Friday, November 09, 2007

Lindros Ends Playing Career, Becomes Man in Transition

By Bob Herpen
The Phanatic Magazine

Eric Lindros finally called it quits Thursday night, finally bringing to an end one of the NHL’s most intriguing Greek Tragedies.

In reality it took several months, or maybe several seasons too long for him to admit it, but at least he came clean relatively quickly. We were spared the slo-mo train wreck in Theo Fleury’s case, or the pangs of guilt for not letting an old man take one last turn like when Larry Murphy waited three-quarters of a season before getting the hint.

Plus, it’s all but a lock that Lindros has found his niche, as the soon-to-be appointed ombudsman for the NHLPA. We’ll be spared an ESPN story months from now about how he’s a faded superstar failing to adjust to life without hockey.

As for his legacy, that’s a real tricky question. There’s just as much good as bad thrown into his 16-year saga.

He made a mark by cheesing off millions of French-Canadians by refusing to play for the Nordiques as a first-overall draft pick. He made a bigger mark by resurrecting the Flyers franchise despite the sheer number of players given up. He left dozens of opponents in his wake through blunt strength, but also left teammates in his wake due to the meddling of his mother and father-agent.

He was smart enough to rein in his bulldozer-like tendencies to become a fearsome scoring and physical force, but curiously was not intelligent enough to foresee a diminished career with concussion problems – even when his younger brother gave up the NHL after three such injuries in a two-year span.

Such is the fate of those who are raised to be superstars.

Nonetheless, there are dozens of moments I’ll remember from his playing days, particularly where he started, in Philadelphia.

Like his first home goal in 1992, when it looked like he’d turn Devils goaltender Chris Terreri into a red-and-black smudge on the ice, before hitting the brakes, turning to the backhand and scoring while being tripped. And when Lindros abused the Blues for a hat trick in 1994, he finished the 8-3 win by pounding on burly defenseman Lee Norwood for good measure.

Or the way he turned an entire Rangers line into his personal pinball-flippers during a game at the Spectrum in 1995. Or the pure, unrestrained emotion he showed as a 22-year-old accepting the award for the most valuable player in hockey.

A personal favorite of mine came in a March, 1997 game against Edmonton. In overtime, Lindros began by dishing off to a teammate at center ice, steamrolling right through an Oiler defender, taking the return pass and scoring the game-winning goal within a span of five seconds. That was one of many times you knew trouble was coming, and it kept you glued to your seat for the entire game just for that one moment.

Unfortunately, I’ll remember the bad times as well.

Like the way he was speechless at his locker after failing to back up pale Messier-like guarantees before playoff losses to Florida in 1996 and Buffalo in 1998. Or how his head and body hung limp after taking a brutal hit from Darius Kasparaitis in Pittsburgh, or the soul-sucking check he took from Scott Stevens in 2000.

Another question that’s kicked around is about his Hall-of-Fame credentials. Amazingly, former Flyers GM Bob Clarke said on Canada’s TSN on Wednesday, that he believes Lindros is a good candidate. His criteria? If Cam Neely was elected based equally on what he accomplished as well as what was taken away due to injury, so should Lindros.

But really, Neely left in the prime of his career, a summer after leading the Bruins in scoring. He was only two years removed from 27 goals in a lockout year, and three from an amazing 50-goals-in-44-games campaign.

Lindros, on the other hand, hadn’t finished with 40 since 1998-99, the last year of his prime. He’s now five seasons removed from his last 30-goal year (37 with the Rangers in 2001-2002). He put together years of 19, 11, 10 and five goals since then, and on only one occasion played more than 50 games in a season.

His prime can be narrowed down to five seasons, 1994 through 1999, and he managed to miss time with injury in all of them. Still, the numbers are staggering: 178 goals, 250 assists, and 613 penalty minutes in 305 games.

But it’s only five years. Even if you tack on a 97-point campaign in his second full season and his 73 points in 01-02 in New York, the consistency doesn’t come close to other star players in his era: Shanahan, Jagr, Francis, Bure, Fedorov, Recchi, Sakic and Forsberg all either avoided injury and put up numbers, or came back from injury-riddled campaigns with better seasons.

I firmly believe neither is Hall-worthy because they both pale in comparison to Mike Bossy, who recorded nine-straight 50-goal seasons (and one of 38) along with four Stanley Cups in 10 years with the Islanders before chronic back problems forced him to retire in 1987. Those are sure-fire short-time enshrinement credentials.

The one over-arching theme I keep coming back to though, is that Lindros’ tenure actually had a negative effect on the NHL.

Think about it. The only way the rest of the league could manage to stop this gargantuan man-child was to implement an offense-choking strategy, using “players” who were just as big and whose job was just to get in the way.

So, there you have it. Ol’ Number 88 is predominantly responsible for the top two reasons the NHL fell into disrepair from the late 1990’s through 2004: the neutral zone trap and the prevalence of 6-foot-5, 250-pound defensemen who were nothing more than interference penalties on skates.

Neil Young wrote the famous line, “It’s better to burn out than it is to rust.” In the case of Eric Lindros, that seems to be dead on. We watched the sleek, shiny Cadillac become a corroded 1976 Buick in the blink of an eye, weathered by seasons too quick to fathom.

Still, I get the feeling that the new chapter of his life will bring about better change across a wider spectrum. He’s already risen to a position of rare power within the players’ union, and his leadership was key in producing the overhaul of the NHLPA constitution last week.

He’s in a place where there won’t be so much subjective debate about his merits, because he will be flanked by his contemporaries who share similar goals. That’s the best possible outcome for a man of such passion and such sensitivity.

He won’t be one man forced to strap an entire team or city onto his back, so the vacant stare of the player thrown around by fate is replaced by the steely confidence of the person dedicated to the benefit of his peers.

At this point, at age 34, he’s earned the honor of more anonymity. He’s also due some purely positive experience. While the train carrying Eric Lindros the Superstar Player departs, the one carrying Eric Lindros the devoted Union Man is just arriving.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Eric was an excellent player. I already knew that he's built a great career , but I got very impressed when I watched this video today with his career stats about games, goals, assists and points Did you know that he scored almost 1000 points? His retirement is a pity, we will miss his talent in NHL.