While Kobe, Alex and Kordell are relatively new to the pressures of potential, Eric Lindros knows all about Next. Lindros could teach Introductory Next 101. Before he was 18, Lindros was dubbed The Next One by hockey wise guys and scribes who scout the kids on Canadian ponds. The nickname didn't leave a lot of room for error, and heaven knows, the game is hard enough without folks carving your face into hockey's Mount Rushmore before you've skated a shift as a professional.
Now 25, in his sixth NHL season as star center of the Philadelphia Flyers, Lindros has an MVP award and a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals on his resumé, but there are still questions about his place in the pantheon of hockey superstars. Is The Next One a worthy successor to The Great One and to Mr. Gretzky's peers, Messrs. Howe, Orr and Lemieux? Anaheim's Paul Kariya plays a faster game. Pittsburgh's octopus-like Jaromir Jagr is a more fluid skater and stickhandler. And there's even a case to be made for Colorado's Peter Forsberg, who was swapped (along with five other players, two draft picks, $15 million and some French/English dictionaries) for Lindros in hockey's trade of the decade.
But if there's going to be a story about Next, you can't exclude The Next One. "Eric has got to wear the crown," says Bobby Orr. "No question. Some of the players who've been wearing that crown for a while are getting up there in age. Eric is the guy now."
When asked about his nickname, The Next One makes one of those Nancy Kerrigan "something smells" faces. "I don't know who started it. I try not to get too excited about things I can't control. Whatever." Whatever? Okay, so he's not exactly Letterman guest material. But Gretzky, a teammate on the Canadian Olympic team, knows how the legend game is played.
"It's the reality of sports," says The Great One. "Guy Lafleur had it when he came in. I had it. Mario had it. And Eric had it. People want to hang that mantle on the next guy, and that's just a fact of sports that's never going to change."
When Lindros' Flyers knocked the Penguins out of the playoffs in Lemieux's farewell last spring, Mario officially passed the torch during the traditional post-series, conga-line handshake. The defeated Lemieux told Lindros, "It's your turn now," then skated into retirement.
This is the way it was supposed to work out for Carl and Bonnie Lindros' oldest son. Carl was a football and hockey guy who played in the CFL and had a cup of cocoa in the Blackhawks' system. Bonnie was a track star from Chatham, Ont., and they raised their three kids an hour-and-a-half from Toronto in London. The Legend of Eric begins with Carl converting the family swimming pool into a hockey rink. When the ice needed patching, Hockey Dad Lindros would drive the family wagon to an outdoor rink, find a pile of Zamboni snow residue, shovel it into the back and bring it home to fill holes in the backyard rink. Always bigger and stronger than the other kids, young Eric had a hard, accurate shot—and he could skate. The total package. He played Junior B when he was 15. By the time he was 18, he had written an autobiography and teamed with Gretzky to win the 1991 Canada Cup.
Now 6'4", 240 with enormous, meaty hands, Lindros possesses surprising finesse. Still, his game is smashmouth hockey. He long ago decided that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, no matter who or what stands in the way. Try moving him out of the crease. Go ahead, try. He is Attitude On Ice.
"The others don't like him because he's reckless and hardened," says goalie-turned-broadcaster John Davidson. "Gretzky and Lemieux were so good with their hands. Eric's more bullish. Wayne and Mario belonged in the white cowboy suit with the white hat on the white horse. This guy's got the black horse and the black suit and the black boots and the spurs."
Derek Sanderson, who led the NHL in cockiness in the early '70s, says, "I would have loved playing against Gretzky and Lemieux, but I would have hated to play against this guy. He's going to beat your ass up." They still hate him in Quebec because he wouldn't play there. They hate him in Florida because they think he cheap-shotted center Rob Niedermayer last fall. "That's bull," said Lindros. "He had a concussion before I ran into him, and it was a clean hit."
There he goes again. Eric being Eric: mean, nasty, aloof. Strip away the expectations, reputation, folklore and imagery, and Lindros stands alone. He may not lead like Mark Messier, or skate like Jagr, or pass like Lemieux, or score like Gretzky. But Eric Lindros towers over all as hockey's Next. No one this big has ever been this good.
And his opponents fear his shadow will grow even larger.