Later today, Eric Lindros will represent the Philadelphia Flyers against the New York Rangers in the Alumni Game portion of the NHL's Winter Classic festivities at Citizens Bank Park. After more than a decade of hard feelings and no communication whatsoever with the organization, it is an utter and complete irony that the healing process between 'The Big E' and the Flyers began in preparation for a weekend between the two teams that battled it out feverishly for his NHL rights almost 20 years ago.
He came into the League with much fanfare. Labeled 'The Next One', Lindros was that one player who was going to push the envelope in redefining NHL greatness. Blessed with a rare combination of speed, an elite-level offensive skill set, keen hockey sense, and a raw edge to his game, Lindros was going to be the best of Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, and Gordie Howe, all rolled into one dominating package.
As a young phenom thrust into the glaring Canadian hockey spotlight, the 1991 entry draft was marked down as a franchise player for several years. Every team wanted the opportunity to add the 6' 4", 230-pounder to their roster.
It just so happened that a team in which Lindros had no interest in playing for wound up with the first-overall pick. Even though Lindros stated his intentions of never playing in Quebec City well in advance of draft day, the Nordiques made him their pick. Lindros' refusal to wear the jersey presented to him by Quebec management at the podium was a definitive confirmation that he was sticking to his guns, and after sitting out a year, forced Nordiques' brass into the stark realization that a trade was the club's only option.
In the summer of 1992, Quebec traded the rights to Lindros twice in the same day, to two different teams -- the arch-rival Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers. The clubs had been hated divisional foes for decades, and the packages offered by each was staggering. In the end, the decision was left up to an arbitrator, and Lindros was awarded to Philadelphia.
Suffering through an unacceptable string of three consecutive seasons out of the postseason, the hockey-loving people in Philly rejoiced in the knowledge that their savior was now on his way, and it was only a matter of time until Lord Stanley would make his long-awaited return to the City of Brotherly Love.
His spectacular 41-goal, 75-point, 147 PIM totals in an injury-shortened 61 game rookie campaign would have been a Calder Trophy-winning performance in just about any other year, but 1992-93 was the exception -- this was the same season that Winnipeg Jets' freshman Teemu Selanne shattered just about every record for a first year player with an unparalleled 76 goals and 132 points to easily take the rookie-of-the-year honors.
The king's ransom garnered by the Nordiques for Lindros -- which included Peter 'the best player not in the NHL' Forsberg, young center Mike Ricci, offensive defenseman Steve Duchesne, goaltender Ron Hextall, two first-round draft picks, and $15 million in cash -- took its toll on what had been an improving club until this time. Despite his contributions as center on the feared 'Legion of Doom' line with John LeClair and Mikael Renberg, the Flyers failed to make the playoffs for another two years after Lindros' arrival.
Throw in the fact that the relocated Quebec franchise, led by Forsberg and other pieces from the Lindros deal, won the Stanley Cup as the Avalanche in Colorado, and the situation became rather unhealthy.
Lindros' only weaknesses were the toll taken on his body from employing a sheer brutality to his style of play, and his tendency to sometimes skate through center ice with his head down. With the mix of spending a mounting number of games on the shelf due to various injuries and the team still not succeeding as expected as a result, a growing disillusionment festered between the face of the franchise and its greatest leader from the times of its greatest triumphs, Bob Clarke. The GM openly questioned the severity of Lindros' ailments through the media, and wondered aloud if his club's results were damaged in the wake of his superstar's absence.
Clarke eventually stripped Lindros of the team captaincy, and the beginning of the end was set into motion. Even though the injuries and strife with Flyers' management factors would eventually lead to his inability to ultimately reach his full potential in Philadelphia, Lindros was one of the premier talents in the League for a good portion of the 1990's.
Though playing in 486 contests and averaging just over 60 games per season during his eight seasons in Philly, number 88 scored 40 or more goals four times. His 290 goals ranked eighth in Flyers' history, 369 assists sixth, and 659 points fifth all-time; he made six All-Star teams, and won the 1994-95 Hart Memorial Trophy as the NHL's Most Valuable Player. The best years of Lindros' 13 years in the League were spent right here in Philadelphia.
