"We're always in the headlines, aren't we?"
—PHILADELPHIA FLYERS DEFENSEMAN CHRIS THERIEN
The Philadelphia flyers are in the headlines, but not in the way a papal visit or the Eli�n Gonzalez controversy or tech stocks are in the news. The Flyers are in the headlines in the manner of MY AUNT WAS ABDUCTED BY ALIENS! This is a tabloid team, all boldface type and exclamation points. Philly has as good a chance to make the Stanley Cup finals as any other team in the wide-open Eastern Conference, but it's also only one bearded lady short of a freak show.
When the postseason begins next week, the Flyers probably will start their fifth netminder in as many playoff years. That goalie will be the calm, confident 23-year-old rookie Brian Boucher, not John Vanbiesbrouck, 36, who was signed two years ago to stop Philadelphia's goaltending carousel. The Flyers will also start the postseason with their third coach in four seasons, Craig Ramsay, filling in for Roger Neilson, who is recuperating from stem cell replacement treatment for cancer. Neilson's multiple myeloma is just one of a series of events that have buffeted Philly since the day before Game 4 of the 1997 Cup finals, when coach Terry Murray suggested his Flyers were in a "choking situation." To continue the pattern, last week Philadelphia stripped Eric Lindros of his captaincy, even as he was recovering from yet another concussion, and handed the coveted C to Eric Desjardins, a move that, depending on your perspective, was either necessary or callous, logical or vindictive, but indisputably bizarre.
The Flyers had soldiered on to 97 points and the third-best record in the conference through Sunday, yet on the brink of the playoffs they seemed to have leaped into the abyss as tensions between the franchise player and the franchise came boiling out of an already simmering pot. "The turmoil is huge," Philly president Bob Clarke said, "but it's outside the team right now. The players are happy. It's adversarial between the Lindros family and management. This actually could be a great scenario for Eric to come back to [in the playoffs]. If he comes in, he's just one of the players, part of the team. He doesn't have to speak for anyone else. If Eric doesn't make peace with me, I couldn't care less—if he could just make peace with his teammates and be a hockey player."
To appreciate the significance of Lindros's demotion is to understand the totemic value of the C, a letter as essential to the narrative of hockey as Hester Prynne's scarlet A is to the writing of Hawthorne. The captaincy in hockey, unlike in other sports, is not merely an official designation of leadership but an honor of almost mythic proportions. The player who wears the C is the voice of the team, the public face of the organization, the personification of its hopes. "There's a glory that goes with that C," Ramsay says.
Conversely, when it's stripped from a player, there's abject humiliation. Footage of equipment manager Turk Evers, the most noted needle-and-thread expert in Philadelphia since Betsy Ross, sewing the C on Desjardins's sweater was aired on highlight shows across North America, making the slap even more public. Lindros had been the Flyers' cornerstone since he joined Philadelphia in 1992, a hulking, dominating center who it was hoped would return the Stanley Cup to the Flyers, a player as identifiable with his team as any in the NHL. Taking his captaincy wasn't merely a C change—it was a sea change.
Lindros was stripped on March 27 after Clarke called a meeting with Ramsay and alternate captains Desjardins, John LeClair and Mark Recchi. The comments from Clarke that players thought they needed leadership as they headed into the playoffs were at best irrelevant, at worst disingenuous. During Lindros's extended absences in previous years—he has missed 136 games since the 1992-93 season—his Chad been handed temporarily to forward Rod Brind'Amour, who was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes in January, and returned when Lindros was healthy. "There are," Desjardins says, "all kinds of ways to handle a situation."
The Flyers chose the most provocative as retribution for comments Lindros had made four days earlier about the Philadelphia medical staff, specifically trainer John Worley. Two years ago Clarke thought enough of Lindros's leadership skills to name him captain of the Canadian Olympic team ahead of Wayne Gretzky, Steve Yzerman or Raymond Bourque. Last week Clarke said, "It's just not possible for him to be disliking the organization—and that includes the doctors and trainers—and still be captain. He's supposed to represent the other players, and the other players don't feel that way." Lindros refused to comment to SI other than to say that he didn't want to inflame the situation any further.
Flyers medical personnel apparently misdiagnosed a Grade II concussion stemming from a blow to Lindros's jaw by Boston Bruins defenseman Hal Gill in the second period of a March 4 game. When asked how the medics—who initially called the injury "posttraumatic migraine headaches" and a day later a Grade I concussion—might have missed the subsequent diagnosis by concussion expert James Kelly, an associate professor at Northwestern University Medical School, team internist Gary Dorshimer said, "When you get your clock cleaned, it's hard to look so normal. Eric looked like Eric. He seemed like his normal personality, hurrying around, upbeat."
Dorshimer had examined Lindros on March 5, but in answer to the doctor's question, "Did you get your bell rung?" Lindros said he was fine. Lindros's lack of forthrightness played a part in the misdiagnosis. He should have known better. He'd had three other concussions in the past two years, and in 1996 his brother Brett's nascent NHL career was cut short after 51 games by a series of concussions. In a March 23 press conference Lindros, who had vomited between the second and third periods in Boston, conceded that he hadn't been totally truthful but added that Worley knew he was experiencing more severe symptoms than headaches and should have kept him from playing. Worley, who said it wasn't uncommon for Lindros to vomit before games or between periods because of nerves, told SI that he didn't learn that Lindros had sustained memory loss until March 13 in Phoenix, after Lindros had told roommate Keith Primeau that he couldn't remember some shifts the previous night in Colorado. Primeau encouraged Lindros to call Worley.