ON THE THIRD FLOOR OF THE PHILADELPHIA FLYERS' TRAINING FACILITY IN Voorhees, N.J., hockey's new prince of darkness is standing barefoot in soaked, gray sweat shorts and T-shirt, working on a skill that separates him from the rest of the game's superstars.
"Relax and crush," whispers the team's conditioning coach, Pat Croce, and 20-year-old Eric Lindros' huge, meaty white fist comes flying off his shoulder, followed by the flatulent splat of wood inhaling leather, then the rat-tat-tat-tat as the force of the punch plays itself out on the speed bag.
With Lindros' younger brother, Brett, looking on, Croce schools the rookie on the tenets of the sweet science--balance, keeping your weight over your legs, how to twist into a punch, not lean into it. And Lindros is a natural student, just as at 6 foot 4 and 230 ripped pounds he is a natural heavyweight, not the inflated product of a weight room. "It just goes on," Lindros says offhandedly about the muscle, "it's a disease." He even has a fighter's thick stump of a neck.
Eventually, Lindros tires of the pugilistic niceties. With his left hand held straight out in front of him as if he were clutching someone by the jersey, he starts wailing, throwing right after right, until Brett, in the name of decency, mockingly moves to intercede. "The scrap's over," he says. "It's history. The guy is down. He's unconscious. He's dead." But Lindros ignores him and keeps firing, now grunting with every punch, his dark curly hair matted against his head, green eyes glaring at the fat leather bulb that keeps coming back for more.
This is the player who coincidentally is hockey's best hope and least likely new ambassador, a media star who, at the end of an injury- and trouble-plagued rookie season, is nevertheless being counted on to carry the Flyers to half a dozen Stanley Cups in the next decade, justifying the $15 million, six players and two No. 1 draft picks they sent to the Quebec Nordiques for the right to sign him. The big, bruising center is also expected to pick up the mantle from the aging Wayne Gretzky and the reticent Mario Lemieux and elevate hockey to the major status enjoyed by football and baseball in America.
But are his shoulders broad enough to carry that load? Lindros seems supremely unqualified for any diplomatic assignment. For starters, there's his less-than-winning ways with the media. Throughout our interviews, Lindros makes the distracting point of hailing every Flyer or team official who walks by, and his signature gesture is a luxuriant, leonine, boredom-induced yawn that frequently takes half a minute to work its way out of his system.
Then there's his delight in the kind of violence that many hockey people think is precisely the direction the sport should not be heading in if it's going to broaden its appeal. The last major athlete to enjoy hurting people as much might be the incarcerated prizefighter Mike Tyson, who, oddly, shared with Lindros the habit of going into battle without socks inside boots.
Asked if he enjoys a crushing body check as much as a goal, Lindros, who has been an angry outsider since his days firing slap shots on a back-yard rink while listening to heavy metal AC/DC hits like "Back in Black," gets a twinkle in his eye and says "Oh yeahhh, I get off on it, you know. It turns my crank."
Nor did it help Lindros' image when photos of him handcuffed in the back seat of a police cruiser were plastered across the Canadian front pages after a beer-spraying episode in his favorite Whitby, Ontario, pub. The incident, early in the season, led to an assault charge. "I smiled for my mug shot and got some ink on my fingers," Lindros says in his best gangster imitation. Even his acquittal provided little damage control, since Lindros testified that he had virtually taunted the complainant into pressing charges by telling her, "I make $3.5 million a year. What are you going to do about it?" a line that many Lindros watchers feel captures the young man's condescending arrogance.
Then there is the matter of his parents. In the course of their son's remarkably polarizing career, Carl and Bonnie Lindros have successfully taken on the entire hockey power structure, first refusing to send him to the top minor-league team that drafted him, then defying the National Hockey League draft. In the process, the outspoken Bonnie has antagonized almost every segment of society in Canada, hockey's heartland. As Daniel Poulin, author of an unauthorized Lindros biography, "Doing Right For Eric," puts it: "The problem with the Lindroses is that they think they are above the rules and regulations and laws affecting the rest of us."
