THE WINTER GAMES

The Lindros Factor

CANADA’S HOCKEY TEAM NEEDS MORE THAN ONE STAR TO WIN

BRUCE WALLACE February 3 1992
THE WINTER GAMES

The Lindros Factor

CANADA’S HOCKEY TEAM NEEDS MORE THAN ONE STAR TO WIN

BRUCE WALLACE February 3 1992

The Lindros Factor

THE WINTER GAMES

CANADA’S HOCKEY TEAM NEEDS MORE THAN ONE STAR TO WIN

A weary, sore and almost sorrowful Eric Lindros slumps against the wall of the visitor’s dressing room after a mid-January practice in Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens. He is still fighting a two-week-old flu bug and an ache in his upper gums from being viciously high-sticked by Team U.S.A.’s Moe Mantha in a game played three days before. In a soft, almost inaudible monotone, Lindros responds with clichéd answers to the predictable questions posed by reporters. “Yes, the Olympics are a challenge,” he says. “Yes, there are other good players on this team,” he notes, although the reporters crowded around his spot in the room appear uninterested in those teammates who are changing close by. But later, showered and standing in a near-empty dressing room, Lindros allows that the constant media attention has sapped some of his joy for hockey. Referring to the end of his Olympic commitment, he sighed: “I’ll get through it. Just 44 days to go.”

The tired Lindros is a marked contrast to the ebullient teenager who, just five months earlier, sat in the same dressing room shoulder-toshoulder with the country’s best professional players as a member of his country’s Canada Cup team. At the time, he beamed with excitement—the most heralded player of his generation already playing at the pinnacle of his sport. But the months since have been tough on the 18-year-old star. His refusal to join the National Hockey League’s Quebec Nordiques—partly for well-aired political reasons—swept him into the national unity tempest. And he is clearly wounded by the experience. “Because of all the potshots he’s taken, Eric has to be constantly on his guard when they are popping controversial questions at him,” says Team Canada assistant coach Terry Crisp, who added that Lindros was physically and mentally depressed in January. But the public focus on Lindros also threatened to create a distracting environment for the other players of Team Canada as they made their final preparations for what may be one of the most competitive Olympic hockey tournaments ever.

The supporting cast shadowing Lindros is largely a collection of hardworking, team-oriented young players. “We’re not putting the weight of the world on Eric Lindros,” insisted Crisp. “The other guys have a burden and they better carry it.” But the current edition of Team Canada will emphasize defence, particularly against the favored Swedes and the former Soviet Union team now representing the Commonwealth of Independent States. And under Canadian head coach Dave King’s preferred style of systematic team play, there is little margin for freewheeling, individual playmaking. “We do not play an attack game,” said King as he unlaced his skates after the Toronto practice. “You won’t see a lot of intense forechecking from us.” Injured Team Canada centre Joe Juneau outlined a similar approach while he watched from the stands as his teammates played to a 5-5 tie in a mid-January exhibition game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. The squad’s close-checking style “makes us a frustrating team to play against, but we still lack scoring punch,” said Juneau.

The absence of scoring ability, according to critics, was also a problem with the three previous Olympic teams coached by King. Indeed, Canadian players have been unable to score with frequency in Games competition since Canada won its most recent Olympic hockey medal, a bronze, in 1968. Some of King’s former players have charged that he is overly concerned with physical conditioning, trying to compensate for having less talented players than the best Europeans by pushing them through gruelling training regimes. Said Ronald Davidson, who played on King’s 1980 Olympic team: “The combination of not being allowed to take any risks offensively and conditioning that drove the guys into the ground took all the jump out of our game.”

Still, members of King’s current squad defend the coach’s approach. Said Kitchener, Ont., native and team captain Brad Schlegel, 23: “Good conditioning is essential for the international game because of the bigger ice surface, and because there are no [televisionenforced] lulls in Olympic hockey as there are in some NHL games.”

