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The Big Hurt
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"Can't this story wait until after the trade deadline?" -The best hockey player in Philadelphia

***

Sorry that he drinks herbal tea. Sorry that he Scotch-tapes family Polaroids to the fridge and takes pregame baths and charters a jet home every Christmas. Sorry that he "lost it" when his coach said, "By the way, I have cancer." Sorry that his dad is his agent. Sorry that he's always injured, and that he could have died in Nashville, and that his general manager thinks he's a "baby," and that he's never smooched the Stanley Cup. It has been seven years since eight of them were traded for one of him, and sorry that the Philadelphia Flyers seem to be regretting it. He got them a new building and a new owner, and a scapegoat, too—him. He is a 6'4", 240-pound center who scores and kills penalties and passes and fights and visits sick children in the hospital. Yet they considered trading him this season, considered trading the best hockey player in Philadelphia, and sorry that it's depressed him.

He doesn't want a trade, doesn't want to leave home. Never has. Home is what he's all about. Home is the backyard rink in Toronto. Home is the Messier poster still hanging over his boyhood bed. Home is his father's red turtleneck. Home is his mother putting the pedal to the metal. Home is his place in South Jersey, with the "Reindeer Greetings" welcome mat. He doesn't want to go, because he cannot deal with change. Never could. When he was 16 and on a team in Detroit, he kept a knife under his pillow. He forced trades as a junior and as a pro, to be closer to Toronto, but now Philadelphia is home, and he wants a truce with Flyers management. He lives a 9-iron away from LeClair and can put an 8-iron through Jonesy's bedroom window; he loves hanging with the fellas.

He just wishes management would accept him for who he is. This is not some old-school player who wants a concussion for Christmas. His own brother is out of the NHL because of head injuries, and when he suffered a concussion of his own two seasons ago, he didn't rush back. Management stewed over it; they stew every time he misses a start. And they're probably ticked again, now that he's just had his third concussion in 22 months, now that he's on a first-name basis with a neurologist. Don't they get it? This is not the reincarnation of Bobby Clarke. Repeat: Eric Lindros is not Bobby Clarke. And the first person who needs to realize this is Bobby Clarke his own self.

***

When he played, Bobby Clarke had bad breath and no teeth. He behaved like a pit bull on the ice and soaked his aching body in a painkilling balm that gave him halitosis. But he became a Hall of Famer, and later the Flyers' GM, and now he's the one in the middle of this, the one who has shopped Eric Lindros. He won't admit it publicly, but he has shopped Lindros because Lindros isn't him. Because Lindros has missed 121 games in more than seven seasons. Because Lindros is oversensitive. But the overriding reason he has shopped Lindros is the Lindros family, which Flyers executives cannot abide. A family that, in the Flyers boardrooms, is referred to simply as "Toronto."

Clarke will deny it publicly, but management's perception is that Carl and Bonnie Lindros of Toronto are a nuisance, that they do not trust a soul, that they have raised an unhappy son. The Flyers privately wish Carl would resign as Eric's agent, while the Lindroses privately wish they could bypass Clarke and negotiate with the Flyers' minority owner (and 76ers majority owner) Pat Croce. But no one's stepping down, and it should come to a head this summer when Lindros becomes a restricted free agent. The Flyers will likely offer a long-term deal, and Lindros will balk. And he will balk for one reason: He needs to stay home. He figures if he signs for five years, it will become easier for the Flyers to trade him, and that would rock his world. Absolutely rock it.

But the question is whether Carl and Bonnie Lindros have, by now, made it impossible for their son to stay a Flyer. "I don't know," says the Flyers' founder and chairman, Ed Snider. "They make it difficult for their son to play anywhere. I don't really know who can satisfy them."

Snider later tried to rescind his comment, but what is said is said. And it is peculiar, because the people who know Carl and Bonnie, the people who have been to their cottage and have been licked on the face by their dogs, say they are the most wonderful parents alive. They talk about the Lindros Christmases, and the Lindros sing-alongs, and they don't see how there could be trouble.

