Thursday, November 20, 2014

Legion of Doom ushered in Flyers' third Renaissance

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor 

Tonight, the Philadelphia Flyers will finally and officially acknowledge the decade of the 1990s, by the twin Hall of Fame enshrinements of center Eric Lindros and power forward John LeClair.

They are the 21st and 22 members of the Orange and Black to be recognized in this manner, and the first to be feted since Dave Schultz back in November of 2009.

They are also just the second and third players to have plied their trades here for most of that decade to be selected for a celebration (aside from 2008 honoree Ron Hextall), a sign that the organization has finally made peace with a heady, dramatic era in club history.

"I honestly didn’t give it much thought. Paul Holmgren gave me a shout and Johnny [John LeClair] a shout in September and right away we were both deeply honored to get the call," Lindros recalled. "Then we started talking more about it and decided to do it together, which we thought was appropriate. So here we are and we are looking forward to that night.”  

In a perfect world, we'd talk about the Legion of Doom in the same hushed and reverential tones the previous generation did about the LCB line which was the main offensive fuel for one Stanley Cup victory and two Cup finals appearances.

In a perfect world, they would have spent four, five healthy and complete years together, laying waste to the opposition and confounding enemy coaches' attempts to match lines to counter their speed, skill, size and toughness at every turn.

In a perfect world, Mikael Renberg would be basking in exactly one-third of the spotlight tonight, standing alongside his era-defining line mates. That's an oversight we can set aside for another day -- not least because Renberg, unlike three years ago, will be in the building while his on-ice partners take their rightful place among the franchise immortals.

Though Lindros' ties to the area withered following the acrimonious split with the franchise during his 2000-01 holdout and subsequent three-for-one trade to the New York Rangers in August of '01, LeClair's ties to the area remained strong through the end of his tenure here following the 2003-04 season and his final season in the NHL two years later.

“I’m living in Haverford, right outside of Philly. It’s been good. My kids grew up here and got a real good chance to make friends in the community," noted LeClair. "I get to watch a lot of college junior games, some high school game stuff. I enjoy watching hockey. It also gives me quite a bit of freedom that I can follow my children and be a big part of their lives.”

Any lingering resentment on Lindros' part was wiped away three years ago around this time, when he returned to the city from Toronto and teamed up with LeClair and engaged in a massive fundraising effort for Childrens' Hospital which netted hundreds of thousands of dollars through a charity auction of team-related memorabilia and tickets to the club's Alumni Game, Winter Classic and Phantoms-Bears outdoor contest.

“Philadelphia’s where I played my best hockey. It was a great environment to play in. The fans in Philadelphia are extremely passionate. There are very few like them in the world, I swear. They get it," said Lindros.  “So much of what occurred was so long ago. We’re looking at fourteen almost fifteen years now. I’ve been going to the alumni game for a while now and the golf outing in the summer. It’s a great group to be around. It was what it was and it is what it is.”

From a blockbuster deal with Montreal that netted LeClair and future HOF member Eric Desjardins on February 9, 1995 through a desultory Game 4 loss to the Detroit Red Wings which ended the 1997 Stanley Cup Finals, the three men who comprised the line and whose name can be traced back to AHL champion and current University of Denver head coach Jim Montgomery, put together the following staggering totals: 300 goals, 350 assists, 650 points in the regular season along with 56 tallies and 76 assists in the postseason.

Those gaudy figures occurred in a window of only 202 possible regular-season games, bumped up to 247 including three years' worth of playoffs. However, the following has to be factored in when considering the Legion's true measure of success and domination: the number of games where at least one player in the Lindros/LeClair/Renberg combo were injured and the line skated incomplete totaled an incredible 78: three in 1995, 40 in 1995-96 and 35 during the 1996-97 regular season.

There were also six occasions in the playoffs that at least one star player was absent: Lindros missed three games at the outset of the '95 first-round series with Buffalo; Renberg and LeClair missed a game apiece in '96 and Renberg sat out one contest in '97.

When coming to terms with those numbers, you'd have to believe they certainly would have been exponentially higher if Lindros and Renberg hadn't met with repeated injury and misfortune in their initial memorable run, and if a future Flyers head coach had given into popular sentiment and paired all three at any time. And who knows how many more goals and points would have burst forth if not for the creation and implementation of defensive systems aimed simply at slowing down the pace of the game to neutralize the Legion's many advantages?

Lindros had picked up 97 points in his second full NHL season, while Renberg was the owner of a still-standing franchise records for points in a rookie campaign with 82. Nonetheless, the club was thin up front once the league came back from its labor battle in January of '95, and struggled through back-to-back shutouts in Ottawa and home to Florida in early February.

The light switch was turned into a permanent, luminous hyperglow when then-head coach Terry Murray placed the three on the same line for the Flyers' game at the Meadowlands against the New Jersey Devils two days after the trade.  The immediate dividend was the club's first road win over the Devils since March of 1990, a 3-1 decision where LeClair provided the first goal of the contest.