On the other hand, as the sport hopes to enter a new era under National Basketball Assn.-trained commissioner Gary Bettman and a new national television contract with ESPN, these same qualities could make Lindros the kind of controversial, charismatic personality hockey needs. "We've had lots of guys riding in on white horses," says former New York Ranger goalie and TV color-man John Davidson. "Eric can be the man riding in on the black horse. The game's not as intense as it was. Fans used to go home from a game as exhausted as if they'd played in it. He can be the guy that people scramble into an arena to boo, see how mean he is, and want to come back and boo again."
In fact, there's something refreshing about many of Lindros' impolitic responses. Asked about his experience playing on the Canadian Olympic team last year, he spares you the story about the privilege of representing one's country, remarking only that "it was a place to play" during his long stalemate with Quebec. Asked about the quality of the ice at Inglewood's Great Western Forum, where he aggravated a knee injury while warming up for a game in late December, he says, "It's hard skating on sand."
Lindros is an extremely smart (his mother has leaked his IQ at 134), handsome athlete with an adolescent's visceral disgust of phoniness. "I have a hard time with fence-sitters, people who don't speak their mind," he says, "guys who say things because it's politically correct or because they'll look good with the organization, or they'll get endorsements. It kills me, kills me. I've got a right to say what I want to say because I'm a person and people ask me. And the reason people ask me is because they know I have an opinion and I'm not going to hide."
And when Lindros, talking about his style of play, says, "I'm not some little free-lancer who can wheel and deal and not hit anyone," he is taking a dig at the Los Angeles Kings' 32-year-old Gretzky, the ultimate white-horse equestrian, who has always cultivated the media. Although Gretzky has never said anything unkind about Lindros, there is no love lost between the two. Lindros' hero has always been Gretzky's outspoken ex-teammate Mark Messier. But Lindros has a way to go before he can assume the role of hockey anti-hero. "He's got to realize that he is more than just Eric Lindros of the Philadelphia Flyers," Davidson says. "It's a project. And he's a project."
BY THE TIME LINDROS HIT PUBERTY, SCOUTS AND GENERAL MANAGERS HAD designated him as the next link on hockey's chain of immortals; none of the other players his age are mentioned in the same breath in terms of impact on the sport. In a twist on Gretzky's "Great One" moniker, reporters began referring to Lindros as "The Next One," but, in fact, Lindros' combination of talent, enormity and nastiness is unprecedented. To find another player as well versed in all five of the game's manly arts--skating, shooting, passing, hitting and fighting--you have to go back to Gordie Howe, and Lindros is a head taller and 30 pounds heavier.
"With Gretzky, Lemieux, Steve Yzerman, Pat Lafontaine, you've got a group of superstars who are tremendously skilled, dominant athletes," said N.Y. Rangers general manager Neil Smith, "but they don't have the physical presence to dominate a game. Lindros does."
Laced into his Bauer blades, Lindros towers over all but a handful of opposing players. During a game in Quebec, Owen Nolan, one of the league's more bullish forwards, skated up to Lindros and threw a straight arm into his chest. The big Flyer rookie sneered down at him as if he were a deranged bug.
Lindros is the complete package. He reads plays and snaps off passes like a point guard, has a shot in a class with full-time snipers like St. Louis Blues forward Brett Hull and covers the ice with the swiftness and bad intentions of a shark. "I personally feel this guy can be the best player who ever played the game," says Bobby Clarke, the former Flyers vice president.
Still, there is tremendous pressure on Lindros, who has a six-year contract worth $21.8 million, making him the second-highest-paid player in the game behind Pittsburgh's Lemieux. Not only does he have to live up to more hype than greeted the arrival of Bobby Orr, Gretzky and Lemieux, he also has to justify the fact that Philadelphia gutted its team to get him, sending the Nordiques, among others, veteran goalie Ron Hextall, high-scoring forward Mike Ricci, all star defenseman Steve Duchesne and the rights to Steve Forsberg, a Swedish player whom many consider the best 18-year-old in the world. "I don't think anybody has been in the position that this boy is in," Clarke says. Although no one expected Lindros to do it in one season, it hasn't helped that the Nordiques have been instantly transformed into one of the best teams in hockey, while the Flyers will be finishing in the cellar.
