From the moment Eric Lindros skated onto the ice at the Colisèe in Quebec on Oct. 13, for his first appearance as a Philadelphia Flyer in the city that he once spurned, the air was thick with flying objects. Among other things, the fans threw drinks, eggs, baby bottles, bullets, batteries, loose change and a roll of pennies. "There must have been $450 on the ice," said Lindros, who had earned the enmity of the Quebecois by sitting out last season rather than play for the Nordiques, who had made him the No. 1 pick in the 1991 draft.
The Nordiques and the sensationalist French-language media in Quebec have gone to great lengths to paint Lindros, the most-heralded young hockey player in years, as a grasping whiner and hater of French-Canadian culture who's manipulated by his mother, Bonnie. It has been an effective campaign. When Lindros came to Quebec last September as a member of Team Canada, fans verbally abused his parents, who were sitting in a private box. Last week his parents stayed home, and the Flyers brought along a special security man to usher Lindros around. The Flyers also received assurances from the Nordiques that the crowd would be kept on a short leash. "Nobody wants to go to jail because of Eric Lindros," said Pierre Pagè, the Quebec coach and general manager. "Our fans are normal people."
Mais bien s‚Äö√†√∂¬¨‚Ñ¢r. It's perfectly normal for adults to wear diapers over their pants to a hockey game. Some even came shirtless, wearing bonnets and waving rattles. The presumed intent of this infantile display was to show that Lindros was a baby. A Quebec radio station even distributed pacifiers outside the Colisèe to fans, who obligingly hurled them onto the ice. Play was stopped countless times to shovel away the pacifiers and other debris. "If I ever have kids, they'll have pacifiers to suck on for life," Lindros said after the game. NHL president Gil Stein, who was in attendance, was hit by a pacifier, and he was seated behind the Quebec bench. "It wasn't even my size," Stein complained.
As a result of these goings-on, one fan was injured when she was struck in the face by a golf ball, and nobody was ejected from the building. The public-address announcer even neglected to tell the crowd to cease and desist.
Arena security people made a token effort to confiscate the most obscene of the many homemade signs that appeared in the stands. A lewdly decorated fleur-delis survived, though, as did a mock gravestone bearing Lindros's name and date of death: MAYBE TONIGHT. A few of the more blatant examples of bad taste: BONNIE THE COW, LISTEN TO MOMMY WHEN SHE TALKS, TWO CULTURES WOULD'VE BEEN TOO MANY FOR YOU, and the stunningly clever——YOU, LINDROS, a phrase that was taken up by the crowd as the official chant for the evening. The organist and the house trumpeter played along with the fans. "I'm disgusted," said Flyer defenseman Garry Galley. "They should be embarrassed."
At first Lindros, a center, was a little taken aback. Then he got mad. Then he got even, swatting in a perfect pass from Rod Brin-d'Amour to tie the game, at 2-2, 1:10 into the third period. Less than seven minutes later he tied it again, 3-3, on a breakaway, picking up the puck at the red line and barreling in to fire a shot that whizzed past goalie Ron Hextall's left shoulder. But Quebec center Mike Ricci, who like Hextall came to the Nordiques as part of the deal that sent Lindros to Philadelphia, scored his second goal of the game with four minutes left to break the tie, and Quebec went on to win the game 6-3.
Despite the outcome, Lindros and the Flyers left Quebec with a small measure of satisfaction, a large sense of relief and a giant premonition of things to come. With any luck Lindros could have had four goals against the Nordiques; one apparent goal was disallowed after referee Bill McCreary ruled that the puck had deflected into the net off Lindros's glove, while another Lindros shot glanced off the post.
The next day, while wading through two bins of fan mail in a back office at the Flyers' training complex in Voorhees, N.J., Lindros kept having flashbacks of the game in Quebec. "Did you see that one sign? The one that said, 'Son of a bitch. Bitch equals Bonnie,' " he said, laughing bitterly. "Grow up! Get a life! What's wrong with these people? You have to wonder what motivates people to do this kind of thing."
Sixteen months have passed since the Nordiques drafted Lindros, yet as the events of last week indicated, he remains a cause cèlèbre in la vieille capitale, a flash point of conflict between Canada's two identities at a critical time in the nation's history. On Oct. 26, Canadian voters will go to the polls to decide whether or not to approve a new constitution that would give the province of Quebec greater sovereignty. If the referendum fails, Canada's only predominantly French-speaking province conceivably could secede.
Lindros, who grew up in Toronto, doesn't speak French and had absolutely no interest in playing in what could soon become the capital of a foreign land. He made sure the Nordiques knew that well before the draft, but Quebec took him anyway. The sniping began. It didn't end until draft day last June when Nordique owner Marcel Aubut, cagily maneuvering for the best offer, traded Lindros twice—first to Philadelphia and then to the New York Rangers. Ten days later an arbitrator ruled in favor of the Flyers, who gave up six players, $15 million and two draft choices to obtain the rights to Lindros, and then signed him to a six-year contract worth $21 million.
