In the middle of the night, seven years ago, in a motel room in Buffalo, Bonnie Lindros came to the sudden, powerful realization that she had an exceptional son. "We were at one of Eric's Minor Atom tournaments," she says. "He was nine years old. You know how sometimes you just know? Well, I did that night. He wasn't even bigger and stronger than most of the other kids at that age. He was just better. I woke up in bed and started shaking."
Eric Lindros, 16, has grown up to be even better than his mother could have dreamed possible. Now it's NHL scouts and general managers who start shaking whenever they think about him. Men who foresaw the greatness of Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux now talk about Eric in tones that are reverential. Eric, 6'4�" and 220 pounds of franchise-to-be, is not only too good for his age, but he's too good to be true. "He's the best 16-year-old player I've ever seen," says Philadelphia Flyer general manager Bobby Clarke! "He could play in the NHL right now."
However, Eric, who hails from Toronto, won't be eligible to do that until the 1991-92 season, because the NHL does not draft players younger than 18. So now he plays center for Compuware of the nine-team North American Junior Hockey League in Farmington, Mich., where he is spending his senior year in high school and living with a large, gregarious family. Signs at the Oak Park Arena, Compuware's home rink, prohibit scouts from smoking, but not from drooling. Eric has 23 goals and 29 assists in 14 games for an undefeated team.
It's as if he's a man playing against boys. He can take the puck to the net anytime he desires, but for the sake of variety, of sharpening his playmaking and of keeping his teammates happy, he often passes it off. He goes from backhand to forehand with ease, flicks sharp diagonal passes to cutting teammates and zings hard, accurate wrist shots with an impressively quick release. He's too big to make dazzling pivots, but he starts well, reaches a long stride quickly and finishes plays with the power of the superstar he almost certainly will become. He is a tireless worker whose reach extends almost as far as Lemieux's.
Eric appears to see the ice with the all-encompassing view of a Gretzky. He will never be considered a finesse player, however, for he has an obvious love of body contact. He'll probably spend too much time in the penalty box to mount a challenge on a 200-point season, but it's easy to see him becoming a 150-point version of the Edmonton Oilers' skilled and brawny Mark Messier, a three-time NHL All-Star.
The one unsavory aspect of Eric's play is also one that delights the scouts: He has a mean streak that he demonstrates by frequently whacking and jabbing his opponents and by cruising the ice at times in search of somebody to wallop. He embellishes bodychecks by pushing kids 50 pounds lighter and six inches smaller face-first into the glass. Already this season he has served three automatic one-game suspensions for fighting, which is prohibited in his league.
Eric would gladly pick on somebody his own size, but there's simply no one as big. "When he started to play last year [for a junior B league team with 17- to 20-year-olds in Toronto], I was worried about him getting hurt," says Bonnie. "Now I worry about the other kids."
On Nov. 22, Compuware (the team is named for its sponsor, a software maker) had the Detroit Junior Red Wings behind 7-0 after 17 minutes. The game was chippy from the start, and as the rout led to frustration and boredom, the sticks came up even higher. Eric, who played every second shift in the first period, took some additional turns on defense in the second and third periods. He had five assists by the time a double roughing minor earned him a game disqualification with seven minutes remaining in the final period.
"It's stupid getting thrown out," he said after Compuware's 10-2 victory, "but the guy speared me in the head. If they spear you, you just give them the free-trade agreement back, that's all. They start something by saying something and then pray the referee gets there before I do."
Messier is Eric's idol. "I think he's a complete player, the most feared in hockey, and if you look at his Porsches, that can't be bad," says Eric. "I'd like to reach his status or go even higher. It would be great for me and great for hockey."