Schlegel, who has played for the Olympic team since 1989, added that King began easing off some of his tough conditioning drills as the Games approached. But some of King’s practice methods raise eyebrows among NHLers. When all 19 of his Olympians scrimmaged on the Gardens’ surface with two pucks at the same time, an exercise popular among Europeans for developing quick puck-handling, Maple Leaf players looked on in bemusement. “What in the world is the point of this?” Toronto centre Dave Hannan—who last week agreed to play for the Olympic team himself—asked Leaf centre Mike Bullard.

The session was punctuated by bellowed profanities from assistant coach Crisp. The coach of the 1989 Stanley Cup-winning Calgary Flames, Crisp has brought a jauntiness to the atmosphere around the Olympic team, evident even in the excited manner with which he answers questions. With a wry smile, Crisp describes the tough physical play of Team

Canada’s opponents. “The Russians will crunch you, the Finns will whack you and the Czechs will scrap and gouge you,” he says in his rapid-fire delivery. “The Europeans have always had miserable teams; they just haven’t been known for their dirty play.”

Crisp also had high praise for the way Lindros has performed under intense media scrutiny. Said Crisp: “I’ve seen a lot of guys erupt under the pressure of bad press. But the kid has handled it.” Since helping the Canadian team win the Canada Cup in September, Lindros has divided his playing time between the Olympic team and his regular, junior team, the Oshawa

Generals of the Ontario Hockey League, to which he returned after declining to join the Nordiques. By refusing to play in Quebec City, Lindros, who lives with his parents in Toronto, caused bitter reactions in the province. Three Quebec MPS called for his removal from the Olympic team. At Christmas, Lindros reaped further public scorn when he took a sabbatical from both teams to join Canada’s national juniors for the annual world championships in Fussen, Germany—and the team did poorly.

Widely expected to lead the juniors to their third straight gold medal, Lindros bore the brunt of attacks for what critics said was his uninspired play when the team foundered and finished sixth. Said Crisp: “Eric has logged a lot of hours back and forth to Europe, and it’s catching up on him.” Added Team Canada goaltender Trevor Kidd, who also played on the maligned junior squad: “We were all sick as dogs with the flu over there, and the criticism

of Eric and all of us has been unreal. It was the worst experience of my life.”

Indeed, there is little apparent resentment among his teammates at the attention given to the six-foot, five-inch Lindros, who is a highschool graduate. “Sometimes it gets to the guys, but then you remember that he gets us media coverage and that’s good,” said defenceman Adrien Plavsic of Montreal. Plavsic added that Lindros’s size makes him a comforting player to have on the team. “When the [Jan. 11] game against the Americans got chippy, he really hammered a couple of guys,” said Plavsic. “It is great to have such an intimidating player on your side.”

The Quebec controversy surrounding Lindros does not appear to have permeated the dressing room either. To the Quebec City public, Lindros has a special place among a pantheon of political enemies that also includes Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells because of his constitutional reform positions. Clearly aware of the explosive response that he could provoke, Lindros skipped Team Canada’s December exhibition game against the Nordiques. But he played in Montreal later that same month—and was booed throughout the game. Juneau, who was born in PontRouge, 30 km west of Quebec City, said he has discussed the Quebec situation with Lindros only “superficially.” But, he insisted, there is no bitterness between Lindros 1 and the team’s francophone 3 players. “I get along with him I great, as well as with anyone ° on the team,” said the personable Juneau. “He has been good for us because we got a lot more media attention once he joined the team.” More bluntly, Sydney, N.S., native Fabian Joseph said: “People look for a chance to exaggerate conflict. We are hockey players, not politicians.”

On Jan. 20, the team travelled to Switzerland and Sweden to prepare for the Games, leaving the political controversy behind. For the players on Team Canada, it is winning medals, not infighting, that is uppermost in their minds. “With a gold medal, it’s not just your hockey career that benefits,” said Juneau. “You could find a job with any company that wants to use your stature. You get that medal and you are set for life.” That is what is at stake for many of the players. But for Lindros, the most talented player of his generation, even a gold medal will not eliminate the barriers between him and a career in his chosen game.

BRUCE WALLACE