Three nights later, in Tampa Bay, the line erupted for nine points thanks in large part to LeClair's hat trick, and they were off and rolling. From the New Jersey game through March 20, a moribund 3-7-1 team turned into a 13-2-2 juggernaut, rising from sixth place to first in the Atlantic Division in the process. They won the division when LeClair snuck a shot by Martin Brodeur at the right post in overtime on April 22, then turned away the Sabres in five despite Lindros missing three games with an eye injury, shocked the defending champion Rangers in a second-round sweep before falling to the Devils in a six-game Eastern Conference Finals.

After five long years without a berth in the postseason, the Legion was the primary force which ushered in an era of promise, a third franchise Renaissance -- with the first being the Fred Shero-led post-expansion success and the second the four-year burst under Mike Keenan which produced two Cup Finals berths and three Patrick Division titles.

In 1995-96, tonight's inductees reached career zeniths as the Flyers defended their Atlantic Division crown and finished atop the Eastern Conference standings. Lindros struck for career-highs of 47 goals, 68 assists and 115 points despite missing seven games in November with a knee injury, while LeClair compiled the first of his three straight 50-goal seasons. Renberg, on the other hand, was hampered by stomach issues which might have been diagnosed easier and better repaired in this time, was limited to 43 points in just 51 appearances.

In the transition from the Spectrum to the new building, where Ed Snider boldly predicted a Cup victory for its inaugural season, the Legion did all it could to help the Chairman's wish come true.

Once Lindros returned from an extended absence due to a groin injury directly related to his participation in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey, the Legion and the Flyers were unstoppable through the middle portion of the 1996-97 season. From November 30 until the end of February, the club reeled off a 24-5-8 record which included a 17-game unbeaten streak (14-0-3) at the outset to challenge Colorado for the league's best overall mark.

Not even a freak skate-cut injury which required 200 stitches which Renberg suffered at the end of the season could slow their roll through the playoffs, with the Orange and Black needing only 15 games to wipe out the Penguins, Sabres and Rangers to reach the Finals for the first time since 1987.

But after the surprising loss to the Red Wings in the season's final round, GM Bob Clarke opted to go the route of the times, and pick up more size and durability. Renberg was sacrificed, along with defenseman Karl Dykhuis, to the Tampa Bay Lightning in a deal finally consummated that August which countered the Flyers' signing of Group II restricted free agent Chris Gratton.  

And by the time Renberg was re-acquired from the Bolts in December of 1998, Lindros and LeClair already broke in a new mate on the first line in Keith Jones. As such, Renberg was relegated by Roger Neilson to second-line duty and second-pairing power-play time, roles in which he was kept through the transfer of duties to Craig Ramsay until a March 2000 deal shipped him to the Phoenix Coyotes in exchange for Rick Tocchet.

There was never an on-ice reunion of the Legion, even for a shift. 

It’s a huge disappointment. There were many years that I thought we had a team that were more capable of
winning the Stanley Cup. We had some real good teams that it would have been great to win and I think the city deserved it with the teams we had," LeClair noted.

"So it is disappointing and it is one thing I look back on and I really wish we could have won a cup here in Philly because there were some great people, some great teams, and it would have been real good.”

While two-thirds of the Legion will get their due and the love from a sellout crowd, the honorees haven't forgotten the impact that the unit as a whole made on the city, the team and the game itself.

"It took all three of us to do something. I certainly don’t forget what Mikael Renberg was all about, that’s for sure," Lindros stated emphatically.

“I think one thing that both 'E' and I appreciate more than a lot of people do is because 'Renny' did so many little things that made everything so much easier for us. There wasn’t a guy that fore-checked higher than he did, that I have ever played with in my life," LeClair said. "His passion for the game and how hard he went every shift and how when we were losing or we needed a goal or something he would really get that game face on."

Of course, the responsibilities of carrying the load continued for both Lindros and LeClair as they welcomed the likes of Jones, Dainius Zubrus, Colin Forbes on that top line in Renberg's absence.

Despite missing six weeks of action with a Grade III concussion, Lindros totaled 71 points in 63 games in 1997-98 while LeClair sidled up to Tim Kerr on the franchise ledger by recording his third straight 50-goal season. No. 88 then racked up 93 points in 71 games the following season before a collapsed lung suffered in April following a game in Nashville cost him the rest of the year plus a first-round loss to the Leafs. LeClair kept chugging on, scoring 43 and 40 goals, respectively in the final year both men terrorized NHL defensemen and goaltenders in Philadelphia.

With nearly 20 years passed between the birth of the Legion and its official recognition, all that's left and rightfully so, are the memories of the internal fire that all three showed in pursuit of the goal.

"Things seemed to click within the first practice things seemed to really roll. We had a great deal of fun, we worked hard, and we really wanted to score in practices as much as we could," Lindros stated. "We put a big emphasis on our chances, having some fun, but really focusing on making sure that the bottom line was not only that we got a shot, but that it went in. We worked hard at that and I think that it really paid off in the end.”
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