Death By a Thousand Cuts
Tagged as “The Next One” when he came into the NHL eight years ago, Eric Lindros brought speed, strength, and skill to a Philadelphia Flyers team desperately seeking a redeemer. The 18-year-old also brought a nastiness and a willingness to go that made him a fan favorite in the city that uncorked rock-em, sock-em hockey on the league 30 years ago.
The only thing he can’t do is stay healthy. Over his career, Lindros has missed more than a season-and-a-half worth of games to injury, the latest a brain-bruise suffered March 4 in Boston. And the repercussions of that concussion are damaging the team as much as the injury damaged its star.
Now, the captain and the organization are pointing fingers at one another. Lindros says says the team should have known he had a concussion. The team says Lindros hid the injury. Caught in the middle is a pretty good hockey club, distracted from the business at hand – catching East-leading New Jersey – by the controversy.
And up in the stands, the Philly fans are in full-throat. Universally regarded as the loudest, least-informed herd of talk-radio callers in all of sports, they know somebody’s to blame for jeopardizing their Cup hopes again. They just don’t know who, torn as they are by their love-hate relationships with Flyers President Bobby Clarke, the captain of the Flyers ’73-74 and ’74-75 Cup teams, and their current captain who seems to break so easily.
In a city that alternately reviles and reveres its sports heroes (See: Schmidt, Michael Jack; Hall of Fame Philadelphia Phillies third baseman), the atmosphere surrounding the Flyers has sunk to new depths of bitterness and bad feelings.
In the beginning
Before all injury scratches added up to a Death by a Thousand Cuts, it was hope for glory in the City of Brotherly Love: someday, and soon, Eric Lindros would lead the parade down Broad Street.
The Flyers saw it. They traded five players – including Peter Forsberg – to the Quebec Nordiques for the rights to Lindros, and then wrestled him away from the New York Rangers in arbitration.
The fans saw it. Lindros had the talent and the grit to bring back the Stanley Cup. He was a bigger, self-enforcing version of Clarke, a hard-nosed skill player who scored and slashed with equal enthusiasm.
Team owner Ed Snider saw it too. As Clarke began building a supporting cast, Snider, like Kubla Khan, did a pleasure dome decree — a gazillion-dollar arena to showcase the triumphs-to-be.
Then, on March 7, 1998, in a game against the Penguins in Pittsburgh, the Flyers plans changed. Darius Kasparaitis caught No. 88 with a clean, open-ice hit and knocked him silly. It took a trainer and two Flyers five minutes to get their 6-4, 235-pound teammate up on his skates, and there was an awkward 30-second pause at the bench gate while Lindros tried to lift his foot over the dasher.
The hit put Lindros out of action for 18 games with his first concussion. And, looking back, it may have signaled the beginning of the end of Lindros’ career, at least in Philadelphia.
The plan comes together
Make no mistake, Lindros rescued the Flyers from their wilderness years. After back-to-back-to-back first-place divisional finishes in the mid-80s, they’d slumped into a sub-.500 club incapable of making the playoffs.
Two years after Lindros arrived, Clarke traded Mark Recchi to the Montreal Canadiens for John LeClair and Eric DesJardins. A year later, the Flyers made it to the Eastern Conference Finals, but lost to the New Jersey Devils. The next year, they made the Cup Finals, but caught the Detroit Red Wings in full bloom and were swept.
One step at a time, though, it seemed like everything was going according to plan. Until Kaspariatis caught Lindros with his head down.
Anybody who has followed Eric Lindros’ career must wonder why the Hockey Gods would forget to give a big, tough-guy player a head hard enough to play the game.
The rest of the story
Lindros has never played a full season of professional hockey. Except for the lockout-shortened ’94-95 campaign, the closest he has come is 73GP in ’95-96, the year the Flyers made the finals.
Early in his career, there were knee problems. Then he lost games to a cut suffered when one his own shots ricocheted off a stick, hit him in the face, and almost blinded him. He has lost chunks of the past several seasons to back spasms, and at the end of last year, he suffered a collapsed lung that nearly killed him.
And, of course, the head injuries, four of them over two years. With each lost game – 120-plus and counting – the talk and controversy has grown. In Philly, it’s at fever pitch now because Lindros is done for the rest of the regular season and, unless the Flyers go deep into the playoffs, he won’t play again until next year.
If he plays next year
The neurologist treating him now says the concussion is not career-threatening, but will Lindros want to keep playing until he suffers one that does put him out of the game? Where he plays next year is another question. He’s a free agent at the end of this season, and both sides have said they want No. 88 back in the black-and-orange next year.
But over the years, through all the injuries, the relationship between Clarke and Lindros has deteriorated to the point where Lindros openly criticized the organization last week for allowing him to play for four games after the March 4 game in which he suffered the concussion.