There are times—say, when he's driving to the net, swatting aside backpedaling defensemen like traffic pylons—that the feats of strength of Philadelphia Flyers center Eric Lindros border on cartoonish. At 6'4" and 236 pounds, he has the rolling shoulders and V-shaped build of a linebacker. Put Lindros in the confined space of an NHL rink, get him in one of his famously bad moods, and the potential for bone-crunching collisions is ripe. Ottawa Senators winger Andreas Dackell found that out on Oct. 29 as he chased the puck into the corner behind his net and saw a blur closing in on him from his right. "Too late," says Dackell, who gives away five inches and 45 pounds to Lindros.
Lindros drove Dackell face-first into the Plexiglas and left him stretched out on the ice for 12 minutes. Standing in the Senators' dressing room after a recent game, Dackell reached up as he spoke and traced with his finger the pink C-shaped scar starting near his hairline and curving along his right eyebrow. He needed 30 stitches to close the gash and two weeks to get over the concussion.
Lindros sent word to Dackell that he was sorry, and NHL czar of discipline Colin Campbell later agreed with referee Richard Trottier that Lindros's devastating hit was legal (and, thus, deserved no penalty). But the sight of Dackell being wheeled off on a stretcher, his face bloodied, provided the rest of the league with vivid evidence that Lindros is playing with a forcefulness not seen during his previous six years in the NHL.
That's partly because at the end of last season Lindros was fed up. Philadelphia general manager Bob Clarke, who held the same title with Canada's 1998 Olympic team, named Lindros captain for the Nagano Games—ahead of Wayne Gretzky, Raymond Bourque, Steve Yzerman and other players with thicker portfolios—and while Lindros played hard on the larger international-ice surface, which is not well-suited to his power game, the Canadians, who were the cofavorites for the gold, went home without a medal. Ten weeks later the Flyers were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the Buffalo Sabres in five games, a series in which Philly showed all the enthusiasm of a clerk at the returns counter on Dec. 26. Lindros scored just once. Then, later in the summer he was broadsided by public criticism from Clarke. "Something is going to come from all of this," Lindros vowed privately. "What, I don't know, but something."
The withering shots by Clarke reported in July 31 editions of The Philadelphia Inquirer hit the City of Brotherly Love like a bombshell. "If you want to be the highest-paid player in the game or close to it, you've got to play that way," Clarke was quoted as saying about Lindros. "You're not a kid anymore. It's time. You talk to him and ask him, Why did you play poorly against Detroit in the Stanley Cup finals [in 1997]? He says, 'I don't know.' Why did you play poorly against Buffalo [in '98]? He says, 'I don't know.'
"If you're going to pay him $8.5 million, you hope to get more games out of Eric—and better games.... You can't keep paying someone on potential.... If you're going to be as good as you can, you have to have a real passion for the game, a real passion for life with your teammates, being around the locker room.... It's a hard thing. Some players never learn it. That's why they never get better."
Clarke went on to say that Lindros, a potential free agent after the 1998-99 season, might not be long for Philly. "If we can't get him signed now," Clarke told the Inquirer, "we'd be better off trading him."
In the space of three paragraphs, Clarke had questioned his franchise player's heart, brains, leadership and ability to excel in the clutch. Then he threatened to run him out of town. Word of Clarke's comments didn't reach Lindros, who was at his off-season getaway in Muskoka, Ont., an idyllic lakeside spot about two hours north of Toronto, until a couple of days later. He recalls stopping at a general store and picking up a Toronto newspaper. When he turned to the sports pages and began reading the follow-up stories about Clarke's comments, he felt angry and betrayed. "Some nights I'd lie awake thinking about it," he says.
By increasing the pressure on Lindros and threatening to break up the Flyers, Clarke constructed a now-or-never scenario in which nothing less than a Stanley Cup would do this season. So far Lindros has responded to the challenge. Philadelphia has muddled along—its talent-rich team had only the sixth-best record in the NHL through Sunday—but Clarke can't hang this on Lindros. At week's end he led the league in scoring with 40 points and was a physical force. Lindros's line had accounted for 58% of the Flyers' goals, an imbalance as dangerous as it is impressive, which explains why Clarke reacquired gifted right wing Mikael Renberg from the Tampa Bay Lightning on Dec. 12 to play on the second line. For now, Lindros and All-Star left wing John LeClair are flanked by Keith Jones. That line makes its living cycling the puck, wearing down defensemen and looking for a setup in the slot. Also with fewer teams playing the neutral-zone trap this season, Lindros has found more open ice. Against the New Jersey Devils on Dec. 10, for instance, he took the puck at his blue line, lugged it down the left side, turned defenseman Lyle Odelein into a pylon and scored a film-at-11 goal.
If Lindros is quicker this season, he also is smarter; so far he has avoided the retaliation penalties that previously had marred his game. While, through Sunday, he was on pace for 153 penalty minutes—about average for him—he should reach that total in about 20 more games than last season as long as he remains healthy. "I don't know what it is with Eric, he's just different," says Montreal Canadiens defenseman Igor Ulanov, a longtime nemesis who plastered Lindros twice in a game on Nov. 9 only to find, "He didn't say anything. Normally he likes to talk back to you. I think he's playing more for the team than he did before. Usually he'd elbow me, head-butt me, stick-butt me. Now he's a cleaner player. You can't get him off his game." Lindros can pinpoint when the transformation occurred: "It was late last summer, after all those things were said. I was sitting in a boat on the lake with my brother, Brett, in the middle of the night, just talking and having a few beers. Ultimately, I just decided, I'm tired of going through life doing things out of frustration or worrying. I'm sick of my moods. Sick of being bothered by things I can't control.