A handful of us, including Wayne Fish, Rob Parent, Les Bowen, and Tim Panaccio, were fortunate to have a front-row seat to the Eric Lindros saga from its giddy beginnings to its acrimonious end.
From being traded to the Flyers and Rangers on the same day in 1992 to lying concussed on the ice in Game 7 of the 2000 Conference Finals, Lindros’ career as a Flyer was fraught with controversy.
Despite a career cut short by concussions, Big E scored enough goals (372), recorded enough points (865) and dominated the game long enough to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2016.
On Thursday night, the Flyers will do something that was once considered inconceivable. They will raise his No. 88 to the rafters of the Wells Fargo Center, alongside those of Hall of Famers Bobby Clarke (No. 16), Bernie Parent (No. 1), Bill Barber (No. 7) and Mark Howe (No. 2), along with the well-respected Barry Ashbee (No. 4).
My opinions of Lindros’ career are mixed, mainly because I often found myself walking the tightrope between the views held by him and his family and those held by the rest of the Flyers’ organization, including his teammates, one of whom described Lindros’ career as one of the greatest ‘What Ifs’ in the history of professional sports.
Here are a few of my most vivid, behind-the-scenes memories of Lindros.
Prince Edward Island
In September of 1992, Lindros’ first NHL training camp was held in the small, potato-growing town of O’Leary, Prince Edward Island, and we all stayed at the Rodd Mill River Resort, a quiet, rustic lodge surrounded by woods. But if the Flyers hoped to escape the hordes of fans and media in Philadelphia, they were mistaken.
Every morning, more than 1,500 fans paid $5 a ticket to jam the practice rink at O’Leary. In fact, so many children skipped school, the O’Leary school district decided to close its schools during the Flyers’ visit.
“I’ve never seen so many kids skip school,” Lindros said at the time. “The principal’s here? Good for him.”
While the rest of us were taken from the resort to the practice rink by bus and mini vans, Lindros was treated like a fifth member of the Beatles, escorted by The Royal Canadian Mounted Police in a van.
On the plane ride back from P.E.I. to Philadelphia, teammates took turns reading aloud the fan mail Lindros received since becoming a Flyer, often times breaking into raucous laughter.
First game in Quebec
Unless you count the Wing Bowl, in more than 30 years of covering professional sports, I’ve never witnessed anything remotely close to the night of Oct. 13, 1992.
I flew into Quebec that afternoon and headed directly to Le Colisee for Lindros’ first game in front of the fiercely proud and incredibly offended Nordiques fans.
On the concourse, I was greeted by grown men wearing nothing but diapers, baby bonnets and pacifiers, called teethers in Canada. There were hand-made signs of Lindros dressed as a baby. Others depicted his mother, Bonnie, in a bad light.
It was hilariously vulgar, a Mummer’s Parade with a French accent. A local radio station handed out 3,000 pacifiers and every one of them —along with batteries, golf balls, eggs, bullets and any loose pocket change the 15,399 fans could gather — was thrown on the ice. The game was stopped numerous times and Lindros was ridiculed with three-word chants that cut to the core.
Lindros scored a pair of goals, but Mike Ricci, one of the five players acquired by the Nordiques in the Lindros mega-deal, netted the game-winner with 3:57 remaining en route to a 6-3 win over the Flyers.
“If I ever have kids, they’ll have teethers to suck on for life,” Lindros quipped. “Any time you have $400 in change, eggs, bullets and batteries on the ice, it makes it tough for both sides. Fans in Philadelphia are kittens on the curtain compared to these people.”
A rivalry is born
Boxing had Ali vs. Frazier. Basketball had Bird vs. Magic. And the NHL had Lindros vs. Stevens.
For those who like their hockey rugged, there was no better theatre than Lindros and Scott Stevens butting helmets six or seven or 14 times in a hockey season.
For eight consecutive seasons, whenever the two climbed over the boards, I could not take my eyes off No. 88 and No. 4. At 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, Stevens was 2 inches shorter and 25 pounds lighter than Lindros. He was also nine years older.
But man, could those two battle.
Lindros’ career was marred by at least six documented concussions — although I’m sure he would confess there were many more —but the events leading up to his final moments in a Flyers uniform are forever etched in my memory.
Late in that 1999-2000 season — on March 27 to be exact — Lindros was stripped of his captaincy after claiming the Flyers’ medical staff had allowed him to play with a concussion. He had not played in more than two months and the Flyers owned a 3-2 series advantage over the Devils in the Conference Finals.
Flyers coach Craig Ramsay stunned all of us by stating Lindros would return to the lineup for Game 6 at the Meadowlands Arena.
“It was a tough decision, a hard decision,” Ramsay said at the time. “I wanted to be fair to everyone. But Eric said all the right things. He seemed very sincere in his desire to come back. He’s been a big part of this team for a long time. I felt he deserved that opportunity.”
I happened to sit next to Bob Clarke, then GM of the Flyers, in the press box for Game 6 and for all of the animosity between him and Lindros, I never heard a general manager root so hard for a player during the course of a game.
“C’mon, Eric,” Clarke implored over and over as we both watched Lindros score the Flyers’ only goal in that 2-1 loss.
Two nights later at the Wells Fargo Center, before his final game in a Flyers jersey, Lindros was moments away from walking down the tunnel that leads from the Flyers’ dressing room to the ice.
Goaltender Brian Boucher remembers John LeClair offering this advice to the Flyers’ 27-year-old ex-captain.
“Keep your head up, Eric. Stevens is gonna to be gunning for you.”
We all know how that story ended, with Lindros lying motionless on the ice and the Flyers’ dreams of an elusive Stanley Cup lying with him.
“I certainly did not play as well during the latter stages of my career,” Lindros said years later in an interview with The Hockey News. “I hated going through the middle. I had huge fears.”
The Lindros Legacy
For all of the divisiveness Lindros created during his playing career, it is ironic that his bravery to call attention to concussions might be one of the most unifying actions of any player from his era.
Today, at the age of 44, Lindros is married with three children.
He has devoted his post-playing days to concussion awareness and prevention. He was a leading proponent of Ontario’s Rowan’s Law, which advocates 49 recommendations after an amateur athlete is diagnosed with a concussion and is named after female rugby player Rowan Stringer, who died three years ago from Second Impact Syndrome.
Lindros also works with See The Line, an organization focused on concussion education, and the Concussion Project, a research initiative at Western University in his hometown of London, Ontario.
Lindros’ hockey career could have taken many different paths. It could have led to multiple Stanley Cups.
Instead, it has led him to a life of service. And that, as much any electrifying goal or bone-rattling hit, is worthy of raising his No. 88 to the rafters.