His first season in the NHL at the top has been interrupted too many times to be a good indicator. It began to unravel early with a knee injury in November. A week later, after Lindros got permission to go home for acupuncture treatments, he was involved in the beer-spraying squabble at KooKoo Bananas. Although he had not violated any team rules, the fact that a player making $3.5 million a year was on a dance floor in Ontario while his teammates were getting thrashed in a rink on Long Island didn't look very good. "My first choice was that he wasn't there," says Russ Farwell, the Flyers' general manager.
Six weeks after the first injury, the same knee swelled up after a game with the New York Rangers, leading Lindros' family to imply that the team mishandled the injury and rushed its expensive rookie back too soon. A few days later, however, reports filtered back to the team that Lindros and some friends had gotten into a fight the night after the Ranger game in a New Jersey pub. Since the knee was fine after the game, and didn't swell up until about 10 hours later, it seemed possible that it had been re-injured in the scuffle and not in the game. This second injury forced Lindros to miss the next 12 games.
After all they gave up for him, Flyer management is under as much pressure as Lindros, and at times relations between the team and its millionaire rookie are a little testy. After the second off-ice squabble, Lindros rejected the team's suggestion that he get a roommate. Asked if, when healthy, Lindros was delivering on his potential, Farwell says, "We certainly weren't getting it consistently." Nevertheless, by late March, Lindros had recorded 36 goals and 27 assists in 51 games while making his teammates more effective. With Lindros playing, the Flyers won 20, lost 22 and tied 9 games; without him they were 7-14-2.
Hockey people see two Eric Lindroses, the one on the ice and the one off. Says Les Bowen, who covers the team for the Philadelphia News: "He's brave. He's unselfish. He's more of a complete player than a complete person."
And while it must peeve his teammates that he's one of the few Flyer players who can park in the Spectrum, their arena, it's hard not to feel kindly toward a guy who comes in and does your dirty work, fights your fights, watches your back and scares away your enemies. Lindros is a prima donna with a prole's game, hockey's first grinder/enforcer/superstar. "I'm not going to scare you with spectacular moves day in and day out," he says, "I just put my boots on and go to work."
It's the dark side of his game that gives him his mystique. The heightened tension and anticipation that Lindros brings to the ice have little to do with the prospect of witnessing a spectacular goal or some deft piece of stick handling, but the likelihood of watching Lindros run over somebody.
Hockey is a mean sport--the curved sticks, the deadly weight of the puck, the razor-sharp skates, the ritualized dropping of gloves and blood on the ice--and Lindros glories in its gladiatorial aspects. He's what hockey people admiringly call "chippy," a player who likes to make other players back down. "Sure," says hockey writer Stan Fischler, "you see a Patton tank coming your way, what are you going to do? You got a bazooka?"
Up until now, notes Fischler, the biggest players like Bobby Hull or Jean Beliveau have tended to be gentlemen, but Lindros is a big man with the nasty streak of a smaller man. "There's never been a meaner son of a bitch than Howe," says Fischler, "and he also happened to be dirty at times. He almost took Lou Fontinato's ear off with his stick one night in Madison Square Garden, but Lindros seems to be gratuitously vicious, almost bullyish."
You will never hear Lindros join the chorus to ban fighting (in late March he had 127 penalty minutes, fourth-highest on the team despite missing 23 games) nor is he a supporter of the attempt early in the season to crack down on illegal restraining or use of the stick. "I personally wouldn't want to play in a league without that aggressiveness. You're going to get chopped, so accept it," he says. If a player goes too far, you don't whine to the refs or the press, you haul off and punch him. And if no one punches you back, you push it a little further.
Not that Lindros has to stretch the rules to be dominating. "Eric can hurt you legally more than any other player in the league," says Flyer Coach Bill Dineen. Part of it is simply the physics of 230 pounds bearing down on you on skates. And part of it is Lindros' highly refined technique--a hybrid of hockey checking and football blocking in which he explodes out of a crouch like a gridiron lineman. "It all starts from your quads and just comes through," he says. And part of it is his unnatural pleasure in contact that hockey scouts have been drooling over since Lindros was 14.
