For two wild nights in New York City he wielded his stick like
Mel Gibson in Braveheart, cut more faces than a rusty Bic,
ruined more smiles than gum disease and, as always, enjoyed
every last, gory minute of it. Eric Lindros sent the Eastern
Conference finals between his Philadelphia Flyers and the New
York Rangers into a violent frenzy, and the action at times
seemed unfit for young children or the faint of heart. From
press row came pleas for order, for sanity, for an end to this
human cockfight on ice. The series featured a glamorous cast of
superstars, and someone, it was said, had to stop the madness
and let the world appreciate the artistry and intensity of clean
playoff hockey. Someone had to do something.
Someone did: Lindros. Which was only fair. He made the mess, so
he had to clean it up. With a pair of unforgettable late goals,
one in Game 3 and another in Game 4, Lindros displayed a flair
for the dramatic that matched his thirst for blood. The Flyers'
captain buried the aging Rangers, propelled his team toward the
finals and assumed a new and elevated place in the game. Just
like that, the bull sat down in the china shop and poured
himself some tea.
In Game 3 on May 20, a 6-3 Philadelphia victory that gave the
Flyers a 2-1 series lead, Lindros beat New York captain Mark
Messier to the puck and completed a hat trick with an empty-net
goal that seemed to be more a transfer of power than a point on
the scoreboard. Three nights later, after pounding the Rangers
with a sledgehammer, Lindros cut out their heart with a scalpel,
flicking in a spectacular 15-foot backhanded shot with 6.8
seconds left that gave the Flyers a 3-2 win and knocked the life
out of a resilient team. Such pinpoint precision from such an
unrelenting brute seemed almost unfair.
Philadelphia went on to eliminate New York in five games,
winning 4-2 on Sunday at the CoreStates Center to earn its first
trip to the Stanley Cup finals since 1987. At this point,
standing between Lindros and a Cup may be like standing between
Frank and Kathie Lee. "We're happy to make the finals, but our
mission is not complete," Lindros said after getting a goal and
an assist in the Game 5 victory.
June 1, 1997
After Sunday's clincher, an NHL official tried to hand Lindros
the Prince of Wales trophy, the reward for winning the
conference championship. The Flyers' captain, ornery to the end,
refused to be seen with the ersatz cup, and skated away.
"Perfect," said Flyers coach Terry Murray, with a smile. "He
knows the one you want to pick up and carry around with your
teammates is the next one."
Since he first stepped onto the ice for Philadelphia in 1992,
Lindros has been knocking on the door of the elite class of NHL
players, and now he appears ready to kick his way in. His
reckless, slam-dancing style has too often left him injured or
watching from the penalty box, but at age 24 and finishing his
fifth year in the league, Lindros may at last take the next
step. At week's end he was tied for second in scoring in these
playoffs with 11 goals and 12 assists, and he is healthy heading
into the finals. The 6'4", 236-pound Lindros has long been
viewed as a player who has it all--size, speed, skill and a mean
streak so wide that it probably has its own locker--but without
a championship ring, the package is never complete. "There's no
doubt that Eric is on his way," says Philadelphia defenseman
Paul Coffey, who has four Stanley Cup rings from his days with
the Edmonton Oilers and the Pittsburgh Penguins. "But you've got
to get that ring on your finger before your name goes up there
with those other guys."
Those other guys, of course, are the three premier players of
this generation: Messier, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux.
Fittingly, all three were eliminated from '96-97 Stanley Cup
play by Lindros's Flyers. When Philadelphia knocked out the
Penguins in five games in the first round, Lemieux pulled
Lindros aside on the ice after the final game. "I told him it
was his time," says Lemieux, who retired after the series. "That
team can win the Stanley Cup."
Lemieux was in his seventh year in the league when he won his
first Cup; Gretzky and Messier were in their fifth seasons with
the Oilers when they won theirs. It looks like Lindros's time is
now. After steamrollering the Buffalo Sabres in five games in
the second round, the Flyers met up with the Rangers, a rivalry
that was one of the hottest in sports long before Lindros
arrived. All he did was crank up the thermostat about a thousand
degrees. Don King and Bob Arum would sell their souls, if they
had souls, for the kind of theater Lindros brought to this
After he refused to play for the Quebec Nordiques, who had
selected him with the first pick in the '91 draft, Lindros was
the subject of a bidding war between the Flyers and the Rangers,
both of whom made overwhelming offers to Quebec for his rights.
Both thought they had a deal with the Nordiques, who relocated
before the 1995-96 season and are now the Colorado Avalanche. It
took an arbitrator's ruling to deliver Lindros to Philadelphia,
and five years later the trade still provides hockey fans with
some of their best barroom debates. The Flyers gave up six
players (including Peter Forsberg), two first-round draft picks
and $15 million--and last spring the Avalanche won the Stanley
Cup. The Hockey News recently ran a story that claimed Forsberg
alone is better than Lindros.
