SPORTS WATCH

Wanted: stars for assorted sports

Lindros is the third Canadian to become pre-eminent in hockey at a time when other games are gasping vainly for heroes

TRENT FRAYNE July 13 1992
SPORTS WATCH

Wanted: stars for assorted sports

Lindros is the third Canadian to become pre-eminent in hockey at a time when other games are gasping vainly for heroes

TRENT FRAYNE July 13 1992

Wanted: stars for assorted sports

SPORTS WATCH

Lindros is the third Canadian to become pre-eminent in hockey at a time when other games are gasping vainly for heroes

TRENT FRAYNE

Too often, the trouble with hockey is too many administrators. As long as the players are chasing the puck there is hardly anything the matter with Canada’s national game (forget lacrosse), but when it enters the smoke-filled rooms, look out.

There was a cigar-chomping sports editor from Saskatoon, Vera DeGeer, who often took the National Hockey League to task. “Hockey is the best game in the world,” he’d write. “It’s got to be to survive what the owners do to it.” DeGeer was the sports editor of the Toronto Globe and Mail, where his sidekick, Jim Coleman, the paper’s lighthearted columnist, often noted a certain conflict of interest in the fact that James Norris, a Canadian-born grain millionaire, owned all or part of Chicago Stadium, where the Blackhawks played, New York’s Madison Square Garden, where both the Rangers and the old New York Americans played, and the Detroit Olympia, where the Red Wings played, and he owned the Red Wings, too. Those were the days of a seven-team NHL, which Coleman, to the chagrin of the powerful Norris, often called the Norris House League.

That was nearly half a century ago, but controversy has seldom waned; only the topics have changed. Most recently, of course, there was the Eric Lindros fiasco, which seemed to run longer than the Phantom of the Opera. At the risk of emptying the room, it is noted that Lindros, a 19-year-old centre, who is expected to be the league’s next superstar, was drafted by the Quebec Nordiques in June of 1991, but refused to play for them. For an entire year, they declined to make a deal involving him and he stayed away from them.

Then, late last month, the Nordiques negotiated not one but two trades for Lindros, one with the Philadelphia Flyers and the other with the New York Rangers. To settle the matter, the league appointed an arbitrator, Toronto lawyer Larry Bertuzzi, hoping the world would forget that the NHL was still a victim of chronic hoof-in-mouth disease. Interviewing every-

body but the Philadelphia stick boy, Bertuzzi decided the Flyers had the prior claim.

What is especially engaging about Lindros’s emergence as a star (he was outstanding in last September’s Canada Cup games alongside Team Canada’s best NHL players, and prominent later at the Winter Olympics) is that he is the third Canadian to become pre-eminent at his game at a time when other pro sports are gasping vainly for heroes. Apart from Michael Jordan, so dominant at basketball as to become a sort of bald Wayne Gretzky, no other game can keep anybody in the spotlight for long. Meantime, Canada has presented Wayne the Wizard, the marvellous Mario Lemieux and now this young giant Lindros.

Once, golf was ruled week after week by Jack and Amie, tennis belonged to Björn and Big Mac, and the heavyweight champion of the world held the job long enough for fans to grow accustomed to his name. Not anymore. These days a new winner turns up almost weekly on the golf tour, 10 tennis players have won Grand Slam titles over the past five years and the heavyweight title belongs to Evander Holyoak, uh, Holyfield, at 210 lb. a pumped-up lightheavyweight.

Only a couple of months ago Fred Couples

was hailed as the finest golfer since the invention of the comfort station. “By winning the Masters, Fred Couples proves he’s the best in the game,” were the words adorning Fred’s picture on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine, a Bible for some fans. And a puzzled golf instructor named Paul Marchand, taking on Couples, wondered aloud: “How do you teach Mozart music?”

But at the U.S. Open, this Mozart wound up tied for 17th place with five other guys, none a Beethoven, she shots over par and nine behind the winner, 42-year-old tour veteran Tom Kite, himself a notorious bridesmaid.

Meantime, the newest tennis meteor, Jim Courier, was undertaking a transition from winning the French Open on a red-clay surface in Paris that slows the pace and bounce of a ball, to the richly manicured lawns of Wimbledon, whose grass turns the ball into a jackrabbit. But as it has with many a French Open winner before him, the switch proved too much for Courier. He was unable to handle Andrei 01hovskiy, a 193rd-ranked unknown from Moscow, who won in four sets.

Courier will be heard from again. He is a dedicated, emotionally controlled redhead of 21, the third youngest to Pete Sampras and Michael Chang among the flock who’ve won Grand Slam titles since 1987 (Stefan Edberg, Mats Wilander, Ivan Lendl, Boris Becker, Michael Stich, Pat Cash, Andres Gomez, Sampras, Chang and Courier). But even if he had survived Wimbledon, his chances of scoring the first Grand Slam sweep since another freckled redhead, Rod Laver, turned the trick in 1969 would be down to two—slim and slimmer.

That’s because there is little uniformity among the surfaces at the four Slam venues— Melbourne, Paris, London and New York. They range from the French Open’s slow, smooth clay to Wimbledon’s fast pockmarked grass. Between these extremes are a relatively slow hard court for the Australian Open and the faster hard court of a lunacy settlement called Flushing Meadow for the U.S. Open, which comes up in September.

It isn’t merely that a player must own a strong baseline game to win the French, plus an attacking serve-and-volley style to score in the other three, he must make himself immune to the excessive pressure of ever-growing hordes of television, radio, newspaper and magazine zealots seeking interviews, searching out angles, pestering for photo sessions that pile up headlines and clog the air lanes with superlatives and speculation.

Laver endured little of this because in the 1960s (he also swept in 1962), three of the four Slam tournaments were on grass, and television wasn’t into the current mass coverage of sports events, which in turn has enticed new herds of print’s ink-stained wretches onto the scene, as well.

Interestingly, Canada’s three hockey giants, Gretzky, Lemieux and now Lindros, all seem immune to the pressures of this media assault, each delivering virtuoso performances on the ice and off when the spotlight is its most intense, each a cool and mature object in a fishbowl. It must be the cold winters.