Bowen: Flyers' Lindros fell short because of concussions, circumstances
THE FLYERS' Eric Lindros era ended not just badly, but badly twice, over a 15-month period. Radioactive fallout would cast a sickly afterglow for more than a decade.
THE FLYERS' Eric Lindros era ended not just badly, but badly twice, over a 15-month period. Radioactive fallout would cast a sickly afterglow for more than a decade.
Age and the sepia-toned filters of time have finally softened the disappointment for many of the era's protagonists, allowing them to celebrate a run that created some of the most amazing moments and memories in the franchise's 50-year history. When a number of them gather for Saturday's alumni matchup against the Pittsburgh Penguins, they'll talk about great goals and great victories, not concussions or coach firings or discord.
"The teams we had, we should have won a Cup or two. It's disappointing," John LeClair, a Flyers 50-goal scorer three years in a row, from 1996-98, said recently. But LeClair also said: "I look back at some of my teammates, the group we had . . . It was always enjoyable going to the rink. I just loved being at the rink with those guys . . . We were in the playoffs and we were a Stanley Cup contender every year."
"We had some really good teams. I look back to some exciting times, when the team was really rolling," Lindros said this week. "We had depth. We had some character guys. And some characters."
The first ending of the era is the one no one can forget, Lindros swooping down on a loose puck at center ice and wheeling, faster than a 6-4, 240-pound man had any business being able to wheel, toward the New Jersey Devils' end, swerving around Scott Niedermayer, stretching forward to maintain control of the puck, his head down, until it collided with the tucked upper arm of Scott Stevens, 7 minutes and 50 seconds into the seventh game of the 2000 Eastern Conference Final series. It was only the second game of the Flyers' playoff run Lindros had attempted to play, after suffering three previous concussions that season.
The first person to get to Lindros that day was Flyers athletic trainer John Worley, a man blamed by the Lindros family for allowing Eric to play four games with a concussion earlier in the year, and for not being able to discern a collapsed lung out of bruised ribs in April 1999. Worley knelt and held a towel to Lindros' bleeding nose, and eventually No. 88 wobbled off the ice for the final time in a Flyers uniform, defenseman Adam Burt steadying him on one side, LeClair on the other.
"It was an ugly scene," LeClair recalled.
The hit was not a penalty in 2000 - much was made in the media of how Stevens didn't hit Lindros with his elbow, as if the part of Stevens' arm doing the concussing somehow mattered to Lindros' brain. It would be a penalty today.
Lindros said this week he is proud of the steps hockey has taken. His major disappointment there is that medicine hasn't developed something "where you can take this (after being concussed), this will help and you'll be back and fine. There just hasn't been any breakthrough in that regard. We're still so far behind."
Brian Boucher, the rookie that 2000 season who'd given the Flyers their best playoff goaltending since the Vezina Trophy-winning rookie year of Ron Hextall in 1987, felt the atmosphere in the home arena shift.
"I remember that place was so electric. I had goosebumps going down my spine (when Lauren Hart sang) 'God Bless America.' It was 1-0 (Devils), and then Eric got hit and that place, you could hear a pin drop. Honest to God, I felt he was in real deep trouble, when I saw him sitting there, lifeless on the ice. I felt horrible," Boucher said last week.
The Flyers would rally to tie on a Rick Tocchet goal but would lose the game and the series when a puck caromed from the far point through the slot, past a tangle of players, to New Jersey's Patrik Elias, waiting at the left post. Elias stuffed it in with two minutes, 32 seconds remaining, and the 2-1 victory completed the Devils' comeback from a 3-1 series deficit.
There would be no parades, no blurry video to reminisce over of Lindros, LeClair and Eric Desjardins hoisting the Stanley Cup, that spring or ever.
In 1992, the Flyers pinned their hopes for a new arena and the revitalization of their franchise on Lindros, but by May 2000 he and management seemed headed for an ugly divorce, even before Stevens put into question whether Lindros should continue his career. Lindros would spend the next season in limbo, regaining his health, as he and the organization sniped back and forth, before then-general manager Bob Clarke traded him to the New York Rangers in August 2001 for forwards Pavel Brendl and Jan Hlavac, defenseman Kim Johnsson and a 2003 third-round draft pick.
