the existence of a Philadelphia-Quebec deal." Case closed.
So what are the implications of the above? Well, Aubut has lost virtually all of his credibility. In any dealings with him in the future, let the buyer beware. Still, his deal improves Quebec considerably in the short term. Overnight it went from being a doormat that has missed the playoffs for the past five years to the favorite in the weak Adams Division. That assumes, of course, that Aubut uses some of that $15 million to make it worth the while of Hextall and Ricci, who were disgruntled by their inclusion in the trade, to report. Furthermore, the No. 1 pick from Philadelphia in 1993 is likely to be a good one.
As for the Flyers, Lindros gives them an explosive bodychecker who is also a deft puckhandler. He has been likened to a taller, brawnier Mark Messier of the Rangers, and like Messier, Lindros will make the good players around him better. Philadelphia already has a suitable linemate for Lindros in Mark Recchi, who is only 24, and a good second-line center in 21-year-old Rod Brind' Amour. But don't expect Lindros to reverse the Flyers' recent downward trend in his first season—especially since Philadelphia significantly weakened itself in goal and on defense to land him. Pittsburgh, one should recall, missed the playoffs the first four seasons of Lemieux's career. But eventually the Penguins assembled a complementary cast around him, and Pittsburgh has won the past two Stanley Cups.
Lindros, though, is not that patient. "I don't think it's going to be four years," he says. "My goal is to get on the team and have it improve 10 points every year."
"We have a clear goal now," Carl says. "Sometimes you have to go through short-term pain to get to long-term gain."
The Lindros clan should know.