COVER

LUCKY LINDROS

ERIC LINDROS IS CONSIDERED BY MANY TO BE THE FACE OF CANADA’S HOCKEY FUTURE

BRUCE WALLACE September 9 1991
COVER

LUCKY LINDROS

ERIC LINDROS IS CONSIDERED BY MANY TO BE THE FACE OF CANADA’S HOCKEY FUTURE

BRUCE WALLACE September 9 1991

LUCKY LINDROS

ERIC LINDROS IS CONSIDERED BY MANY TO BE THE FACE OF CANADA’S HOCKEY FUTURE

COVER

The overhead lights in Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens have been turned off and the dim lighting that remains obscures the dinginess of one of hockey's most famous shrines. The players on Team Canada, their practice over, have all left the building on a steamy August afternoon. But 18-year-old Eric Lindros, widely considered to be the best player of his

generation and the still-unscarred face of Canada’s hockey future, sits in the empty stands. Hooking the legs of his six-foot, five-inch, 224-lb. body over the seat in front of him, Lindros throws his head back and bellows at the rafters and the ghosts of the Gardens. “This is my bam,” he shouts

to the deserted arena. “I love you.” Then,

Lindros speaks wistfully of his future in hockey.

“I don’t know if I ever want to get away from Toronto,” says Lindros. “Can you imagine this place if the Leafs won another Stanley Cup after all these years? The score clock would fall down and the plaster would come ; off the walls.” His voice softens and he stares towards the ice. “Imagine,” he says. “The Leafs. Alive again.”

Even at 18, Eric Lindros is accustomed to making dreams come true. Without ever having played a game in the National Hockey League (NHL), he proved during Team Canada tryouts for the Canada Cup showdown that he could excel alongside the Canadian hockey elite by winning a place on the team. But while he prepared to play this month for his country against the best in the world in the Canada Cup series, Lindros found his ambitions stalled by an off-ice obstacle that not even his extraordinary size, speed or shot could overcome. His right to play in the NHL is controlled by the

Quebec Nordiques, who used their first choice in the league’s draft last June to pick him. But the strong-willed Lindros, who describes himself as a “rebel,” says that he has no intention of playing hockey in Quebec City. “Sometimes, you have to look at the political aspect of the thing,” he told Maclean ’s in the Gardens. “If things are not going well politically in a certain climate, then you have to think twice about whether you want to be there.”

Stakes: In a wide-ranging interview, Lindros told Maclean’s why he was unwilling to go to Quebec City. “The people that come out of high school with the best grades go to the best universities. The people with the lower grades have fewer choices,” he said. “Why should a player who comes out of junior hockey with top marks go to a city that is not his choice? I’m thinking about my family and what the pressure’s going to be like on them.” Lindros said that as the financial stakes in professional hockey grow, teams in some smaller Canadian cities may have trouble surviving. Said Lindros: “It’s great that the Canadian teams are still here, but it’s going to be tough financially for them to compete. In cities like Winnipeg, they treat hockey as a business. [But] it’s going to be harder for players who want to be treated equally—financially and in other respects—to play in these places.”

Lindros has signalled that he possesses grand hockey ambitions, and

intends to achieve them his way. On the ice, he is a menacing presence to opponents: a marauding, extremely physical player with spectacular scoring skills and a locomotive drive to win at all costs. “You won’t see me calling for an end to fighting,” Lindros told Maclean ’s. “I think there is a place in the game for fighting.”

But just as NHL owners salivate at the prospect of adding Lindros to the league’s marquee, the confident teenager who has yet to play a professional game is sending shivers through the hockey establishment by refusing to play in Quebec. “Everyone has the right to work where they want to work,” said Lindros. “The old way has got to change.”

Still, critics have expressed concern that an unrestricted campaign by players to defy the draft system and play with the team of their choice would undermine franchises in small markets, especially those in Canadian cities that include Quebec City and Winnipeg. Said Harry Neale, a hockey broadcaster and former coach with the Vancouver Canucks: “Lindros is the most extreme example of the NHL’s biggest problem.” Neale added that because taxes are higher in Canada than in the United States, “no player prefers to play in Canada. But if they must, the English-speaking players don’t want to play in Quebec. It is a magnification of the mood of the country.”