Lindros suffered a seventh career concussion in December 2001 and abandoned the physical style that had made him a generational player. He later played for Toronto and Dallas. The end of his career, in 2007, carried none of the fanfare that attended its beginning.
The trade to the Rangers was the second ending to the Flyers' Lindros Era, the final, official ending. Clarke, who had waged open war with Eric and his parents, Carl and Bonnie, said then that gaining closure was "no satisfaction."
Asked what he wished for Lindros, the player once designated to replace Clarke as the captain who would lead the organization to parades down Broad Street, Clarke said: "I don't care. I really don't. He hurt this organization. I could care less about him."
Ed Snider, the late Flyers chairman, was asked by the Daily News during the final days before he traded away Lindros what he made of the era, in which Lindros totaled 290 goals and 369 assists for 659 points in 486 games. "I wish it never happened," he said. Snider likened the trade to a divorce, an "acrimonious split."
Eventually, Clarke would campaign for Lindros to make the Hockey Hall of Fame, a quest that succeeded in 2016. Clarke's views today are not 180 degrees different from the ones he held in 2001, but they have changed.
"It was hard for me, with my background, understanding that Lindros's mom and dad were a major part of every decision that was going on in his life," Clarke said last week. Clarke's father was a drilling inspector in the Flin Flon, Manitoba, mines, not a glossy partner in a huge Toronto accounting firm, like Carl Lindros.
"I'm not saying that was wrong, although at the time, I felt it was wrong," Clarke said, after a day on the golf course in Sarasota, Fla. "Because most kids are raised, when they're adults and they're working, they're on their own. But the Lindros family was different. Maybe if I'd accepted it better, it would have been different."
In the early '90s, Eric Lindros was the most controversial person in Canada. When he was drafted first overall by the Quebec Nordiques in 1991, and then refused to play in the small, French-speaking city, he became a potent symbol of a national debate over whether the province of Quebec should secede from Canada and the English-speaking, Toronto-centric world Eric embodied.
A year later, Nordiques owner Marcel Aubut famously traded Lindros twice on the same frenzied NHL draft day morning in Montreal, first to the Flyers, and then to the Rangers, when they offered what Aubut considered a better deal, while then-Flyers president Jay Snider was obtaining an assurance from Carl Lindros that the family was open to playing in Philadelphia.
That mess took 10 days of hearings and deliberation to sort out, arbitrator Larry Bertuzzi ultimately ruling that the Flyers' deal took precedence. But it didn't turn out to be the deal the Flyers thought they'd made. They'd had two first-round picks in that '92 draft, and they'd fully intended those to be the only picks going to Quebec. When the trade didn't go through before the draft, the Flyers had to make those selections - Ryan Sittler seventh overall, Jason Bowen 15th.
Quebec didn't want Sittler and Bowen, who indeed never made any sort of NHL impact, so Bertuzzi generously gave the Nordiques the Flyers' first-round picks in 1993 and '94. This would prove disastrous to the Flyers' efforts to build a contender around Lindros, along with the fact that together with $15 million, the team traded six players from its roster, at a time when the NHL was explosively expanding, from 21 teams in 1991 to 30 in 2000.
In chronicling the era, one can't escape the fact that Quebec became Colorado and won two Stanley Cups behind Peter Forsberg, the best player the Flyers traded. The Rangers kept the cache of players they'd tried to trade for Lindros and won the 1994 Cup, their first in 54 years. Only the Flyers emerged Cupless.
Clarke, the team's GM from 1984-1990, returned as GM in 1994 after stints in Minnesota and Florida. The Flyers had just completed their third season with Lindros, their fifth successive year out of the playoffs, a drought unheard of in the history of the franchise.
"(The trade that brought Lindros) depleted the organization so badly that when I came back from Florida, other than Mark Recchi and Mikael Renberg, we probably only had five or six real NHL players in the lineup," Clarke recalled. "As good a player as Lindros was - and he was good enough to keep our building full - no one player can carry a team, as we all know."