"You have to be a little crazy," he explains. "Don't just finish it, finish it ! Instead of putting 195 pounds into it, give her all, put all 230 into it."
The world got its first glimpse of Lindros' checking when, as an 18-year-old, he played in the Canada Cup, the equivalent of an American college freshman making the Olympic Dream Team. In the course of the international series, won by Canada, Lindros threw a check that broke the collarbone of a Czechoslovakian player, sent a Soviet player flying into the boards so hard that the impact shattered the plexiglass, and put Sweden's Ulf Samuelson, an NHL All-Star, out of the competition with a separated shoulder.
Even when it seems beyond the pale, Lindros' violence is never mindless. "It all means something," he says, "you do it all for a reason." Nor is it lost on his teammates. "When Eric flattens someone," says Kevin Dineen, a Flyer alternate captain and son of the coach, "it fires up the whole team." Sportswriter Bowen says that during a five-game winning streak at the end of November, just before Lindros went down with the knee injury that would keep him out of 23 games before the All-Star break in February, the team was terrorizing opponents from the initial face-off. "Eric would knock someone through the boards, (Mark) Recchi would score a goal, and the whole pattern of the game was set," Bowen says. In one game during the streak, against the Ottawa Senators, Lindros went out in the first shift and hit every man except the goalie, recalls Coach Dineen. "Their whole bench was in awe of it."
And don't look for Lindros to ease up as he gets more established in the league. "It's only going to get worse," Lindros warns, as if savoring in advance the prospect of even more one-sided collisions. "I'm still getting bigger. I'm still getting stronger. I'm filling out more and more. When I'm in my prime, I bet you I'm going to weigh 238, 240."
THE FAMILY-ENGINEERED BIOGRAPHY, "FIRE ON ICE," OFFERS ALL SORTS OF adorable details about baby Eric, including his first step (at 7 1/2 months), his first stitches (11 months) and how one portentous night he stacked his teddy bears in a corner and hauled himself out of his crib, just like it was a penalty box. But even in this self-serving account, there's a strong sense of Lindros' antisocial tendencies. In one chapter, the book brags about about how kindergartner Lindros beat up a third-grader--"nothing like a good fight to secure your rung on the ladder," said Lindros of the schoolyard fight. And we learn that the reason his mother pushed him into hockey was to siphon off some of his aggression.
"He was never part of the in crowd," said Bonnie Lindros, "and I think that drove him to achieve so that people would respect him. He didn't have the most friends at school, but he would try to gain the approval of his peers by showing them he could play ball better or get a higher mark on the tests. I think his attitude was that they might not like him, but they had to respect him."
While his mother recalls her oldest son as "this driven little soul," his brother remembers a socially awkward menace. "When I was younger, I wouldn't have said he was a friend, I would have said he was my relative," says Brett, 17, a hard-hitting NHL prospect playing high-level minor league hockey for the Kingston Frontenacs in Ontario. "He'd beat on me. He was a frustrated guy. He was a little hyperactive as a kid, and he'd get so wired he'd lose control of himself, and it was like little brother speed bag."
He learned his game mainly from his father, Carl, an even larger man than Eric, who, ironically, quit hockey for football rather than hire out as a goon. "I sensed that the only reason I was playing was that when they asked me to fight, I would," recalls Carl Lindros about his stint with the Chicago Blackhawks. "I decided that if that's all I had to be in the NHL, I wasn't interested."
Maybe because of his own experience, he was determined that his son have far more going for him than his size, and the two spent hours in the evenings and weekends honing the skating and puck skills needed to make him a complete player. For Lindros, the back-yard rinks that his father made for him were the scenes of fond memories.
