The Tragedy of Eric Lindros: Reflections on the Big E

IsmailAnalyst IJune 16, 2009

No player has seemed to stir up as much controversy over the years or polarized fan and foe alike as much as Eric Lindros.

From his refusal to play for the Ontario Hockey League’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and NHL’s Quebec Nordiques, to his numerous concussions and multi-million dollar donation to the London Health Sciences Centre upon his retirement ceremony, Lindros’ time in hockey was certainly full of high drama.

But, one thing seems to get lost amidst all of the chaos surrounding Eric Lindros: He was one of the best players to ever lace up a pair of skates.

There is much debate about whether or not Lindros belongs in the Hall of Fame, and, in my opinion, he is a sure bet first ballot member, although it will probably not turn out that way.

There can be no denying that however short his career was or how much controversy surrounded him, Lindros made a huge impact upon the hockey world.

What made Eric Lindros such a dynamic player?

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The main reason is that he had no major weaknesses and is perhaps the best forward to be able to perform all hockey skills at an elite level. Certainly no player can claim the offensive prowess of Gretzky or Lemieux, but even these two legends were never much involved in the physical aspects of hockey.

The point is, Lindros was in the elite category in terms of offensive ability, but, unlike so many other players who have scored and racked up points over the years, Lindros brought a physical presence to the ice that was second to none and utterly devastating.

In this sense, Lindros really changed the way hockey was played and especially the way we view what a hockey player is capable of on the ice. The NHL has seen its fair share of power forwards over the years, but no one has been that physical and that talented the way Lindros was.

Right from his first game in Philadelphia as a 19-year-old up until his string of concussions and injury problems near the end of the century, Lindros was a human wrecking ball on skates who was virtually impossible to stop.

One of the main reasons Lindros was able to combine the scoring and checking abilities was that he was a tremendous skater for a man at 6’4” 240 pounds. Today, as players become more athletic and better conditioned, we are starting to see men with enormous size, excellent agility, and skating skills.

Yet, in the early 1990’s, this was practically unheard of and this made Lindros stand out all the much more. And really, of all Lindros’ talents, his skating is easily the most underestimated and under appreciated. For someone so large, he could accelerate, pivot, turn, crossover, and stop on a dime as if he were a much smaller player.

This gave Lindros an advantage over every player because he could power through you, or he could just as easily tip toe around you leaving you in the dust either way. And his speed was amazing, especially in his first five seasons or so, where at times it seemed like he had another gear no one else possessed.

Among other weapons, Lindros possessed wonderful stick skills, again extraordinary for someone so large. As Bobby Clarke has said, Lindros was “the first of the huge, big men with small man’s skill.”

While not the crazy stick handler like Alex Kovalev, Lindros' puck and stick skills could be breathtaking. Always more of a playmaker than a pure goal scorer, Lindros’ soft hands and vision created room for his wingers to score on a regular basis (see LeClair’s three straight 50 goal seasons from 95-98).

What’s more, Lindros had a great backhand and was as good as anyone who has ever been playing with one hand on the stick. One of his special talents was his ability to pass off the backhand in the blink of an eye.

From time to time, he would curl in his own zone, pick up a quick head of steam, reach near full speed, and receive a pass instantly backhanding the puck across the ice to a teammate’s stick. Or, he could drive the puck wide and fight off defenders with one arm while controlling the puck and passing or shooting with one hand on the stick.

As one would expect, Lindros carried a heavy and accurate slapshot but his wrist and snap shots were just as lethal. Like all great players, he was able to get shots away quickly at full speed and without breaking stride.

Many people’s vision of Lindros is of him barreling down the ice and ripping a shot near the top of the circle past the helpless goaltender.

There wasn’t much a healthy Eric Lindros couldn’t do on the ice.

Among the aforementioned skills, he was a very good player in his defensive zone and was among the best faceoff men throughout his entire career. Plus, he was tough as nails in fights, never afraid to drop the gloves and dominated most of those while doing it.

There is no doubt that an enormous amount of on and off the ice drama followed Lindros around for fifteen years, some of it deserved and a lot of it not, but no one can take away his years in the 1990s, in which he was arguably the most dominant player of his era.

