Does Eric Lindros belong in the Hockey Hall of Fame?
Controversy of one sort or another enveloped much of Eric Lindros' playing career. So no one should be terribly surprised that the same is true for his path to the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Lindros was one of a large group of very-good-to-excellent players whose names were likely discussed by the Hall's selection committee when it met ahead of Tuesday's announcement of the 2013 class of inductees: Chris Chelios, Scott Niedermayer and Brendan Shanahan. Canadian defender Geraldine Heaney, who won seven world championships and an Olympic gold medal, was the third female player inducted, and former Flyers and Rangers coach Fred Shero was admitted as a builder.
Besides the inductees and Lindros, that list included Dave Andreychuk, Rob Blake, Rod Brind'Amour, Guy Carbonneau, Theo Fleury, Bill Guerin, Phil Housley, Curtis Joseph, Paul Kariya, John LeClair, Kevin Lowe, Sergei Makarov, Markus Naslund, Gary Roberts, Jeremy Roenick, and Keith Tkachuk. (Pat Burns was the other candidate in the Builders category.)
It's an impressive list of former NHL All-Stars and -- especially in the case of Makarov -- top international performers. Keep in mind, it's not the NHL Hall of Fame, but the Hockey Hall of Fame, so Makarov, who came to the NHL late in his career, will get serious discussion. Only four players can be selected in any one year and with a group this large, there were surely going to be some disappointments and worthy candidates bumped to next year. For Lindros, this was the fourth time that he was passed over.
Lots of people considered Chelios, who played defense at a high level for so long (he retired at age 48), and Niedermayer, an elite defenseman both in the NHL and internationally, to be pretty sure things. Some of the others -- Shanahan, Brind'Amour and Roenick, for example -- had longer, more productive careers than Lindros. And Guy Carbonneau, one of the top defensive forwards of all time, certainly deserves recognition.
At his best, however, Lindros was perhaps better than them all -- at 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds, a big, imposing, dominant player, a condominium on skates. In his early seasons with the Flyers, he was arguably the most feared player in the league, combining his considerable size with outstanding skill, the complete package. Skating first with the Crazy Eights line (named for the 8's in their sweater numbers) with Mark Recchi (8) and Brent Fedyk (18), then more famously as the Legion of Doom trio with John LeClair and Mikael Renberg, Lindros (88) put up impressive numbers, averaging about a point-and-a-half per game for four consecutive seasons between 1993-94 and 1996-96. That was no small feat during the early years of the Dead Puck Era. Lindros was the Hart Trophy winner in the lockout shortened 48-game schedule of 1995 and he was so commanding that when he was only 25, in 1998, The Hockey News ranked him 54th in its top 100 greatest players of all time.
But one major question the committee may have about Lindros was how long did he actually dominate before injuries -- especially concussions -- began to diminish his talents? Consistency, longevity and durability in this rugged game count for much and that's one area where Lindros falls short. The headshots that rocked him, most notably the one doled out by the Devils' Scott Stevens, would be illegal today, but they were considered part of the game back then and Lindros' unfortunate habit of cruising into the offensive zone with his head down (believed to be a product of his minor and junior hockey years when he was so big compared to the opposition that he didn't have to worry about getting hit; he allegedly never learned to regularly skate with his head up when he began to play against men) made him a target for the game's most fierce bodycheckers.
So his production began to tail off and he missed large chunks of seasons. And he didn't suffer in silence, accusing the Flyers' training and medical staff more than once of failing to properly diagnose his concussions and, at one point, a collapsed lung. By then, of course, his reputation as a player who didn't always follow hockey protocol was well established.
As the most talked about young player in Canada, he refused to sign with the OHL's Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, who had drafted him into junior hockey. His parents, Bonnie and Carl (who often intervened on his behalf, much to the chagrin of the hockey world), publicly warned the Greyhounds that Eric wouldn't play for a team that far away from his Toronto home. So he began the 1989-90 season in the U.S. junior North American Hockey League instead, skating for the prestigious Compuware Ambassadors. He forced Soo to trade his rights later that season to the Oshawa Generals, where he became the OHL's best player and a Memorial Cup champion.