As Eric gained notoriety, the family lavished his career with the seriousness of the Omega project, interviewing the fathers of earlier great ones, like Doug Orr, canvassing experts, even hiring an agent, Rick Curran, when Lindros was only 15. Lindros' father still serves as kind of a private coach, frequently flying down from Toronto to check his son's technique and make sure he isn't getting too predictable. Is the puck too far forward on his stick? Is he always cutting inside as he crosses the blue line? Lindros insists that his father's consultations never interfere with the instruction he gets from team coaches. Yet it seems to reflect the insular Lindros world view. "The only people I trust are my parents," the rookie has said.
The first league the Lindroses brought to their knees was the Ontario Hockey League, which infuriated the family by allowing the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds to make Lindros their first draft choice in 1989. It's easy to understand why the family would not be eager to have their son play junior hockey in a town that is a 500-mile drive northwest of Toronto, where some road games require eight-hour bus trips. But it's just as understandable that the Greyhounds would choose the best player available, just as 12 years earlier when they drafted Gretzky.
Gretzky went, Lindros didn't, moving in with a family in Michigan and playing hockey for a Detroit minor-league team. A few months later, the Ontario league, fearing that Lindros might play American college hockey and bypass its program altogether, abolished the rule that had barred teams from trading their first draft choice. The provision, which became known as the Lindros Rule, allowed the Greyhounds to swap Lindros to the Generals of Oshawa, near Toronto, for three players, $80,000 Canadian and future considerations later said to have been worth almost $500,000. In Canada's highly stratified junior system, players progress from Peewee to Midget to Junior B to Junior A and, finally, if they're good enough, to the professional NHL.
The Sault Ste. Marie controversy proved to be a scaled-down model of what would happen two years later, when the Quebec Nordiques made Lindros their first pick in the NHL draft. Once again the family deemed the location unacceptable. They claimed that their son would have a hard time adjusting to Quebec's French culture and complained that being an English-speaker in a Francophone city would limit his local endorsement potential. Bonnie Lindros also said that the town wasn't big enough to provide privacy for a star of the magnitude her son was likely to become. Furthermore, the provincial taxes were way above the American rate that he would pay if he played for one of the league's U.S. clubs.
And once again the family was indignant that their wishes, made clear to the Nordiques well before the draft, had been ignored. If the residents of Sault Ste. Marie had felt slighted, Quebecers, already defensive about what they perceived to be the highhandedness of English-speaking Canada, were outraged. Tensions heightened when two French Canadian players--Martin Lapointe of the Red Wings and Gino Odjick of the Canucks--disclosed that as junior players Lindros had called them "frogs," the derisive slang for the French.
Although team members and local columnists never directly attacked Lindros, not wanting to alienate the player they still hoped might lead them to glory, they lambasted the family, particularly Bonnie. "They ripped my mom," says a still-bitter Lindros. "They ripped my mom."
A column in the Ottawa Citizen reflected how deeply "L'Affaire Lindros" affected the French Candian psyche. "If Canada flies apart in the next few years part of the reason will be a 6-4 inch man on skates named Eric Lindros," it said.
This time Lindros had to sit out a year before he could force a trade. Marcel Aubut, owner of the Nordiques, held firm, insisting a trade was out of the question. But then at the league's annual meeting, the weekend before the draft, Aubut took advantage of the trading frenzy that often envelops the proceedings, turning the Radisson Hotel in Montreal into a kind of bedroom farce with rival general managers of NHL clubs sneaking down the hallways trying to outdo each other's outlandish bids for Lindros. Late on the night of June 19, Aubut traded the rights to Lindros to the Flyers. Aubut got so carried away he also traded Lindros to the New York Rangers a couple hours later, requiring an arbitrator to unravel the mess.
IF THERE IS ANYTHING THAT MAY DERAIL Lindros, according to hockey people, it's the extreme involvement of his parents in his career, which, if possible, is increasing. Days after Lindros signed the contract with the Flyers, the family fired Curran as Eric's agent, announcing that Carl would be quitting his job as an accountant to represent his son full-time. Team officials suggest he shares the job with his wife.
A striking couple of former athletes--she is a high school basketball and track star, and stands 5 foot 11 while he is 6 foot 5--Bonnie and Carl are like other parents who have invested enormous energy on a child with a rare gift. But the Lindroses' distrust of the motives and competence of outsiders appears to be rabid.