Value: Lindros has not endeared himself to the residents of Quebec City. There, fans comforted themselves during their team’s losing 1990-1991 season with the knowledge that their last-place finish would give them the right to pick the most heralded junior hockey player since Mario Lemieux and, before that, Wayne Gretzky. But as far back as last May, Lindros

told Nordiques president Marcel Aubut that he would not play in Quebec City. Lindros and his parents, Carl and Bonnie Lindros, insist that playing in the small, predominantly francophone market would lessen his value for off-ice endorsements. And Lindros clearly wants to establish his career with a competitive organization in a city where he might live permanently. “There is not a good fit between Eric and the Nordiques for a variety of reasons, including economically and in terms of lifestyle,” said Carl Lindros, a friendly, powerfully built chartered accountant. “We warned Quebec of that before the draft in order to save them any embarrassment over trying to sign Eric.”

Since then, relations between the two sides have deteriorated further. “It’s an ego thing,” said Eric Lindros of Aubut’s refusal, so far, to trade him to another club. Despite reports in the Quebec press saying that Lindros was seeking a three-year contract that would pay him $3 million a year, Carl Lindros told Maclean ’s that “we have never made a financial demand of Quebec.” Still, many Quebecers now refer sarcastically to Lindros as “the son of Bay Street.” Said Albert Ladouceur, a hockey writer for the daily newspaper Journal de Québec: “The fans here are hurt by his attitude.” And by citing political reasons for his refusal to join the Nordiques, Lindros may provoke a backlash that extends beyond the hockey world. Family members said that they were trying not to inflame

LINDROS INSISTS THAT HE WILL NOT PLAY FOR THE NORDIQUES

the controversy before Team Canada plays the Soviet Union in Quebec City on Sept. 9.

The Quebec furor is only the latest in a short career that has been almost as noteworthy for its turmoil as for its brilliance. Lindros has challenged hockey’s ways of doing business in the past. In 1989, when the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) drafted him from the Toronto-based St. Michael’s College Junior B team, he refused to obey the rules and move, arguing that he wanted to play hockey for a team based closer to his family’s Toronto home. The league finally gave in and changed its rules to allow Lindros to be traded to the Oshawa Generals. Some NHL players have welcomed his insistence on playing hockey where he wants to and under conditions that he likes. Said Montreal Canadiens centre Brian Skrudland, who until he was cut from Team Canada on Aug. 24 was Lindros’s roommate: “Eric has realized something at 18 that few of us did: that hockey is a

business. And there is a lot of money in this game now.”

It is almost impossible for hockey fans to remain ambivalent about Lindros. His aggressive playing style and controversial off-ice attitude have attracted intense animosity from many fans. When Lindros led his Oshawa team into Sault Ste. Marie during last spring’s Junior A playoffs, fans screamed abuse and spat at him. He has been booed by Canadian fans during Team Canada exhibition games in Ottawa and Montreal. But Lindros plays with such physical ferocity and he is such a masterly goal scorer that he can win over critics, as he did with a two-goal performance in an exhibition match against Team USA in Montreal on Aug. 18. “I get pumped up,” said Lindros in explaining how an arena full of hostile fans can motivate him. “I get possessed with the fear of losing.”

For the London, Ont.-born Lindros, who moved to Toronto with his family when he was

10, the desire to win has been evident since he was a minor-hockey sensation. “When I was growing up, I never had a whole lot of friends because I was never into the social aspect of the game,” he said. “My best friends are still the friends away from the rink.” At times, his interests outside hockey have collided with the demands of the sport. As a Grade 6 student, Lindros was practising simultaneously with his peewee hockey team, which was headed for a tournament in Quebec City, and with his school band, where he played trumpet. Recalled Lindros with a disbelieving laugh: “The band teacher took me aside and said, ‘Listen, where are your priorities? Are they with the band or are they in hockey?’ ” By the time he was in Grade 10, his music teacher had expelled him from the band.

‘Blast': But he never neglected hockey practices. At 13, he was practising one hour a day with the 15and 16-year-olds on the St. Mike’s team, often riding to practice on a unicycle while carrying his books and hockey equipment. “Even as a young kid, he was completely focused on hockey,” said Scott McLellan, his coach at St. Mike’s. “I could blast him for mistakes like older players and he never sulked and was never intimidated.” And McLellan said that Lindros’s parents have been unfairly criti-

cized for their handling of their son’s hockey career. “They did not interfere or push him,” he said. “They simply made every concession to accommodate what Eric himself wanted.”