Nobody—not Bobby Orr, not Wayne Gretzky—ever entered the NHL with that kind of attention or pressure. And nobody could have handled it better. In his first two weeks as a pro, Lindros coolly matched expectations, scoring four goals and assisting on three others as the Flyers got off to a 3-3-1 start. At his current pace Lindros would not break the rookie scoring record of 109 points, set in 1980-81 by Peter Stastny, who played for the Nordiques. Stastny, though, was 24. Lindros is 19, something that's easy to forget as he flicks a lightning-quick wrist shot or charges down the ice with murder in his eyes.
In junior hockey Lindros's crunching hits were as legendary as his goals. Pagè calls him Darth Vader. The nickname may yet prove apt, but this season the force has yet to be with him. "I haven't thrown my weight around as much as I should," says the 6'4", 235-pound Lindros. "You have to stick up for yourself, and I haven't done that yet."
Still, his fellow Flyers like what they have seen. "He's like a young Mark Messier or a Kevin Stevens, a power forward who can dominate the game," says wing Mark Recchi. "And he's just going to get better. I mean, think about it. He's probably three or four years away from playing his best hockey."
With that in mind, maybe ESPN should consider shortening its name to EPN—Eric's Personal Network. Lindros put on a show for the those watching the NHL's new cable outlet in each of his first two games. He scored his first goal in a high-energy 3-3 tie on the road against the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins on Oct. 6. Then, in Philadelphia's festive home opener three nights later, he danced in from the red line and flicked the puck into the net late in the third period to help the Flyers beat the New Jersey Devils 6-4.
But even while he was enjoying those successes, his first road game against the Nordiques loomed large on the calendar. An unexpected tranquillity greeted Lindros when he arrived in Quebec the night before the game. As he ate dinner at Chez Guido, he was disturbed only by well-wishers and autograph hounds. There were no curses, no dirty looks, no poisoned meatballs. At a press conference before dinner, an apprehensive Lindros tried a little spin control. "I never had a problem with the city or the French culture," he said grimly. "I had a problem with one particular person."
Pressed to say the name, Lindros cracked a smile. "Aubut," he said. "There you go. Aubut."
"I am honored," Quebec's owner said the next day, looking a little like the cat who swallowed the canary. "It shows we did the right thing. I have no regrets. I'd do it again. By waiting, we created the right opportunity to get even greater compensation than we thought we would get. He wanted his freedom, but he didn't want to see us get so much in return. This trade was a miracle for the Nordiques."
Indeed, with the addition of former Flyers Ricci, Hextall and defensemen Steve Duchesne and Kerry Huffman, Quebec has been transformed from a promising young team with an uncertain future into a talented young team whose future is now. "I'm sure Eric will be a franchise player for Philadelphia," says Aubut, "but we're going to win lots of hockey games." Adds Nordique enforcer Tony Twist, "Look how good he's made us. Our fans shouldn't boo Lindros. They should cheer him."
They didn't. When the Flyers pulled up to the Colisèe for the game, a mob surrounded and started rocking the Philly bus. Finally, police cleared the area, allowing Lindros and his teammates to walk through a cramped tunnel to the visitors' dressing room.
Inside, the old building was packed to the rafters. Lindros was booed when he took the ice for warmups and every time he touched the puck thereafter. "Fans in Philadelphia are kittens on the curtain compared to these people," he said afterward.
The prodigy didn't expect them to throw roses, but batteries? Baby bottles? Bullets? "I'm a kid," Lindros says. "I ought to be in my first year of college. I mean, it's ridiculous. I really think it's scary what people think it's all right to do, what some people think. Why do they want to blame their political problems on a kid?"
Lindros guards his privacy, rarely letting anyone see him act his age. "I don't think people really need to know what I do off the ice," he says. Pushed, he'll reluctantly spill tiny details of his life—and almost nothing of his personality. Better sit down before you read this: He lives in a rented condo in Voorhees. He drives a four-wheel-drive truck. He listens to the rock group Asia, and he likes Bruce Springsteen. He cried when Macaulay Culkin died in My Girl. He doesn't wear socks under his skates. "I sleep a lot," he offers helpfully. "Really, I sleep loads. I get so wound up, I'm exhausted when I get home.
"I don't really know what I'm like as a person. Self-perception is something that's tough to come by honestly. I mean, I'm biased. I know I'm an ass——." Smile, wink. "Want to order a pizza?"
His teammates don't offer a lot of illumination on Lindros's personality. "He's been through a lot, so it's understandable that it's hard for him to trust people," Recchi says. "He's loosened up a lot. He really has. Eventually, he's going to be a big leader on this team."
"He's a regular guy," says veteran center Keith Acton, who roomed with Lindros at the Flyers' training camp on remote Prince Edward Island. "Just a regular guy. He's human. He was anxious. He was nervous coming in. He wanted to prove to his teammates that he was for real. That's normal."
Have all the hassles been worth it? "Waaaay!" Lindros says with a broad grin. "I'm so happy to be where I am. I'm finally having fun." So are the Flyers, who are hoping to make the playoffs for the first time in four seasons. And that's only the short-range target. Lindros, after all, is a player whose arms are built to someday hoist the Stanley Cup.