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Lindros joins Rangers nine years after first trade

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Posted: Saturday August 25, 2001 12:00 AM
  Eric Lindros Eric Lindros seems to be happy in his new home with the Rangers. AP

NEW YORK (AP) -- Neil Smith had a sleepless night in Montreal on the eve of the 1992 NHL Draft.

The New York general manager knew he was hours away from delivering a major player to Rangers fans, who desperately craved a championship after 52 years without one.

Wayne Gretzky was with the Los Angeles Kings, Mario Lemieux was a Pittsburgh Penguin, and Eric Lindros -- The Next One -- was about to join the New York Rangers.

"There's 99, there's 66 and 88," Smith said, referring to three of the most famous NHL jersey numbers. "That's a level of absolute, above a franchise player."

But Smith's plans were derailed, and Lindros didn't pull on a Rangers jersey until nine years later, when someone else got to announce the news.

Glen Sather, Smith's successor, got the 28-year-old center on Monday in a trade with the Philadelphia Flyers, the team that swiped Lindros in 1992 but eventually couldn't wait to get rid of him.

Lindros, who scored 290 goals with 369 assists on the Flyers, hasn't played in the NHL since the 2000 playoffs, because of concussions, restricted free agency, and a bitter relationship with Flyers management.

When Smith completed his deal with the old Quebec Nordiques, Lindros was 19 and had just spent a year out of the NHL. He refused to sign with the Nordiques, the club that drafted him No. 1 the year before.

The Rangers were willing to send a big package of players, including goalie John Vanbiesbrouck and top prospect Alexei Kovalev, and a boatload of money to the cash-strapped Nordiques, who would move to Colorado three years later and win two Stanley Cups with the players they got from the Flyers.

"We were trying to obtain a player who in anybody's book was going to be the most dominant player of the next decade," Smith said.

Little did Smith know, Quebec had also agreed to deal Lindros to the Flyers on the same day.

"It was a pretty bizarre time because of the way the Nordiques were staging the auction," Smith said.

An arbitrator decided 10 days after that crazy morning at the Montreal Forum that Philadelphia made its trade first.

Lindros joined the playoff-starved Flyers and played eight seasons, many injury-filled. He won an NHL MVP award in 1995, took the Flyers to the Stanley Cup finals two years later and wore out his welcome before he was able to deliver a championship.

"You have to give him credit for being a huge part of that Flyers turnaround," Smith said.

Six concussions and disagreements with Lindros' father/agent, Carl, led to the feud with Philadelphia general manager Bob Clarke and the six-time All-Star's departure to New York.

A much-different scenario from when the Rangers nearly became his first NHL team.

"It wasn't up to me in '92," Lindros said. "Geez, it was so long ago ... maybe it's the concussions kicking in."

Sather, who failed to land any prized free agents this summer or acquire NHL scoring champion Jaromir Jagr, sent three young players and a draft pick to Philadelphia for Lindros.

Now he is a question mark as big as his 6-foot-4, 236-pound frame.

Sather resisted trading away the future for Jagr -- a surer thing -- but decided to give up a good chunk of it for the fragile Lindros, who is so associated with the hated Flyers.

"I understand that people are skeptical because of the concussion history, but we're just going to have to win them over," Lindros said.

"I know when I'm healthy I can play this game, and I think I will be healthy."

Smith, who built a championship team in New York but lost his job six years later during the third of what is now four straight non-playoff seasons, knows the allure of Lindros.

"He has the skill and adeptness of a guy who's 5-8," said Smith, a part-time NHL analyst for ESPN last season. "He's a power forward who can lead the league in scoring. There wouldn't be a general manager who wouldn't be salivating to get this guy."

Sather couldn't pass up that chance to get Lindros.

New York sent 20-year-old Pavel Brendl, the No. 4 pick in the 1999 draft, to Philadelphia along with 24-year-old forward Jan Hlavac and 25-year-old defenseman Kim Johnsson.

"I can't remember a deal in this league where you get a player like this by not giving up something," Sather said. "I think it's the right thing for us at this time."

In the years between Smith and Sather's pursuits, Lindros scored 17 goals and 34 points in 34 games against the Rangers. He also scored his only playoff hat trick against them in the 1997 Eastern Conference finals, New York's last playoff series.

"We've got a world-class player that just dropped into our laps," goalie Mike Richter said. "Those players don't come around very often."

Now Lindros has four years, in which he can earn about $38 million, to show New York he is worth having after all this time.

"Bright days are ahead," he said before his first Manhattan dinner with some new Rangers teammates. "We're going to get things organized."

And Sather knows what will happen if they don't.

"If it doesn't work out," he said, "you guys can cut me up again."


 
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Flyers finally officially trade Lindros to Rangers
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