There is a debate to be had, in any sport, about who belongs in its hall of fame. Do you need a championship ring to get in? Is a dazzling career stat line enough, or should there have been some unique element to your game? How do you account for nostalgia — the consideration that Babe Ruth might not have bombed 60 homers against today’s pitchers — and give the modern player a fair shake?
There are rational, fact-based, analytical reasons that smart people can use in debate. Then there are “Canadian reasons.” These seem to be the only ones that explain how Eric Lindros, a singular player who dominated most of the 1990s and redefined the “power forward,” remains outside the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Last weekend, the HHOF added seven members, including four NHLers whose inductions were basically uncontestable. This word cannot be used for Lindros, who has been eligible for some years — he retired in 2007 — but whose awesome accomplishments, apparently, remain tarnished by the fact that he often acted like a jerk. And in hockey, whose culture extols “character” as much as other sports value “results,” that appears to be enough.
Let’s review the Lindros file. Drafted first overall in 1991, he was easily the most anticipated NHL prospect since Mario Lemieux. Anyone could see why: The dude was a 6-4, 240-lb. fridge on skates, with the speed of a guy 50 pounds lighter, the shot of a pure goalscorer, and the handles of a playmaking center. He was like a charging rhino that could twirl spaghetti onto a fork.
The best part? He didn’t just embrace the violent aspect of hockey; he took joy in it. “This kid’s dynamite, mean as a junkyard dog,” the legendary commentator Don Cherry said in 1991. “Can do stuff, not gonna be Gretzky like I said, or Mario, but he’s gonna be a Messier and maybe tougher.” Maybe tougher than Mark Messier. Consider.
Lindros debuted with the Philadelphia Flyers in 1992. He scored in the game, to no one’s surprise. “The Big E” then proceeded to live up to the hype. He scored like a man possessed, reaching 500 points faster than all but four players in hockey history. He vaulted the Flyers to the Cup final in 1997, where they lost to the Detroit Red Wings. He was 24. On these grounds alone, his Hall of Fame induction was already being discussed.
But Lindros wasn’t all substance; he also had style. In Lindros, the previous paragons of the power forward — guys like Messier and Cam Neely — had been seen, then raised to an almost comical level. While he was fighting the meanest guys in the league, knocking opponents into next week, and terrorizing every defenseman in the Eastern Conference, he was also showing a dangle, a daintiness with the puck that wasn’t supposed to be possible for guys of his size.
Watch how Lindros reads the passer. As a right-handed shot, he’s in prime scoring position — the “high slot”, in hockey terms — and he knows it. He stays almost perfectly still as the passer jukes toward goal, but he is quietly loading his rifle. Then the pass comes, and Lindros — who hasn’t once looked at the net — twists his body, snaps his stick down, and turns his eyes to target, in one, fluid motion. Here is the video with sound.
Simple Newtonian physics. Lindros, at his menacing best, seemed to defy them. He wasn’t the game’s first power forward, but he was its first perfect one. It goes without saying that fans in the ’90s, such as yours truly, would tune in just to watch him take a couple shifts. “He was a force of nature the game had never seen before and has not seen since,” columnist Steve Dryden said.
If not for concussions, he would have done a lot more. But he’d racked up five of them by May 2000, when this happened:
It altered the course of history. The Big E was never the same. After failing to revive his career outside Philly, he retired in 2007.
Career stat line: 760 games played. 372 goals, 493 assists for 865 points. 1398 penalty minutes for the grumpy fella.
That’s Eric Lindros the player. Then there was Eric Lindros the man, who — at least to the hockey brain trust — marred the player.
In 1992, there was the Koo Koo Bananas incident: Lindros was charged with spitting on and pouring beer on a woman at an Ontario bar with that koo-koo name. He was acquitted.
This pales next to the great sin of 1991, the one that set Canada on fire. That was Lindros’ draft year, and as so often happens with 1st overall picks, he was selected by a dreadful team. In this case, it was the sadder-than-sad Quebec Nordiques, a team desperate to avoid a move to a lucrative American market (say, Colorado).
Rather than play for the Nordiques, Lindros demanded a trade.
The hockey world — well, maybe just Canada — was appalled by this brazen display of self-interest. Some chided him for wanting a fat American paycheck instead of playing for a small-market Canadian club. Others, keeping Quebec’s independence movement in mind, darkly framed it as a cultural issue:
…separatist leaders and commentators in some of Quebec’s most powerful newspapers described Mr. Lindros as “fiercely anti-French” and as a symbol of English-speaking Canada’s determination “to put Quebec in its place,” and they have urged a boycott of any games he plays in Quebec with Canada’s 1992 Olympic squad.
Whether you call it extortion, or just an honest mismatch, the matter got resolved. Quebec traded Lindros to the Flyers in 1992 for six players, two first-round draft picks, and $15 million in cash. Lindros was gone. Philly was happy. Most of the hockey world moved on.
But the keepers of hockey’s flame have always held the game to be, at its core, noble. And they never forgot The Big E.
Why isn’t Eric Lindros in the Hall of Fame today? It can’t be his abbreviated career; Cam Neely, Pat Lafontaine, and Peter Forsberg are just three of the spectacular players whose careers were cut off by injury, and they’re in. It can’t be his stat line; his career points-per-game of 1.138, 19th all-time, shows how much he did with the little time he had. It wasn’t his style; at his peak, Lindros could have been described as “unstoppable” without any hyperbole.
By any cold-blooded analysis, Lindros is a sure thing. So the Hall must not be using such an analysis. The only possibility left — besides some sordid league secret, I suppose — is that the HHOF committee remembers what Lindros pulled when he was 18 and considers it unbefitting the Hall. At least for now.
It’s pretty harsh if true, but it’s illustrative. In admitting anyone to a hall of fame, the keepers of the game send a message about what they think embodies the sport. On the ice, Lindros did more than embody the sport; he overwhelmed it, pushed the limits of what seemed possible. But off the ice, he shocked and offended it. You’d think 24 years would be enough time to forgive a kid for that. But you’d be wrong.
SAQIB RAHIM | @SaqibSansU
Like many fans, Saqib Rahim is the product of his sports traumas. The 49ers losing, year after year, to Green Bay in the late 1990s. USA Hockey losing to Canada in the gold medal game of the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver – in overtime, no less. The San Jose Sharks perennially discovering new depths of failure, such as becoming only the 4th team in history to choke away a 3-0 series lead. But it’s all good. He’s over it. They helped make him the man he is today, and they made him curious about why sports are so engrossing and important to us. They helped him realize that sports are about the stories we tell ourselves about who we are.