Eric Lindros refuses to look back to the history of concussions that haunts him like Banquo's ghost, to the bad feelings that marked his final years with the Philadelphia Flyers, even to the deft drop pass he left for linemate Theo Fleury on Lindros's third shift as a New York Ranger, a blind pass that was elegant in its simplicity but spoke of endless possibility. The playoff-challenged Rangers may not be the right team for Lindros, but New York is the right town at the right time for him. This is the city of the possible, one that whispers of delicious freedoms even beyond the vows of the Statue of Liberty.
In New York a man has the freedom to find himself or lose himself, to reinvent himself, to rewrite his history. In other times an athlete so good and so noticeable might have had difficulty merely going about his business in New York, but the city has more pressing matters these days, its grief and fortitude a camouflage for its athletes. Lindros will be the center of attention soon enough—"Eric's our most important player," says Mark Messier, the Rangers' captain and a New York icon—but amid the city's stark abnormalcy this fall, Lindros, who had longed to play in his hometown of Toronto, has found a comforting quiet. "I never wanted a carnival," said the 28-year-old Lindros last Saturday. "If I wanted a carnival, I'd go out there."
Laughing, Lindros jerked a thumb in the direction of the rides at Playland, an amusement complex in suburban Westchester County that includes the rink on which the Rangers practice. He was bare-chested, chatting quietly at his stall in a nearly deserted dressing room the day after his first NHL game since May 26, 2000, when New Jersey Devils defenseman Scott Stevens crumpled him with a shoulder to the jaw as Lindros, head down, entered the offensive zone. Lindros suffered his sixth concussion in 27 months on that hit, and he sat out 2000-01 in a contract dispute with the Flyers.
Against the Carolina Hurricanes on Friday night, Lindros played like a man groping for the light switch. There were flashes of inspiration, like that exquisite pass to Fleury, but they were overshadowed by the awkwardness that tore at Lindros's line, which coach Ron Low ripped up in the third period, using Radek Dvorak in place of the faltering Zdeno Ciger. There was an embarrassing Alphonse-and-Gaston pass to Fleury that floated into the neutral zone during a power play and a more telling error later in the game, when Ron Francis stripped Lindros of the puck outside the Carolina blue line. That gaffe was compounded seconds later when Lindros made a poor defensive read and lost his check on the third Hurricanes goal.
The lack of timing, dulled instincts and uncertainty about positioning were all unmistakable signs of rink rust, but this was a mere snapshot of a season opener. The most important thing wasn't the dismal small picture—Lindros was -2 in a 3-1 loss—but the encouraging big picture. Given the volumes of well-chronicled bitterness between Lindros and Philadelphia general manager Bob Clarke as well as the thick medical files that explained why Lindros missed 31.4% of the Flyers' regular-season games during his nine seasons in Philly, it was unrealistic to expect him to deliver an instant fairy tale on an October night in Raleigh. "What Eric hasn't done a lot of is move the puck and bust through the holes," Low said last Saturday. "That's been his strong point. After the game he told me that it seemed as if he had nobody to move the puck to."
The Lindros-Fleury pairing is intriguing. After his seamless partnership in Philadelphia with straight-ahead power winger John LeClair, Lindros must get accustomed to a pint-sized maverick who's 82 Nights at the Improv. Fleury, returning from a season aborted last February when he sought treatment for alcohol and substance abuse, is a master of the hockey riff, his unpredictable and often undisciplined style making him as confounding as he is dynamic. He likes to lug the puck, also a principal part of Lindros's game.
Fleury's need to lead the rush, however, might prove to be a blessing. Lindros's critical flaw is his occasional habit of searching for the puck at his feet and leaving himself vulnerable to brain-rattling hits like the one Stevens delivered in Game 7 of the 2000 Eastern Conference finals. There's a degree of hubris in head-down hockey, but the 6'4", 240-pound Lindros had a simpler reason to adopt that style: He was always the biggest and best player growing up, unlikely to be hurt by the gnats who tried to check him. Although he was superb during the up-tempo but noncontact practices at Team Canada's camp in the first week of September, defensemen at the Olympic orientation privately noted that Lindros still sometimes carried the puck with his head down.
After Rangers general manager Glen Sather made the trade with the Flyers in August and signed Lindros to a complicated contract—he's guaranteed $2.3 million this year but can earn as much as $38 million, based on personal and team incentives, if New York exercises its option for each of the next three seasons—the first discussion they had was about Lindros's keeping his head up. "He's working at it," Sather says. "We talked about how he would have a chance to work on his puck-handling, how he could modify his game."
Lindros accepted the counsel—"Any G.M. is going to tell a player who's had a history of concussions that," he says—but he doesn't enjoy sifting through the past. The one time his soft voice had an edge to it during that dressing-room conversation was when he discussed the Stevens hit. Yes, his head was down, but he sensed the looming presence of the NHL's most punishing defenseman. "I was a little surprised Scott was up that high because Johnnie [ LeClair] was down the right side, slipping in behind him, all alone," Lindros said. "What I was trying to do when I got dinged was chisel the puck to Johnnie, because if Johnnie gets it, maybe he scores. If I chisel it through, maybe I'm wearing a [ Stanley Cup] ring right now."
In the near future any jewelry Lindros wears likely will be bought at retail. The Rangers are composed of disparate parts; they're a team for which the value of the players' names exceeds the levels of their games. Like Lindros and Fleury, many others are returning from something or someplace—a near career-ending eye injury for defenseman Bryan Berard, surgically repaired knees for goalie Mike Richter and defenseman Vladimir Malakhov and a sojourn in Slovakia for Ciger, who last played in the NHL in 1996. There will be growing pains as a swell collection of r�sum�s tries to transform itself into a team. If it does, the club will belong to Lindros.