A similar phenomenon began in New York a few years ago. The Rangers took on the personality of Messier, their blood-and-guts first-line center, and he carried them to their dramatic 1993-94 Stanley Cup championship. Messier may not possess the god-given skills of Gretzky or Lemieux, but he is, you could say, the original Lindros, a fearless two-way player whose talent is exceeded only by his toughness and leadership. When New York coach Colin Campbell called Lindros "a mean player" and questioned some of his stick-work after Game 1, Murray defended his player by saying, "I know one thing—Mark Messier is Eric's idol. He watched him growing up. If there's anybody to blame, just go right to Mark Messier."
While Lindros downplayed the similarity in their styles of play during the Flyers-Rangers series, he has said in the past that Messier was his hero and role model. He had Messier posters on his bedroom wall as a child and counted a Messier-autographed stick among his most prized possessions. In 1994 Lindros said of Messier, "He has everything you'd want in a player—speed, size and toughness—but more than that, he can will teams to win."
Not even Messier could will this Rangers team into the finals. New York upset the Florida Panthers and the New Jersey Devils in the first and second rounds, respectively, but the Blueshirts limped into their showdown with Philadelphia and crawled home when it was over. For the bigger, stronger, younger Flyers, the strategy was simple: Pound the Rangers like cheap veal. By Game 4, New York had five players out with injuries (plus defenseman Alexander Karpovtsev, who missed Games 3 and 4 when he flew home to Russia after his mother passed away), and a couple more who were underachieving and thought to be hurting: Forward Adam Graves had no points in the series, while Messier contributed just one goal and three assists in the five games. Messier, at 36, has now completed the final season of a contract that pays him $6 million a year, and his future in New York is uncertain.
Even if Messier leaves town, his misplay at the end of Game 3 will likely follow him. The Flyers had a 5-3 lead, and the final seconds were ticking away when Lindros and Messier raced for the puck in the Rangers' zone. Lindros gave Messier a little hook on his left side and then burst by him, beating the Rangers' captain to the puck and swatting it into the open net. It meant nothing and it meant everything: As Lindros celebrated his first career playoff hat trick, Messier leaned over at the waist, trying to catch his breath. "Ah, it was a meaningless goal," said Lindros, who refused to indulge the media in any discussion of passed torches.
Messier held back nothing in praise of his heir apparent. Lindros, he said, brings even more to the game than he does. "He's his own player and has a style that's different from anyone who's ever played the game, because of his size and speed," said Messier. "He possesses a lot more talent than I had at his age. He's a superstar of superstars."
Still, Lindros's mean streak sets him apart from other present-day stars, perhaps even from Messier. Many great players will get physical if they have to, but Lindros does it because he seems to enjoy it. In his last regular-season trip into New York, on April 7, Lindros used his stick to break Shane Churla's nose and cross-check Ulf Samuelsson in the face, causing a gash that needed 15 stitches. The league fined Lindros $2,000 and suspended him for two games, which cost him about $100,000 in salary. In Game 1 of the playoff series against the Rangers, Lindros was penalized for clipping Doug Lidster in the face with his stick, and later got away with pounding Luc Robitaille's face into the ice. Robitaille required 20 stitches, I wouldn't term myself as, brutal," Lindros said after assisting on all three goals in the Flyers' 3-1 win. "It's all part of hockey."
In an effort to slow down Lindros in Game 2, the Rangers threw together a ragtag checking line of Churla, Graves and Dallas Eakins, a defenseman turned wing. and it worked. Lindros was held scoreless, and the Rangers got a hat trick from Gretzky in a 5-1 win. It was an inspiring effort on the road for Gretzky and the Rangers, but they still dropped the next two at the Garden.
All athletes love lo win, but for some it goes beyond winning. They want to see you lose. They want to beat you and break your spirit and shut up your fans and make sure you remember how it felt the next time you face them. They want to finish you off. That was Larry Bird. That was Mark Messier. That is Michael Jordan, and Tiger Woods, and Eric Lindros.
In the waning seconds of Game 4, with the Rangers passionately killing a penalty and fighting toward overtime, Philadelphia forward John LeClair slid the puck past the crease and to the left face-off circle. Lindros was there, but he took the pass on his backhand and at a difficult angle. There was no time to shift to the forehand or make another move, so Lindros didn't try. He nailed it, firing the puck past a sprawling Mike Richter into the back of the net and through the heart of the Garden crowd.
The Flyers went back to Philadelphia with a 3-1 lead and dutifully put the Rangers out of their misery. Gretzky and Messier are home for the summer, and Lemieux is gone for good. It's Eric's turn now. Lindros gets his chance to be like those guys, to finish the job and walk away with a ring, the complete package at last.