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Eric Lindros finally justifies the hype

Roughly 26 years before Eric Lindros became a Hockey Hall of Famer, he was already being treated as such.

He was “The Next One.” He was a player whose combination of strength, size and offensive gifts was unmatched for a young player.

To understand the hype, the anticipation, the mania surrounding Lindros as he neared entrance into the NHL, just open up a wax pack of hockey cards, circa 1990.

That was when Score, the trading card company, made the unprecedented move of signing up Lindros to an exclusive endorsement deal as a junior hockey player. So a year before Lindros was eligible to be drafted, his “FUTURE SUPERSTAR” rookie card depicting him as a member of the OHL Oshawa Generals was already being coveted, as a part of a multi-card set.

This is not how things were done.

The following year, Lindros was taken first overall by the Quebec Nordiques, who had the NHL’s worst record. But Lindros and his family found team president Marcel Aubut to be a repellant buffoon, and they had signaled for weeks that Eric would never play for Quebec. “It was about a person. It was not about a city, it was about an owner,” said Lindros on Monday, although his family also recognized that his earning potential was much greater in another more linguistically palatable city.

Again, this is not how things were done.

So the Nordiques took their young asset and decided to trade him. Twice. To the Philadelphia Flyers, and then to the New York Rangers, and it took an arbitrator’s decision to figure out where the single greatest hockey prospect since Mario Lemieux would play. The decision was Philadelphia, which sent a king’s ransom to the Nordiques, who would soon become the Avalanche, who would soon win a Stanley Cup thanks to that trade, while the Flyers and Lindros never did. (Check out the Lindros Trade Tree to see the aftermath 25 years later.)

“There’s a void there,” admitted Lindros about his lack of a Stanley Cup ring.

Again, this is not how things were done.

But Lindros was unprecidented. No one had the hysteria surrounding them like Lindros had as a young player. It was bigger than what surrounded Mario, because Mario was proof of concept that one should throw their season for a franchise player. Lindros took that hype, and added much more to it. No one had his expectations, either, to be the next to join the pantheon of Wayne and Mario. 

It’s with a healthy amount of irony that Lindros enters the Hockey Hall of Fame after a playing career in which many declared that he fell short of those standards. It’s hard to imagine now, but less than a decade ago Lindros was still being chided for unrealized potential and being called “the best bust” in NHL history.

In a span of 25 years, Lindros went from a potential Hall of Famer to someone who didn’t fulfill the hype to someone who, once that bubble of hype was popped, actually had a Hall of Fame career in retrospect: 19th in NHL history in points per game average with 1.138, having won the Hart and the Pearson in 1995. This despite just 760 NHL career games in a concussion-plagued career. 

“It feels full circle, if you understand that,” said Lindros.

CANADA - JULY 05: Jays give Lindros a look. Oshawa General junior hockey superstar Eric Lindros got a chance to show his baseball skills for the Blue Jays yesterday at the SkyDome. Lindros; right; took some drills at third base and later got this advice from manager Cito Gaston after swinging the bat: Stick to hockey. Lindros; 17; has been a standout in high school ball. (Photo by Patti Gower/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Eric Lindros has belonged in the Hall of Fame since he retired after the 2007 season. From 1992-2002, he was a transcendent talent: The dominant offensive game, the physical gifts, the Legion of Doom, the way teams started building their lineups to defend against him.

He had impact on the ice and culturally. He had success in the NHL and internationally – the junior level, at the Canada Cup, the World Cup of Hockey and the Olympics. And while he never captured the Stanley Cup, he also shouldn’t be faulted for his team’s shortcomings – Lindros had 57 points in 53 Stanley Cup Playoff games.

So why did he have to wait for immortality? Why did so many unmemorable players get the call before the game-changer?

Outside of work history, there’s the fact that his career was wrought with controversy. The Quebec debacle. The clashes with Bobby Clarke while with the Flyers, which dovetails into his medical history and the way he was treated by the NHL.

Again, it’s interesting how times change: Where as Lindros used to take some (rightful) blame for his series of concussions by virtue of the head-down way he played the game -- and where Bobby Clarke would question his manhood for slow recoveries from head injuries -- Lindros later became a leading voice on the NHL teams' lack of concussion prevention and protocol during his playing days. In the last five years, The Hockey News has twice written that the NHL owes Lindros an apology.

In the span of 25 years, we’ve gone from Lindros as a victim of his own stubborn unwillingness to change his game to Lindros as a soothsayer about Rule 48 and the NHL’s current campaign against concussions.

Full circle, indeed.

My favorite thing ever written about Eric Lindros was by a poet named Rose Solari, then the senior editor of SportsFan Magazine:

"Eric Lindros, with his tragic parental issues and mysterious, grief-stricken gaze, is the Hamlet of the NHL."

I mean, there are few greater narratives to apply to a boy form London, Ontario ... 

But if we’re going with the Bard, let’s quote the great Dane himself, in conversation with Rosencrantz:

"There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."

Some have seen that line as a call for blissful ignorance, but the common reading is that it’s ethical relativism: Something is judged right or wrong within the confines of one’s culture and societal norms.

Demark was a prison for Hamlet, and expectations a prison for Eric Lindros. 

The Eric Lindros Hall of Fame Debate raged as intensely as it did since his retirement because, for many years, 760 games weren’t enough. Neither were 372 goals. Neither was the one MVP season and the zero Stanley Cup championships. Eric Lindros had failed to meet the expectations placed on him when we held that junior hockey rookie card in our hands and assumed we were holding a promissory note of greatness. Eic Lindros had "squandered" the chance to join Wayne and Mario among the legends because his career didn't produce the same stats and championships. 

But time eventually separates us from context.

The hype is not longer deafening, the expectations no longer humbling. We’re able to judge Lindros not on what might have been, or should have been, but rather what was. As we did with Pat Lafontaine (865 games played). As we did with Pavel Bure (702). As baseball did with, for example, Sandy Koufax, who was out of the game by age 30 but made the Hall of Fame pitching in less than 400 games.

Turns out the hype was right all along, even if it took a few years to acknowledge it: Eric Lindros was in fact a future Hall of Famer.

"[I waited] six years, but I’m in the Hall forever,” said Lindros. 

--

Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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