The Flyers, however, are not looking for a refund. Although they
are making their first trip to the finals with Lindros, they
have a new $210 million arena and probably can pay Lindros's
$4.2 million salary with the profits from the orange-and-black
number-88 jerseys that blanket the region. Lindros has returned
a kind of macho, red-meat aura to the team once known as the
Broad Street Bullies. It seems the chip he wears on his shoulder
is big enough to share with his teammates as well as the entire
A similar phenomenon began in New York a few years ago. The
Rangers took on the personality of Messier, their blood-and-guts
first-line center, and he carried them to their dramatic 1993-94
Stanley Cup championship. Messier may not possess the god-given
skills of Gretzky or Lemieux, but he is, you could say, the
original Lindros, a fearless two-way player whose talent is
exceeded only by his toughness and leadership. When New York
coach Colin Campbell called Lindros "a mean player" and
questioned some of his stickwork after Game 1, Murray defended
his player by saying, "I know one thing--Mark Messier is Eric's
idol. He watched him growing up. If there's anybody to blame,
just go right to Mark Messier."
While Lindros downplayed the similarity in their styles of play
during the Flyers-Rangers series, he has said in the past that
Messier was his hero and role model. He had Messier posters on
his bedroom wall as a child and counted a Messier-autographed
stick among his most prized possessions. In 1994 Lindros said of
Messier, "He has everything you'd want in a player--speed, size
and toughness--but more than that, he can will teams to win."
Not even Messier could will this Rangers team into the finals.
New York upset the Florida Panthers and the New Jersey Devils in
the first and second rounds, respectively, but the Blueshirts
limped into their showdown with Philadelphia and crawled home
when it was over. For the bigger, stronger, younger Flyers, the
strategy was simple: Pound the Rangers like cheap veal. By Game
4, New York had five players out with injuries (plus defenseman
Alexander Karpovtsev, who missed Games 3 and 4 when he flew home
to Russia after his mother passed away), and a couple more who
were underachieving and thought to be hurting: Forward Adam
Graves had no points in the series, while Messier contributed
just one goal and three assists in the five games. Messier, at
36, has now completed the final season of a contract that pays
him $6 million a year, and his future in New York is uncertain.
Even if Messier leaves town, his misplay at the end of Game 3
will likely follow him. The Flyers had a 5-3 lead, and the final
seconds were ticking away when Lindros and Messier raced for the
puck in the Rangers' zone. Lindros gave Messier a little hook on
his left side and then burst by him, beating the Rangers'
captain to the puck and swatting it into the open net. It meant
nothing and it meant everything: As Lindros celebrated his first
career playoff hat trick, Messier leaned over at the waist,
trying to catch his breath. "Ah, it was a meaningless goal,"
said Lindros, who refused to indulge the media in any discussion
of passed torches.
Messier held back nothing in praise of his heir apparent.
Lindros, he said, brings even more to the game than he does.
"He's his own player and has a style that's different from
anyone who's ever played the game, because of his size and
speed," said Messier. "He possesses a lot more talent than I had
at his age. He's a superstar of superstars."
Still, Lindros's mean streak sets him apart from other
present-day stars, perhaps even from Messier. Many great players
will get physical if they have to, but Lindros does it because
he seems to enjoy it. In his last regular-season trip into New
York, on April 7, Lindros used his stick to break Shane Churla's
nose and cross-check Ulf Samuelsson in the face, causing a gash
that needed 15 stitches. The league fined Lindros $2,000 and
suspended him for two games, which cost him about $100,000 in
salary. In Game 1 of the playoff series against the Rangers,
Lindros was penalized for clipping Doug Lidster in the face with
his stick, and later got away with pounding Luc Robitaille's
face into the ice. Robitaille required 20 stitches. "I wouldn't
term myself as brutal," Lindros said after assisting on all
three goals in the Flyers' 3-1 win. "It's all part of hockey."
In an effort to slow down Lindros in Game 2, the Rangers threw
together a ragtag checking line of Churla, Graves and Dallas
Eakins, a defenseman turned wing, and it worked. Lindros was
held scoreless, and the Rangers got a hat trick from Gretzky in
a 5-4 win. It was an inspiring effort on the road for Gretzky
and the Rangers, but they still dropped the next two at the
All athletes love to win, but for some it goes beyond winning.
They want to see you lose. They want to beat you and break your
spirit and shut up your fans and make sure you remember how it
felt the next time you face them. They want to finish you off.
That was Larry Bird. That was Mark Messier. That is Michael
Jordan, and Tiger Woods, and Eric Lindros.
In the waning seconds of Game 4, with the Rangers passionately
killing a penalty and fighting toward overtime, Philadelphia
forward John LeClair slid the puck past the crease and to the
left face-off circle. Lindros was there, but he took the pass on
his backhand and at a difficult angle. There was no time to
shift to the forehand or make another move, so Lindros didn't
try. He nailed it, firing the puck past a sprawling Mike Richter
into the back of the net and through the heart of the Garden
The Flyers went back to Philadelphia with a 3-1 lead and
dutifully put the Rangers out of their misery. Gretzky and
Messier are home for the summer, and Lemieux is gone for good.
It's Eric's turn now. Lindros gets his chance to be like those
guys, to finish the job and walk away with a ring, the complete
package at last.