The two met in 10th grade. Carl would bicycle to Bonnie's, guitar over his shoulder, and would serenade her until she climbed aboard. He kept serenading her through college, until someone hopped on his bed and crushed the guitar underneath. Her ears were saved.

He became an accountant and she a nurse, but they were jocks at heart. He had played hockey and football and she had tried track and field ("I was a great standing broad," she has said), and when they had a son, Eric, they bought him his first pair of skates when he was just 18 months old.

When Eric was 7 and brother Brett 4, Carl built them a backyard rink, the size of a blue line in. "Better than NHL ice," Brett says. Carl's trick was to take Zamboni snow from a local arena and use it as the walls of his homemade rink. He'd flood the lawn at night and again the next morning while he drank his coffee, and this created two layers of smooth ice. To the boys, the rink was Maple Leaf Gardens. Eric would often recruit teenage goalies to play against him, and he'd watch Hockey Night in Canada before bed, and in the summer, he'd fire slap shots in Carl's office parking garage. He attended hockey school, and one year, when his special-fitting skates were late to arrive, Carl rushed to help the postmen sort through packages.

Bonnie was just as spirited. "I remember having my learner's permit," Eric says, "and driving my mom to the mall. She was totally relaxed. She wasn't, 'You gotta stop still at stop signs.' She'd be, 'Let's get to the mall already.' She drove home that day, and halfway through a curve, she steps on the gas and goes, 'See how you can gain speed coming out of a turn?' "

Christmas really brought out the eccentric in Carl. He'd wear the same red turtleneck every Dec. 24, and when family and friends came over, he'd organize singing contests. "That's when I'd head for the hills," Eric says.

So this is how Eric grew up, with hockey and crooning. But he wasn't comfortable away from the house. At 15, he joined a Junior B team with 18-year-olds, and because his 10-speed had been stolen, he had to take Bonnie's bike—with its straw wicker basket—to practice. His teammates tied up the bike with athletic tape and shot pucks into the wicker basket. "Took me 45 minutes to get the thing ready to ride home," Eric says. "There'd be Vaseline all over it, or they'd hang it from the rafters, or put pucks in the spokes."

He was never part of the "in" crowd, so as he began advancing in hockey, he leaned on Carl and Bonnie. When he was drafted by Sault Ste. Marie, an Ontario Hockey League junior team, they all decided it was too far west, that the travel would hurt his schooling. As a consequence, he received poison pen letters. "From adults," Carl says. When the Quebec Nordiques drafted him, the family did not see it as a good fit and forced the mega-trade to Philadelphia.

Eric arrived there as a sad 19-year-old, uncomfortable in the limelight, living alone in a condo, cooking for himself. Bonnie and Carl would fly in, together and separately. Eric got a dog, a Great Dane named Zeus. But one night while he was out to dinner, the dog hopped a wall and was killed. Eric found him, and wept. "I don't handle those situations well," he says.

He later moved in with teammate Kevin Dineen and his wife, Annie, and that helped. But there was also the matter of his untimely injuries. He may have had 41 goals as a rookie in 1992-93, but he played only 61 games because of a knee problem. In ensuing years, injuries kept him from ever playing more than 73 in a season. He was the league MVP in 1994-95, but Flyers executives had already begun to grouse. They seemed to grumble louder when the new First Union Center was erected for the 1995-96 season. Lindros' marquee name helped fund the building, but now they expected a Stanley Cup. One of the players he was traded for, Peter Forsberg, had brought Colorado the Cup in '96. The Flyers reached the finals in '97, but Lindros scored only one goal as Detroit swept. Late in the '98 season, Lindros suffered his first concussion, limiting him in a first-round playoff loss to Buffalo.