The concussions he suffered make Lindros a relevant hockey figure in light of the epidemic of head-related injuries suffered in today's game, and the image of Lindros curled up in an almost fetal position after absorbing a vicious hit to the head by Scott Stevens' shoulder in the last moments of his time in Philly in 2000 is the indelible mark many remember.
The healing process needed to happen at some point, and there was no better time than now.
When The Hockey Writers' Justin Johnson interviewed Lindros
in mid-October, he dropped a bombshell on Flyers' fans who had hoped for a reconciliation.
JJ: There have been some rumors going around in Philly that you’ve been invited to play in the Winter Classic Alumni game. Is there any truth to that?Eric Lindros: I talked with [Flyers GM] Paul Holmgren about a month or five weeks back and we chatted about it. That’d be great if I could see Mikael Renberg again, and Johnny LeClair. I haven’t seen Johnny in a couple of years. That would be a lot of fun. Also possibly we could set up something along the lines where we could do something for CHOP (Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia), maybe have a lunch or do something along those lines. We could bring in hockey fans and chat a little bit about what we’re up to and sign a bunch of stuff.
Sometimes led to view Lindros as aloof and possessing no desire to come back to the scene of his biggest NHL accomplishments, it was amazing to see not only a willingness to return, but that plans were already in the works. As Johnson continued with the line of questioning, it sounded as though Lindros' conversation with Holmgren was casual and the process had actually stalled.
JJ: So have you made a decision to definitely come down for that or is it still up in the air at this point?Eric Lindros: I haven’t talked to Paul since we initially spoke a couple of times but it sounds like a great time.
Johnson's breaking of the story may have actually been the push that made Lindros' return actually come to fruition. Shortly after Philadelphia's media throng picked up on the news and plastered it all over the consciousness of the city's entire Flyers-crazed fan base, discussions between the team and their wayward son were rekindled.
At long last, Lindros was finally coming home, and that was an important development.
Though he never was able to hoist the Stanley Cup, especially in a Flyers' uniform, he was the organization's best player for a good portion of the 90s. An elite player in the League. He led a Philadelphia squad that had been out of playoff contention for five seasons into the Cup Finals in 1997. Even though they were eventually swept by the Detroit Red Wings, his heroics during that postseason were integral in helping the club get close to its first Cup since 1975 -- when Clarke held the same role for the 'The Broad Street Bullies'. Lindros was the vessel that came so close to connecting the teams of both generations through a championship.
While he and Clarke will skate together as teammates and possibly even linemates today, they will likely be nothing more than politely cordial with one another. But that's fine. Just having two of the most influential personalities in the Flyers' storied history representing the organization together -- in light of the often oil and water mixture they had became some 15 years ago -- is part of a much needed healing process for Philadelphia hockey.
For a franchise that embraces its former players so graciously, it was a necessity for Lindros to be welcomed back to the fold. He probably wondered why he was perceived as such a villain when all he really wanted was to help his team win. Physically not up to the undertaking so often, he was injured so much because of the all out effort he gave night in and night out. The anticipated roar of the 40,000+ at Citizens Bank Park will be therapeutic for not only those bestowing their appreciation, but also for the object of their affection.
One would have to surmise that Lindros never fully understood the impact he made on Philadelphia-area hockey, or the full extent of the adoraion of felt by the Flyers' faithful. They never really had one last chance to let him know before he abruptly appeared for the last time on that fateful spring day, leaving the ice semi-conscious in front of a hushed silence brought on by the horror of his final Philly concussion. Today should provide a remedy for that situation, a kind of therapy session for all involved in a long drawn out, dysfunctional family feud.
Though he went on to play for today's opponent -- those same Broadway Blueshirts, who so vehemently attempted to acquire his services back when it all began -- before moving on to Toronto, and finishing his career with one last hurrah in Dallas, Eric Lindros is forever a part of the Flyers family.
The fact that he was so open to a reconciliation heals a deep-seeded wound that has been felt by the entire membership of Flyers Nation for nearly 15 years.
Let the healing begin.Photo credit: Getty Images