In a lot of ways, Alexander Ovechkin today reminds me a lot of Lindros, but, aside from Ovechkin’s incredible goal scoring abilities, Lindros was bigger, more physical, and a much better all-around player.

The case that he does not belong in the Hall of Fame stems more from all of the drama off the ice than it does from what he brought to the ice. As the years pass, those issues will fade away and people will start to realize that Lindros is a good person and was a great teammate to play with.

The deck was really stacked against him from day one, being dubbed “The Next One” and being traded by Quebec for a ridiculous amount of players, draft picks, and money. 

And, in a lot of ways, he faced it admirably.

With so many selfish and egotistical professional athletes making fools of themselves and wrecking teams across North America, I’ve found it funny that Lindros should be regarded as this kind of player.

Has anyone ever seen him or read something in which he was blatantly defiant and brash?

It seemed that through all those melodramatic years in Philadelphia the stories were revolving around only what Bobby Clarke said to the press, and that was the only side of the story we were given.

Yet, inside the circle of NHL players, Lindros is seen as a real stand up guy.

Sure, he made some mistakes early in his career as a teenager, but he had to put up with a lot of junk that was undeserved. Once he was traded to the Rangers everyone gushed about what a great teammate he was.

The drama is not something that I want to get into because that would be a whole other story, but the fact remains that Lindros was tough as nails, and we may never know the real circumstances surrounding the media swirl and the concussion problems of which modern science still is much in the dark about.

Lindros played a brutal physical style of hockey and gave his all.  And, in the end, players started to return the favor, constantly running him without discretion.

He lived by the sword and died by it, but he laid it all on the line.

Sure, he skated with his head down but so does every player. It’s just that after years of taking punishment (Scott Stevens) from Lindros players decided that he was fair game to have his head taken off.

Players won’t hit someone like Gretzky or Crosby because it’s seen as against the code in hockey since they are not overly aggressive physically. Plus, most superstars have others fight their battles for them, but Lindros was the guy doing everything for his team: scoring, hitting, and fighting.

So, why does Lindros belong in the Hall of Fame?

Let’s look at the stats, because they often do not lie.

For his entire career with the Philadelphia Flyers, Eric Lindros averaged 1.355 points per game which placed him (at the time) in fourth place behind Gretzky, Lemeiux, and Orr.

Those numbers are simply astounding when you factor in his level of physical domination over that period.

Secondly, Lindros really did revolutionize the way hockey was played. He played half of these years in the “dead puck” era of hockey, which began in earnest with the 1996-97 NHL season.

By that point, there was so much clutching, grabbing and a heavy emphasis on defensive systems that scoring league wide took a drastic plunge. A lot of this was the direct result of trying to slow down the uninhibited play of Lindros, but players and goalies simply got bigger, stronger, and faster across the board.

In the 1995-96 season alone, 10 players tallied over 100 points or more, which was normal for the league going all the way back to the 1980s. However, over the next four seasons combined, from 1996-2000, only four players reached 100 points in a season (Lemieux, Jagr (twice), Selanne (twice), and Kariya).

There are a lot of comparisons between Eric Lindros and Cam Neely, but there is no doubt in my mind that Lindros was a much better player. Neely played his entire career outside the “dead puck” era (retiring after the 1995-96 season), and he did not even average a point per game despite playing with one of the best playmakers in league history in Adam Oates.

Not to take anything away from Neely, but Lindros was much more of a force in all aspects of the game.

Once Lindros was traded by the Flyers, he had one more solid season in his first year in New York.  But, after another string of concussions, he was no longer the player he once was.

Putting aside his concussions alone, his medical injuries look like some horrible nightmare for any professional athlete.

Yet, through it all, Lindros persevered and in my mind is someone who needs to be regarded as one of the truly greatest players of all time.

He currently stands in 15th place all-time in points-per-game and no one ahead of him comes anywhere close to his level of physical play. Without a Stanley Cup, experts are sure to rank Lindros below where his talent could have taken him. 

Still, it seemed that it was destiny for his career to be one of a great Greek tragedy.

If I were starting a team from scratch and I needed to pick one forward to build a franchise around…it wouldn’t be Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Mark Messier, or Sidney Crosby.

It would be Eric Lindros.

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