There is a story people tell about that concussion. They say that as Lindros was in the ambulance, Bonnie called on his cell phone. Eric doesn't remember it that way, but, as the story goes, Bobby Clarke rolled his eyes and said: "Isn't that nice—Mommy called."

***

At least he had Roger.

On March 9, 1998, the Flyers hired Roger Neilson as their head coach, and Lindros finally found a soulmate in the organization. Before then, he had been closest to Croce, a former strength coach who helped him rehabilitate his knee as a rookie and who later brokered Comcast's deal to buy the Flyers. But Croce was into basketball, so Neilson came along just when Lindros needed a confidant. The coach was Dudley Moore in blond curls, and he'd ride his rickety bicycle to every practice, and after tense games, he'd say, "This is craziness, craziness." He'd call Lindros in to watch film, but he wasn't caustic like Clarke. "Roger's so honest," Lindros says, laughing. "We met to talk about me one time at a bus station, and I said, 'Roger, am I gonna be traded?' He said, 'I don't know.' Because he didn't! I said, 'Then, why are we meeting?' And he said, 'Because we drove all the way here, and we might as well. And I'm gonna get a cup of coffee out of it.' "

It was nice having a coach who felt like family. On Christmas Eve of 1998, Lindros asked Neilson to join him on his private jet. Every Christmas, Eric would charter a flight home to see Carl in his red turtleneck, and Roger agreed that night to fly along, to see his own family in Ontario.

So Lindros was at home in Philadelphia now. He did work for the Children's Miracle Network, bought a house in Voorhees, N.J., got himself a new dog and a roommate. The Great Dane was named Bacchus, after the Greek god of wine and partying, and the housemate was Frank, a 51-year-old he'd found through a roommate agency. Frank was a British chauffeur who'd once worked security for the Rolling Stones. He and Lindros would cook and drink herbal tea together and they never talked hockey—Frank didn't know any. Over the holidays, they would buy a Christmas tree and hang stockings. Philly felt perfect. "I like being home," Eric says. "I like my dog seven feet from me at all times."

But life changed on April Fools' Day 1999. The Flyers were in Nashville when Lindros took a direct hit in the ribs. Clarke, from Philadelphia, suggested Lindros fly home the next day for X-rays. But that night at the team hotel, a listless Lindros couldn't sleep and climbed into a bathtub. He was discovered there in the morning by his hotel suitemate (and linemate), Keith Jones. "He takes baths before every game, so at first I didn't think anything of it," Jones says. "But he looked real white, and it seemed to be more than a rib injury."

Lindros was to fly to Philly that morning, but an angry Jones shouted, "He's not getting on that [bleeping] plane." Instead, Lindros entered a Nashville hospital, where he underwent surgery for a collapsed and punctured lung. "They operated on him in the ER, with his suit pants on," Carl Lindros says. "He'd already lost half of his blood supply, internally. Thank God for Jonesy."

To the Flyers, this was just another in the long line of injuries, and with the playoffs only three weeks away, they wished he'd hurry back. "Well, how are you supposed to guard against a punctured lung?" Lindros says.

He wasn't ready for the playoff opener against the Maple Leafs, and it all boiled over in the locker room. A Flyers assistant mentioned that Jeremy Roenick of the Coyotes was returning early from a broken jaw, and said to Lindros, "You gonna let that [bleep] come back before you?" Clarke heard it and chuckled, but Lindros felt he'd been embarrassed in front of his team. He confronted Clarke in his office, slamming the door, at which time Clarke, according to one Flyer official, said, "Stop being a baby."

Says a Lindros confidant: "I heard it was Clarke who said some things publicly in the locker room about Eric too. I heard it was vulgar."

Clarke's response is, "I was in the locker room when the comment was made, and it was said jokingly. Nobody meant for it to be taken the wrong way. It was just guys standing around, joking and stuff, and I guess it ended up bothering Eric. It's no big deal.

"But it's good he came up to see me. At least we know what bothers him, anyway. Other guys, you can say anything, and it doesn't bother them. Now we just won't say anything around him."

