Eric Lindros stood on the sidewalk in front of a popular Philadelphia restaurant earlier this month, woolen cap pulled tightly over his head, a Canadian winter coat, collar pulled up, covering his massive shoulders. On the street, people walked past without giving a second glance. He was just another guy.
It had been 10 years since Lindros was last in Philly, 10 long years of persona non grata for a man who had been one of the most dynamic athletes in city history. The Flyers had expunged him like the Soviet Union did Stalin, eliminating his photos and video highlights and records as if he were an NCAA violator.
The Lindros saga is a sad chapter in Flyers history. And whether there's a happy ending remains to be seen.
Lindros was back in town for three days as a kick-start to an invitation from Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren to compete with the Flyers alumni team in the NHL Winter Classic on Jan. 2. It was a classy move by Holmgren that may or may not have been over the objections of team chairman Ed Snider and team adviser Bob Clarke.
After the Lindros thing went bad, the chairman regarded the player and his family as no more worthy than chunks of gum under his polished Allen Edmonds shoes. And Clarke? Hoo boy. At the end, Clarke became as sneeringly averse to Lindros as he was to acquiring a topflight goalie who could have helped those Lindros teams win a few Stanley Cups.
Lindros has wrapped his Philadelphia return around a charitable endeavor. He and teammate John LeClair, two thirds of the vaunted Legion of Doom line, have paired up with radio station 97.5-FM The Fanatic to raise money for the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Lindros and LeClair donated a bushel full of their old jerseys and equipment for auction, took part in a sold-out luncheon at Morton's on Thursday, and had an autograph-signing session Friday night at the Granite Run Mall, with all proceeds going to Children's.
Upon word's getting out that Lindros would be sitting for two hours doing a radio show, the station was besieged by requests from local television stations to bring in cameras for interviews. Lindros turned them down, saying he didn't want to take away any attention from the real cause for his visit. He is like a ghost of Philadelphia's sporting past, not really sure if he is welcome to become visible again.
In Philadelphia, there are more layers to the Eric Lindros era than church-fair sand art. He came to town as the ultimate prima donna, a man who, with his parents, orchestrated his own professional existence, playing for the team he wanted to play for and not the one that had the rights to draft him.
Of course, Philly fans didn't care much about that, since they were the ones getting a player who had been one of the most precocious athletes in sports history. With Wayne Gretzky already dominating the NHL as "The Great One," Eric Lindros was tabbed "The Next One."
Lindros was the perfect combination of size (6-foot-4, 240 pounds), speed, and hands, a Robo-player if there ever was one. Watching Lindros skate a puck from end to end, charging like a locomotive, was a breathtaking experience. He was the home-run hitter whose at-bat you never wanted to miss. And with LeClair as his left wing, the two players formed one of the most dynamic duos in Philadelphia sports history. Go ahead, you rank them. There's Jaworski and Carmichael, McNabb and T.O., Doc and Moses, Lenny and Dutch, Rollins and Utley, Clarke and Barber, and certainly Lindros and LeClair.
And if Yankee Stadium was the House that Ruth Built, then certainly, the CoreStates/First Union/Wachovia/Wells Fargo Center was the one built by Eric Lindros. Fans stood huddled around their radios, as if it were an FDR fireside chat, for the live broadcast of arbitrator Larry Bertuzzi's decision to award Lindros to either the Flyers or Rangers after the eccentric owner of the Quebec Nordiques, Marcel Aubut, traded Lindros to both teams. And when Bertuzzi announced that Lindros was going to the Flyers, the city took to the streets as if it was V-J Day.
And then it all went bad.
Expectations of being the 19-year-old franchise player who would rewrite the record books, of being the player who cost the Flyers six frontline players - including future star Peter Forsberg - and two first-round draft picks, swallowed Lindros whole. The concussions started coming (Lindros suffered four as a Flyer and, by today's standards, probably would never have been allowed to come back to the battlefield so soon). And so did the interference from his meddling parents, Carl and Bonnie Lindros, who served as his agents. Clarke, an old-school hockey guy, perceived parental involvement as a sickening lack of machismo on the player's part.
Lindros also ran hard at night - he was a good-looking, single guy who owned the city; he was Derek Jeter before there was Derek Jeter. Clarke's idea of a true hockey man was one who drank with his teammates, not with the undesirables who wanted to befriend Lindros, and certainly not with the Miss Thing of the week.
Snider was not getting the ultimate value on his asset - the Stanley Cups were supposed to come in waves and they didn't, and Snider wasn't happy about it. The rest of the story is a grim tale. There was the rib injury in Nashville in April 1999, when teammate Keith Jones saved Lindros, pale and passed out in the bathtub, from possible death by insisting that the Flyers medical staff rush him to the hospital instead of having him get back on the airplane home.
The following year, Carl and Bonnie, and Eric himself, further freaked on the team's training and medical staff, saying it misdiagnosed another concussion. In retribution, Clarke stripped Lindros of his captaincy. The Eric Lindros era would end with a crushing blow from the Devils' Scott Stevens in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. By then, Lindros' rep was so polluted and the organ-I-zation so revered, fans called Lindros selfish for even wanting to come back and play.
In Philadelphia, organizations seem to be oblivious to the maintenance sports divas require. When the Eagles acquired Terrell Owens and drafted DeSean Jackson, were they not aware of the ramifications when things would go sour? When the Flyers gave up the store for Lindros, did they not know that the parent package came with him? They might not have liked Carl and Bonnie's daily nitpicking, it may have been against all of hockey's macho codes. But find a way to deal with it. All the Flyers' purge of Eric Lindros did was force fans to squelch enjoyment of the man's greatness.
I asked Lindros the other day about his feelings for the organization, and he told me that he really didn't want to rehash the past and that he was interested only in moving forward. He appreciates Holmgren's reaching out. Clarke is also playing in the alumni game. Wouldn't it be a hoot if whoever is coaching puts them on the same line? Asked how he will respond when he sees Clarke for the first time in 10 years, Lindros said: "I'll put out my arm and shake his hand."
As for Holmgren, he told me his motivation for bringing Lindros back was for the good of hockey and out of respect for the Winter Classic.
"This is a big event, and Eric Lindros is a prominent alumnus of the Philadelphia Flyers," Holmgren said.
For the record, Holmgren and Comcast-Spectacor CEO Peter Luukko attended Thursday's luncheon, but Clarke and Snider did not.
I asked Holmgren about Clarke and Snider, specifically about whether things have been smoothed over.
Holmgren paused for about five seconds.
"We'll see," he said sheepishly.