Let the record show that the NHL's next great star, Eric Lindros, entered the league through a freight elevator. Lindros had been called to testify before arbitrator Larry Bertuzzi, a Toronto lawyer who was conducting a hearing in Montreal's Radisson Hotel to determine which of two trades involving Lindros would stand. Would it be the one made on June 20, at 10:30 a.m., that sent Lindros from the Quebec Nordiques—for whom he had steadfastly refused to sign—to the Philadelphia Flyers, or the one made an hour and 20 minutes later that sent Lindros from Quebec to the New York Rangers?
A group of reporters was waiting inside the hotel. So Lindros and his father, Carl, were ushered in a back door, up the freight elevator, through the kitchen and into a conference room for their audience with Bertuzzi. Four hours later they departed by the same humble route. The 6'5", 230-pound Lindros, at 19 years old the brightest prospect to enter the league since Mario Lemieux in 1984, was being trundled around the hotel like a hamper of towels. Welcome to the big time, kid. It doesn't get any better than this.
Yes, even by the dismal standards of the NHL, this was a tawdry show. Bertuzzi, as you surely have heard by now, ruled on June 30 in favor of Philadelphia. Bertuzzi decreed that a deal is a deal, even if it was sealed by a thumbs-up and not in writing. In effect Bertuzzi said that the Flyers' thumbs-up came before that of the Rangers. As a result, the Nordiques received five players from Philadelphia: combative goalie Ron Hextall; centers Mike Ricci and Peter Forsberg, who were the Flyers' first-round draft picks in 1990 and '91, respectively; and defensemen Steve Duchesne and Kerry Huffman. Quebec also got Philadelphia's first-round pick in 1993, plus future considerations—most likely another No. 1 pick. Oh, yes, and $15 million in cash.
In return, Broad Street got a bully with enormous talent: Lindros is the type of player around whom Stanley Cup teams are erected.
Lindros got out of Quebec's clutches and also stood to get a multimillion-dollar, multiyear contract. The details of the pact had not been hammered out as of Monday, but the Flyers could lock Lindros up for as many as five years.
Lindros's parents, Carl and Bonnie, got peace of mind after a difficult year in which they were criticized throughout Canada for thumbing their noses at the Nordiques, the NHL draft and Canada's don't-rock-the-boat mentality.
New York got the shaft.
This tale begins with the 1991 draft, in which the Nordiques, by virtue of having the league's worst record, got the first selection and chose Lindros. The pick was a no-brainer; as a junior player Lindros had been considered the heir to Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky, Guy Lafleur and Bobby Orr. In the past 23 seasons those four players have put their names on 13 Stanley Cups. As we said, a no-brainer.
The problem was, Lindros did not want to play in Quebec. The negatives were the province of Quebec's oppressive tax structure, its separatist leanings and Quebec City's small market. Lindros also seemed put off by the Nordiques' ownership. "I just don't sense any of that...burning desire to win in the Nordiques' organization," Lindros wrote in a new edition of Fire on Ice, published last year, the most, um, premature sports autobiography since Nails by Lenny Dykstra. "I think there was a strategy to make it look like it was the people of Quebec I was rejecting, when in fact it was the Nordiques' management."
Not to contradict a legend in the making, but if Quebec has as little desire to win as Lindros suggests, why did it offer him a 10-year, $50 million deal, which he rejected? No, the Nordiques want to win as much as the next team. They just didn't want to win in 1990-91, when they dressed 54 different players and made a couple of highly dubious deals in order to secure a spot in the cellar of the Adams Division. The Pittsburgh Penguins were accused of doing the same thing the year that Lemieux was entering the draft. If the NHL were to adopt a lottery draft system similar to the NBA's, the unseemly practice of teams trying to lose and then being rewarded for it would come to an end. But if the NHL were to adopt a lottery system, it would be a sign that there is intelligent life in the league offices. To date, there have been no detectable traces of that.