The key trade of Clarke's tenure at least made it possible for the Flyers to contend. On Feb. 9, 1995, soon after the NHL returned from a lockout to a truncated 48-game season, Clarke was able to convince the Montreal Canadiens that Recchi and a third-round draft choice were worth LeClair, Desjardins and Gilbert Dionne. LeClair, a workmanlike player for the Habs' 1993 Stanley Cup champs, became the complement Lindros needed. Desjardins became the No. 1 defenseman they sorely lacked.
Less than three weeks later, LeClair and the Flyers played the Canadiens in Montreal. The Flyers won 7-0. LeClair, playing on a line with Lindros and Renberg that center Jim Montgomery and the Daily News had christened "The Legion of Doom," recorded the second hat trick of his career, also his second since the trade. Canadiens caps cascaded down from the seats. The Montreal Gazette's famous hockey scribe, Red Fisher, wrote that as they ineffectively tried to disrupt the Legion's puck-cycling game below the circles, the Habs looked like they'd been trapped in a performance of Vienna's Lipizzaner Stallions.
"Johnny, he'll give himself up to make a play in the offensive zone," Lindros said that night. "That's the first thing he said when he came into town - 'One of the things I do well is pick. I'll take myself out of the play to pick and allow you to come out in front of the net.' . . . Then he goes right to the net (for the rebound) and the puck's generally right there for him. It's incredible how it's been going. "
It stayed incredible, through two rounds of playoffs, until a six-game elimination by the budding Devils dynasty. The defeat didn't hurt as much as it might have, with Lindros going on to win his only Hart Trophy, as NHL MVP, at age 22.
"No, we didn't," Clarke said, when asked if he'd known what the trade would produce. "The first time Lindros and LeClair got together, they were on fire. It was just a success that we didn't have a clue was going to happen.
"That was a time when you had to have as many big guys as you could get, especially on the offense, to plow through all the hooking and the holding and the interference. When we had those three guys together, they were just about impossible to stop. They were bigger than the defense they were playing against, most of the time."
Both Lindros and LeClair said recently that the cycling game evolved from hard work in practice.
"The point of the drill was to score. There really would be a lot of disappointment if we didn't score" after getting the cycle going, Lindros said. "It did carry over" into games.
Does Lindros ever wish he could have played in an era that would have let him display his skills more easily? Lindros in his prime would be much harder to stop under today's rules.
When asked, he laughed. "I don't think there's any point in looking back. It was what it was, in that time, at that point," he said. "You try to make the most of it."
In 1996, the Flyers were the Eastern Conference's top team, but they were upset in the second round of the playoffs by a Florida team on a history-making run to the Finals. In '97, they cruised past the Penguins, Sabres and Rangers, each series lasting just five games, and seemed poised to redeem all their promise in the Finals against Detroit. But the Red Wings' left wing lock shut down Lindros and swept the Flyers.
"In '97, that was a dynasty," LeClair said. "We caught the wrong team at the wrong time."
The most fateful development of the Finals for the Flyers might have come between Game 3 and Game 4 in Detroit, when third-year coach Terry Murray said his players just weren't doing the things they'd done to get there. Asked why that would be, Murray replied that it was "a choking situation."
"With hindsight, I was probably hasty" in firing Murray after the Finals, Clarke says now. "I said 'Terry, just say you made a mistake.' He said, 'Clarkie, I didn't make a mistake. I said it and I meant it.' But the players were so - I talked to the top players before I did this - they were '(bleep) him, saying that about us.' Maybe I should have let him try and recover. That's hindsight. I don't know."
Murray declined to be interviewed for this story.
At any rate, Clarke's move for a more player-friendly coach, to Wayne Cashman, was a step backward. Cashman, Clarke concedes now, was "an exceptionally good assistant coach" who was best at "working with individual players," and bizarrely, that was the role he went back to in March 1998, after 61 games, Cashman becoming an assistant to Roger Neilson, Clarke's coach when Clarke ran the Florida Panthers. The Flyers would lose in the first round of the playoffs to Buffalo, in just five games.
In '99, another first-round exit, this time in six games, to Toronto, Lindros sidelined by the collapsed lung suffered April 1 in Nashville. The organization would eventually allege that in a letter to Clarke, Carl Lindros basically accused the GM of trying to kill his son by suggesting he fly home to be examined after the injury, as his chest cavity filled with blood. Instead of sending him home, Worley took Lindros to the Nashville emergency room the morning after the game, Worley having spent the night at the hospital shepherding Recchi through a concussion.