When his NHL draft year arrived in 1991, the Lindros clan made it clear that he wouldn't sign with the Quebec Nordiques, who had the first pick. The wild scene at Buffalo's Memorial Auditorium -- especially among the photographers and TV cameramen who clamored for the images of the moment he was picked -- symbolized how unusual Eric had become, a prodigy who played by his own rules, charted his own course, and would defy convention to do so. Those types rarely flourish in hockey, but his talent could not be ignored, particularly by the Nordiques' managing partner, Marcel Aubut, who never saw a mountain he didn't think he could climb. So the Nordiques drafted Lindros anyway and the camera guys literally fell over each other getting shots of him accepting -- but not pulling on -- the team's sweater.
Ultimately, Aubut couldn't scale Mount Lindros. Eric sat out the entire 1991-92 NHL season, playing for Oshawa and various Team Canada squads (including the Canada Cup team, with whom he acquitted himself well) until Aubut finally relented a year later and, prior to the 1992 draft, traded Lindros's rights to both the Flyers and Rangers in one of NHL history's most colossal screw-ups. It was only untangled when NHL interim president Gil Stein appointed an arbitrator, Toronto lawyer Larry Bertuzzi, who ruled that Philadelphia's deal took precedence over the Rangers', and Lindros finally pulled on an NHL jersey, the Flyers' orange.
That seemed, fair or not, to set the tone for Eric Lindros' playing career. He was celebrated for his on-ice achievements, but things didn't always seem right. He was roundly booed on the road, of course -- and nowhere more so than in Quebec. But he was also rumored to be less than popular with teammates and linked in the Philly media to mob figures. He had an auto mishap or two, and incurred the wrath of the Flyers' management, eventually to the point that GM Bobby Clarke stripped Lindros of the captaincy.
Relations with the Flyers grew so bad that when Lindros became a restricted free agent in 2000, he sat out yet another full season. In part, he was recovering from a concussion caused by that infamous hit by Stevens, but he also became embroiled in a contract dispute with the Flyers, refusing to sign Clarke's rather insulting offer of a two-way deal that included lesser pay if he was demoted to the AHL. Lindros demanded a trade to his hometown Maple Leafs, but Clarke wouldn't accommodate him, moving him instead in 2001 to the other team that tried to acquire him at the outset, the Rangers.
Lindros had one good season on Broadway, the last in which he averaged at least a point per game -- he did so for his first nine NHL seasons -- and he was less effective the following year (strangely, the first in which he was injury free). He missed a big part of 2003-04, first with a shoulder injury and later with another concussion, his eighth.
After the lockout lost season of 2004-05, Lindros signed with the Leafs as a free agent, but proved injury prone, playing in only 33 games. He ended up with Dallas the next season, and was often injured again. That was it.
The selection process to be an honored member of the Hockey Hall of Fame is somewhat shrouded in secrecy, but the criteria used by the committee includes "Playing ability, sportsmanship, character and their contribution to the team or teams and to the game of hockey in general." There are well more than enough sketchy episodes in Lindros' past that he may fail to get enough support from the committee just based on its view of the way he conducted himself apart from what happened on the ice, whistle to whistle.
If it were up to me -- and it's not -- I'd have problems of another sort selecting him.
Lindros had a great run, but for too short a time. He was supposed to be the game's next generational star, even given the nickname "The Next One," an allusion to Wayne Gretzky's "The Great One." But despite some truly impressive seasons -- a compelling argument can be made that he had a career comparable to Cam Neely's, and Neely is a Hall of Famer -- Lindros never fulfilled his potential. He didn't become as great as he could have been, didn't enjoy a lengthy career filled with glory and honors and Stanley Cups. During Lindros's lone appearance in a Cup final, against the Red Wings in 1997, Detroit coach Scotty Bowman used the savvy defense duo of Nick Lidstrom and Larry Murphy against the Legion of Doom instead of sending out -- as everyone including the Flyers expected -- the crushing Vladimir Konstantinov to engage in a physical confrontation. Lidstrom and Murphy played keep-away and for Lindros, the four game sweep was just a blur, over before he ever got started.
In many ways, so was his career.