There is something incongruous about Eric Lindros choosing hockey's Hall of Fame week to announce his retirement, because the chances are slim that he will ever find himself next to the game's greats in their pantheon.
|Lindros came to the NHL with so much hype, but enjoyed only a couple fruitful years in Philly. (Getty Images)|
Maybe it was always his destiny to end up that way. A man-child who towered over and usually bulled his way through opponents as he was growing up, Lindros was such a dominant young player that his former general manager, Bob Clarke, once said he could have been in the NHL at age 16. But by the time Lindros did arrive, he had accumulated so much in the way of baggage, it was almost impossible not to be weighed down beyond the point anyone could reasonably be expected to handle it.
Even so, he tried. Lindros challenged and got his way against the hockey establishment both when he was drafted to his junior league and again when he was selected to the NHL by the Quebec Nordiques, refusing to play until he was traded to places he deemed more desirable. From an early age, he created the impression he was bigger than the game, a reputation that, despite his protestations to the contrary, would follow and often undermine him for much of his career. "I just hated it that people who shouldn't be in a position to run my life, could tell me what to do," he said when the Nordiques drafted him in 1991.
To prove his point, Lindros delayed his entry to the NHL for a full season. But in the meantime, he had added to his aura by gaining a spot as an amateur on a star-studded 1991 Team Canada roster that had cut Steve Yzerman. Lindros was clearly ready for the big stage and seen as someone who would follow in the footsteps of Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, but what mattered most to Lindros was choosing his own path.
He managed that by forcing Quebec to trade him to the Philadelphia Flyers, a controversial deal that yielded a bounty of five players and first-round draft picks for the Nordiques, including Peter Forsberg, who would eventually play a key role in bringing his new team a Stanley Cup in 1996 after it moved to Colorado. Lindros, meanwhile, was doing his best to play the role of savior for a floundering Philadelphia franchise, even winning the league's MVP award in 1995. But the closest he ever brought them to a title was the 1997 Finals, when the Flyers were easily swept by Detroit and called chokers by then-coach Terry Murray.
It wasn't enough. Although Lindros wasn't singled out for any particular criticism in that flop, there were whispers that he didn't have the heart or the leadership ability to take his team to the next level. It's something that stuck with him for the remainder of his career, even though Lindros kept fighting his way back from a series of concussions, a collapsed lung, groin injuries and wrist problems. As much as anything, the perceived "character" issue will be the reason that many people will look back at his career and call it a disappointment.
Lindros wasn't helped by having unusually involved parents for a professional athlete, or by the difficulties he began having dealing with some of his teammates, Flyers staff members and particularly with Clarke after the Finals flop. But it was the cumulative concussions, most notably the one from a brutal but clean open-ice hit from New Jersey's Scott Stevens in a 2000 playoff game, that ultimately kept Lindros from becoming the player he could have been.
Lindros had to miss the entire following season and then was traded to the Rangers, where he spent the next three years, with only one of them being productive. He finished his career as a free agent, first with Toronto and then with Dallas, but he couldn't stay healthy in either place and ended up an insignificant bit player rather than a difference maker with both teams.
Still, his average of 1.12 points per game actually stacks up well against the best of his contemporaries. When he was healthy, Lindros was clearly among the league's best players and, in stretches, its most dominant force. But he managed to play only 760 games in 13 seasons, and no matter how good he was at his best, it's going to be tough for number-driven voters to give him a place to get into the Hall of Fame.
Maybe that doesn't really matter. Lindros, who was a driving force behind the ouster of disgraced former union leader Ted Saskin, held back on officially retiring until the players association had found and installed a new boss. And Lindros has made no secret of his desire to stay deeply involved with the new administration of Paul Kelley.
It will give him a chance to make a lasting impression in hockey, even if it's not necessarily on the ice.