THE NHL : Lindros Is L-Word to People of Quebec

The cab ride was pleasant enough. As the driver maneuvered his way through the icy streets of Quebec City, he spoke knowledgeably but in a friendly manner about the political problems facing his province--about separatism and language barriers, about taxes and the uncertain future.

When the subject wore down, the reporter in the back seat broached a new one.

"How do you feel about the Eric Lindros situation?" he asked.

The mood changed.

"If you wish to remain my friend," said the taxi driver, the charm in his voice suddenly replaced by fury, "you will not mention that name in my cab."

End of subject. But we've just seen the beginning of the controversy.

Lindros' refusal to sign with the Quebec Nordiques, the team that made him the NHL's top draft choice last spring, goes far beyond hockey.

This is not just another John Elway, a top draft pick refusing to play in Baltimore (then the home of the Colts) because the team was so bad. That was purely a matter of wins and losses. The Lindros case is a lot more.

The people of Quebec already were hypersensitive about a political situation that has pitted their province against the Canadian government over everything from taxes to the use of French, a confrontation that threatens to tear that country apart. Now they see Lindros' refusal to report, whatever his publicly stated reasons about avoiding high taxes and being in a major media market, as a rejection of their way of life.

No Eric, no show: Lindros is splitting his time these days between Team Canada, the Canadian Olympic squad and the Oshawa Generals, a junior hockey club.

Team Canada made a scheduled stop in Quebec City Sunday night as part of its exhibition tour.

But one player failed to show.

Guess who?

It seemed that the Generals had a home game that night, and it was suddenly imperative that Lindros appear.

Although the Quebec-Team Canada game was part of the season package for the 7,300 Nordique season-ticket holders, only 5,000 people showed up at the Colisee de Quebec, where 15,106 had paid to see the Nordique-King game the night before.

An envelope containing the unused Sunday tickets of 250 season-ticket holders was given to Team Canada to be delivered to Lindros as a sign of protest.

Jacques Demers, a former NHL coach and now a Nordique broadcaster, said the Lindros affair has become "personal and nasty" to the people of Quebec.

Returning the nastiness: Nordique Coach and General Manager Pierre Page has threatened to withhold $45,000 from the Canadian Olympic program because of Lindros' failure to appear Sunday.

"Eric Lindros is negotiating, and we understand that," Page said. "But it's all gone too far, and someone has to pay the price."

There is a feeling in Quebec that Lindros, 18, is not calling the shots, that his parents are orchestrating the scenario.

"It doesn't matter if you're young, old or middle-aged," said Page in addressing that theory, "somebody has to pay a price. Here we are, bending over backwards for the Olympic program, and this is a slap in the face."

Another long weekend at Bernie's: It took Bernie Nicholls two months to join the Edmonton Oilers after being traded from the New York Rangers. Nicholls insisted on staying by the side of his pregnant wife, Heather, until she gave birth to the twins she was carrying.

But it took Nicholls less than a day to wear out his welcome when he reported Friday afternoon for a game that night in Winnipeg.

"You would have thought," Edmonton Coach Ted Green said at a morning skate the day of the game, "that if he really had a concern about wanting to get into shape, he would have been here last night and on the ice with the team this morning.

"I couldn't care less. He's not playing anyway. . . . We've had a tough three months. We could have used him for three months. . . . But it's foolish to think this guy could come in here and walk right into the lineup. This guy missed all of training camp. He hasn't played a competitive game since last year."

For his part, Nicholls, who said he didn't want to play in Edmonton for a variety of reasons--from his wife's condition to the poor condition of a team he thinks is in a rebuilding stage--now has a new objection.

"I'm coming in for a guy (Mark Messier) who was the best player here after Wayne (Gretzky) left," Nicholls told the Toronto Sunday Sun.

"It's not fair when you get traded for a guy like Mark Messier or Wayne Gretzky. They're so popular with the people. And Mark won five Stanley Cups and is a great player. . . . You can't put that pressure on a guy to fill his shoes."

A postscript: Apparently the two sides have made up because Nichols played in Tuesday's game at Vancouver, contributing an assist in the second period.

Still, you have to wonder which will run out first, the Oilers' patience or Nicholls' excuses.

Quotable: Paul Holmgren, recently fired as coach of the Philadelphia Flyers: "It was easier to deal with frustration as a player. You could slash people."

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