"My biggest complaint was that his dad and mom had to - because Eric got hurt, we didn't blame Eric, but they had to blame somebody else; it was our trainers, it was our doctors," Clarke says now. "They had to find their own. We didn't treat Eric properly. It wasn't even close to being the truth."
Clarke now concedes that Carl Lindros was prescient on the subject of concussions, but says he could have made his point with less vitriol.
Clarke said he feels that was the season he made the mistake that was most to blame for the Lindros Era Flyers never sipping from that Cup - his goalie choice during 1998 free agency.
"Our problem was me. I didn't get the goalie we needed," Clarke says now. "When we signed John Vanbiesbrouck, he played really good for us, but we should have signed Curtis Joseph (who signed with the Leafs and then beat the Flyers in the postseason). It's easy to justify. Joseph wanted $7 million, Vanbiesbrouck was three. Roger loved Vanbiesbrouck, because of what he'd done for him in Florida, and in New York. It was an easy out. I made the mistake. I shoulda gone after Joseph."
In 2000, the Flyers' forward corps was deeper than it had ever been during the Lindros era - Recchi having returned the previous year from Montreal, Renberg back from Tampa Bay, where he'd been dispatched after the '97 Finals in a misguided move for Chris Gratton. Keith Primeau, a bit of a poor man's Lindros, had replaced Rod Brind'Amour, Primeau scoring to win an amazing five-overtime game in Pittsburgh as the Flyers fought back from a 2-0 deficit to win that series in six. Simon Gagne was a smooth rookie, Daymond Langkow, Tocchet and Keith Jones provided valuable grit. But Lindros was available for just 55 games, then none through the first two rounds of the playoffs, and the disputes over his health led to the stripping of his captaincy.
It was a season you could write a book about, with Neilson leaving the team in February to undergo a bone marrow transplant in an effort to fight the multiple myeloma that, along with later malignant melanoma, would claim his life in 2003. Assistant Craig Ramsay took over and was successful - so successful that Neilson, tucked away in Clarke's Florida residence, suddenly reappeared at the team practice facility one day early in the playoff run and declared he was ready to take back his job. But Clarke wasn't convinced this was best for Neilson or the Flyers, so the coach spent the playoffs in an upstairs box, dispensing advice to the assistant who had supplanted him.
When Lindros decided during the New Jersey series he was healthy and would play in Game 6, some of the Flyers who had defended management didn't want him back.
"At the time I was scratching my head as to why people wouldn't want Eric in the lineup," Boucher said. "It was just craziness. This guy's a superstar. If he can come in, that takes what, maybe Mark Greig or Peter White out of the lineup? No disrespect to those guys, I love those guys, I played with 'em on the Phantoms, but if you can have Eric Lindros in your lineup, don't you think that would be a better option?
"For whatever reason, we lost momentum when that series was at 3-1. Was it Eric coming back? I don't know, to this day I can't really pinpoint it. But we lost momentum."
When Lindros was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in November, he thanked his Legion of Doom linemates, and his family. Didn't really talk about the Flyers, though he said some nice things when he agreed to come back to be inducted into the Flyers' Hall in 2014, and he is scheduled to participate this weekend.
Clarke notes that Lindros seems "happier out of the limelight" than he ever was as the man expected to be another Gretzky or Lemieux.
Reflecting on the era now, Clarke says: "I think it was a great part of the Flyers' history. We had some great players, great teams and stuff. But I do think the controversies that surrounded Eric hurt our team. I don't think a team can go through one controversy after the next without it affecting them. It makes for such a tough job for the coaches, and just for everybody. There's always something hanging over us.
"But most of the play on the ice was pretty darned good, and we were a good team."
Lindros was asked if he thinks of how his legacy might have been different, had his Flyers won a Cup.
"I don't look at it that way," he said. "Certainly we're disappointed that we didn't accomplish it. The fan support we had was incredible. It would have been great to deliver it to them."
Does he wish there had been less controversy, less constant conflict?
"I wish I would have been healthier," he said. "If I had been healthier, it would have been simpler . . . It wasn't smooth, was it?"