Still, some critics say that Lindros’s self-driven approach to the game turned into obstinacy when the Greyhounds drafted him. And when the OHL initially balked at changing its bylaw that prevented any team from trading its first-round draft pick for a year, Lindros simply went to play for a commercially sponsored junior team in Detroit. Seven months later, the league relented, allowing a trade to Oshawa for three players, three future draft picks and $80,000. With Lindros in the lineup, Oshawa sold out every game in its 4,200-seat arena and won the 1990 Memorial Cup, Canada’s junior hockey championship. Lindros also played on Canada’s last two world junior championship teams. And Lindros led the OHL in scoring last year, with

71 goals and 78 assists in 57 games.

Fans in Sault Ste. Marie never forgave Lindros. Said Greyhounds director Sherwood Bassin: “People in the Soo were offended. They felt that their families and their community had been affronted, the same as Quebec now feels.” The anger spilled out in May when Lindros returned to Sault Ste. Marie during the league’s playoffs. The fans taunted him by waving pacifiers and hanging signs with messages that included: “Lindros wants his mommy.” To the delight of Sault Ste. Marie fans, the Greyhounds defeated Oshawa in the playoff round.

Despite his impressive credentials, some hockey commentators expressed skepticism about Lindros’s lack of experience when Team Canada officials invited him to try out. Lindros dispelled the doubts by demonstrating a deft scoring touch—and by throwing body checks at some of the biggest and toughest players in the training camp, including Los Angeles Kings heavyweight Marty McSorley. He paid a price for his aggressiveness. Colliding with New York Islanders centre Brent Sutter during a scrimmage in Collingwood, Ont., Lindros sustained a mild concussion, Debut: Just two nights later, he was in uniform for his first exhibition game with Team Canada against Team USA at the Montreal

Forum. The venerable arena provided an intimidating setting for his debut. Lindros, arriv-

ing early and alone for the game, walked into the wrong dressing room by mistake. Fans heckled his parents as they entered the building. In the game’s early stages, boos cascaded from many of the 14,377 fans every time that Lindros stepped onto the ice.

Team Canada assistant coach Pat Burns had warned him before the game of an ugly reception. Said Bums: “The fans booed Jean Beliveau in here and I think they would boo the Lord’s Prayer if they could.” But Lindros

seemed to be unfazed. He choked off some of the catcalls with a devastating body check on the six-foot, one-inch American defenceman Craig Wolanin in the first period. Then, he scored two second-period goals and assisted on another in the third period, flashing a grin at his parents in the crowd and sweeping the Forum fans onto their feet. When he was announced as the player of the game, the ovation was as loud as the boos had been earlier.

Exciting: By turning the Team Canada training camp into a personal showcase, Lindros served notice that he can already be counted as one of the NHL’s best and most exciting players. “If you don't produce on the ice, then nothing is going to happen off the ice,” said the Kings’ Gretzky after a practice in Toronto. “Eric has talked a lot about endorsements, but those things will come with the territory. I’m not saying what he’s worth, but he’s going to make a lot of money.”

Still, negotiations with the Nordiques have practically ground to a stop. Before the June draft, a meeting in a Toronto hotel room between Lindros’s agent, Rick Curran, the Lindros family and Nordiques officials drove a greater wedge between the parties. Former hockey star Guy Lafleur, now the Nordiques' director of community relations, who was present, described the meeting as “cold.” Members of the Lindros camp told the Nordiques that Lindros would not play in Quebec and urged team president Aubut to trade him to another NHL team. Relations worsened when Lindros demonstrated impatience as Aubut Usted his own achievements in building the club. For the next meeting in late July, Aubut sent a private plane to Montreal to fly Carl Lindros to Quebec City, but pointedly did not invite Eric or his mother.

Clearly, Lindros presents a challenge to the foundations of the NHL’s estabUshed business practices. But the pressure has also taken a toll

on an 18-year-old who, despite his talent and self-assuredness, is uneasy about his future. “All my friends are taking off for universities,” said Lindros, who has registered for an economics course at Toronto’s York University this fall. “It makes me reaUy nervous to not know what I’ll be doing.” And in refusing to report to Quebec while making it known that he would be willing to play in Toronto, he runs the risk of becoming a symbol of the growing tensions between Quebec and the rest of Canada. “I’d take a pay cut to play in Canada,” he said. “But why would someone take a cut to play in a place where they are not happy?” For Eric Lindros, hockey’s grail may always be as difficult to grasp off the ice as on.

BRUCE WALLACE