AFTER RON HEXTALL spoke at center ice the other night, Flyers announcer Jim Jackson commented that he had heard very few speeches so well done, so heartfelt, so real. He was right, of course, and it recalled another famous heartfelt speech from another hockey player this city once embraced, and vice versa.

Eric Lindros was awarded the Hart Trophy as the NHL's Most Valuable Player in 1995. That season, his third in the National Hockey League, he put up 70 points in 46 games of a lockout-shortened season, and had 15 points during a playoff run that ended in the Eastern Conference finals, the Flyers' first trip to the postseason after a 5-year absence. We were enthralled, not embittered, by him then, especially after Big E welled up while receiving the award.

"I'd just like to say, thank you for the chance, Philadelphia,'' he said, emotion bubbling into his voice. "Who supported us when we weren't so good. We're getting better and we're going to do it.''

On Canadian television earlier this season, this question was posed to a three-man panel that included Bob
Clarke: Should Eric Lindros be in the Hockey Hall of Fame someday?

"I believe he should be in,'' Clarke said, breaking a tie between Mike Milbury (against) and hockey writer Bob McKenzie (for). "I watched him for 7 or 8 years. This was the first big, powerful, dominant forward with skill - not Gretzky or Lemieux, but very close. He won MVP, he won All-Star, he went to the Stanley Cup finals. If you eliminate the crap that circled him, he's easily a Hall of Fame hockey player.''

Clarke did not respond to an interview request made through Flyers publicist Zack Hill. But if Lindros achieved all that in a Flyers uniform, and Clarke deemed him a Hockey Hall of Famer, doesn't that make him a Flyer Hall of Famer too, like Hextall?

Through his publicist, Ike Richman,

Flyers chairman Ed Snider sent this response to a request to be interviewed for this column: "He just retired and we'll deal with it when his generation comes around for consideration.''

You can say no because of the way it ended, sitting out a year and forcing a trade to the Rangers after his very public spats with Clarke and the Flyers' medical people. But don't ignore how that ending began. Whether you think Craig Ramsay was correct to insert him into Games 6 and 7 of the 2000 Eastern Conference finals, Lindros worked his tail off to force that decision. The concussions, the knee injuries he played through (and overcame) and that Hart Trophy speech, all seem to dispute the notion that he was heartless or selfish.

Lindros played 73 games the year after he won the Hart, scored 47 goals and amassed 115 points. Only 23 at the time, it was the apex of a career already strewn with an enormous amount of controversy. Prodded and arguably dominated by well-meaning parents, Lindros already had forced the junior team that drafted him to trade him, then forced the NHL team that drafted him to trade him as well.

The Flyers were the lucky benefactors of the latter. Few in the organization had a problem with his parents' machinations back then. That changed, of course, as Lindros was interminably trapped between his parents' counsel and the self-sacrifice needed to win a Stanley Cup.

It's the closest explanation I have to why some nights he looked like "The Next'' and others he looked like "The Bust.'' It's the closest explanation of how he could seem so disengaged one moment, then put his body in all kinds of perilous positions the next.

His play on the ice was mimicked by his personality off it. To watch Lindros at one of the children's charities he embraced was to see the man at his best. Name another athlete who donated $5 million to a hospital upon retirement.

But there was that other guy, though, the one who slinked through a back exit of the locker room as his team was being swept by Detroit in his only Stanley Cup final; the guy who, together with general manager Bob Clarke, turned this team into a running debate between its past and present. A superstar who seemed envious of the ham-and-eggers' lower profile, Lindros often wistfully admired how freely Brett, his younger - and less touted - brother lived his life.

But this should not be overlooked. He scored 290 of his 372 goals in a Flyers uniform. He amassed 659 points of his 865 points as a Flyer. Lindros' arrival signaled a Flyers revival. It facilitated Snider's effort to privately finance the building of the Wachovia Center.

In short, he made the Flyers a brand name again - an attraction, an event to be seen and spoken of. Despite how it ended, they are part of each other's history. And, they are part of each other's fame. *

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