The tension didn't go away after the meeting. According to Flyers players, an irritable Clarke tried baiting Lindros into an early return, asking him, "Would you rather come to Toronto and skate with the team, or skate with the [farm team] Phantoms?" The remark burned at Lindros. He never returned, and the Flyers were eliminated. "What do they want?" Brett Lindros says. "He nearly died giving his life to hockey."

Not long after, the Lindros family sent a letter to Snider insinuating that Clarke was wrong for trying to fly their son to Philly the day after the lung injury. They wrote that Eric could have died on the flight due to the cabin pressure. Snider wrote a terse letter back. "It's totally untrue what they wrote to me," Snider says. "That's their own imagination. Bob Clarke would never do anything to harm Eric Lindros, nor would he ever make medical decisions. I don't know what their problem is. I investigated it, and there's no issue."

The disagreement made for an anxious summer, and although Snider says he met with Carl and Eric at training camp, nothing was ironed out. "I don't know if things ever get ironed out with his parents," says Snider.

Says someone close to the Lindros family: "Well, if you knew everything the Flyers have done, you'd know why."

At the start of this season, Lindros was still despondent. Rumors circulated that he would be traded to Carolina for Keith Primeau—a deal his teammates were against. "The off-ice crap was getting to me," Lindros says. "I was just sick of it. I was letting the team down. I wasn't myself, off the ice or on the ice. I was drained and maybe mopey. Is that a word?"

When the Flyers started 0-5-2, Lindros, the captain, called a players meeting to apologize and say he would stop feuding with Clarke. "He was man enough not to put himself ahead of the team," says linemate John LeClair. The Flyers started winning. Clarke, to his credit, agreed to the truce and apologized to the team. The GM does, after all, have a human side: The name of his 9-month-old grandson, Stoney, is tattooed on the back of his wrist.

So all seemed well—until Neilson tapped Lindros on the shoulder in early December. The coach told Lindros he had bone marrow cancer. Lindros says he "lost it." Neilson, as is his way, tried to soothe Eric, saying, "Well, if I've gotta go, I'm sure heaven's a better place than Philly."

It dawned on Lindros then that the feud with Clarke had been foolish. A teammate, Dmitri Tertyshny, had died in a boating accident last summer, and now Neilson was to undergo chemotherapy. Lindros had life in better perspective. He promised Roger a fedora, for when all his curly hair falls out, and vowed to just play hockey. "I just want smooth sailing," he says. "If the Flyers don't want to deal with my dad, they can deal with our family attorney, Gord Kirke. I just don't want any hiccups anymore."

He was again playing brilliantly, like the best hockey player in Philadelphia, but then on Jan. 14, he suffered another concussion. He was scared for his career, but guess who tapped him on the shoulder again? Roger.

Says Lindros, "Roger said to me, 'Uhhhh, I was reading that concussions can make you depressed, so I'm gonna give you a clinical test.' And I said all right. And then he goes, 'You depressed?' I said no, I'm fine. And he goes, 'Okay, that was my test. Now get the hell out of here.' I was laughing my ass off."

So Lindros returned to the team, all smiles, maybe because Primeau had just been traded to the Flyers for Rod Brind'Amour, not him. He was sad for his buddy Brind'Amour, but he and Jonesy also arranged for Primeau to rent Brind'Amour's home—a short walk from Eric's. Primeau is an elite player and Lindros knew this was his best chance to give the Stanley Cup a hug. In his first game back from the concussion, he scored a goal, picked a fight and helped the Flyers snap a four-game winless streak. "This is craziness," Roger was saying, "craziness." And the Flyers players agreed Lindros was still the team's heartbeat, and that he should never rush back from a concussion again, and that they would undoubtedly give him the team's MVP award.

An MVP award that's named the Bobby Clarke Trophy.

This article appears in the February 21, 2000 issue of ESPN The Magazine.



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