This is particularly true of Bonnie Lindros. Ever since that fabled night more than 10 years ago when, after watching her 9-year-old son dominate a junior tournament, Bonnie was so struck by the realization of his potential that she sat up in bed shaking, she has seen nothing but predators and assassins lurking in the shadows. Gary Miles, who covers the team for the Philadelphia Inquirer, says the first time he talked to Bonnie Lindros she introduced herself by saying: "I know you're jealous of me because I know more about hockey than you'll ever know. Every time I talk to male reporters they look between their legs after they're finished."
A call from Bonnie Lindros, with her lilting voice and flair for the conversational riff, is a memorable combination of suspicion and smug whimsy. It's like being interviewed by Dana Carvey's "Church Lady." One minute she's cattily cracking about the weight, hair style and voice of the complainant in the Ontario beer-spraying case, the next reminding me that the conversation is being taped.
For the Lindroses, the war is never over. One battle replaces another--the OHL, the NHL, Rick Curran. The day a Canadian judge dismissed Lindros' assault charge, his lawyer announced that the family is considering a civil suit against the officers for unnecessarily handcuffing him for the ride to police headquarters.
And although the outcomes have often been desirable--Lindros never would have gotten anywhere near the money he's making now had he gone blithely to Quebec when the Nordiques drafted him--the constant skirmishing has taken a toll. "I don't think you can think of it in terms of winning and losing," says Lindros of the last four years, "because with every win, there's a loss."
When Lindros, at 17, returned for a game in Sault Ste. Marie after forcing the trade to Oshawa, the fans threw pacifiers on the ice and held up signs about his mother. After the game he signed an autograph for a 9-year-old boy, who thanked him by spitting on him. When Lindros made his first trip to Quebec last year, pacifiers again rained down on the ice, this time joined by diapers and bottles and batteries and bullets. Security guards made no attempt to force fans to put down even the most foul Bonnie signs, and when the fans directed an obscene chant toward Lindros, the house organist provided accompaniment.
Although the Flyers lost the game, 6-3, Lindros proved that he could not be intimidated, scoring two goals, having a third waved off by the officials and seeing a fourth ping off the post of the cage.
But maybe all that booing is getting to him. We are told in "Fire on Ice" that Lindros is a bully with a sensitive side. In times of great stress, the same guy who will rearrange your face without remorse has been known to suffer spontaneous nose bleeds, and on the night of the NHL draft, was so overwrought that he laid his head on his brother's lap during a cab ride and cried all the way back to the hotel. And there is a deepening gloom about him that would otherwise seem inappropriate for a 20-year-old making millions doing the only thing he has ever wanted to do.
Carl Lindros acknowledges that his son is not completely over hearing half of Canada tell him his mom wears army boots. "There's some healing that's left to be done," he says. Surrounded by microphones after a game, Lindros answers questions out of the corner of his mouth in a bone-weary whisper, his lips barely moving. On the rare occasions that he attempts a smile, it's tight and pained.
After a game in Montreal in November Lindros changed quickly and met his brother, sister and parents for a brief family reunion in a tunnel just off the ice. The Flyers had just scored a dramatic overtime victory against one of the best teams in hockey, but Lindros, who felt that he had a bad game, slumped against a wall in his jacket and tie and rain coat, hands in his pockets, eyes downcast, as his family strained to cheer him up. Over the next several months Lindros' mood worsened. In our last interview, a morose Lindros asks: "What were you doing when you were 19? So you weren't working? And you had a roommate? And you were basically with people your own age?"
Whatever he thinks in private, he still has to live a public life. Add up the hype, the price and the bad will, and it's hardly an exaggeration to say that if Lindros doesn't become one of the best players who ever laced up skates, he'll be labeled a bust. "There's a lot of people who don't want him to succeed," says Clarke, the former Flyer executive, "but it doesn't matter. He's going to succeed anyway."
And Bonnie Lindros agrees. Right now, she says, it's just a matter of people finding out what her son is really like. Once that happens, she says, "he'll skate into their hearts."