In a special pre-game ceremony prior to last night's game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Philadelphia Flyers, Eric Lindros found himself once again at center ice in the Wells Fargo Center in front of a sold out, adoring crowd. The occasion was not to deliver those crushing body checks or end-to-end rushes 'The Big E' was known for as the most dominant player during his injury-shortened career. On this night Lindros' #88, the only Flyers player ever to wear that number, was hoisted to the rafters to share a place in Flyers infamy beside Bobby Clarke (16), Bill Barber (7), Barry Ashbee (4), Mark Howe (2) and Bernie Parent (1). As I watched and applauded the man receiving this well-deserved honor, I was flooded with many memories which I feel compelled to share here in an interview written up by my daughter Kara, born two years before Eric Lindros arrived in Philadelphia.
Interestingly enough, it was 1988 when I first met the future Flyers’ one and only #88 in Toronto. I was running through my pregame rituals at Maple Leaf Gardens when the director of officiating at the time and my mentor, John McCauley, dropped his son Wes and Wes’ teammate and friend Eric Lindros – age 15 at the time – off in the officials’ dressing room while he went out to talk to the Leafs’ general manager. Eric was large even back then, but hadn’t completely filled out yet. I was struck not only by his size, however, but also by his respectfulness and humility. Eric was playing with Wes on the Toronto St. Mikes’ Junior B team, and as he was leaving with Wes, John leaned over to me and whispered that Eric was going to be a first overall pick someday. That prophecy certainly came true in 1991 when he was drafted by the Quebec Nordiques, although his self-imposed delay and refusal to play for Quebec prevented him from playing a regular season NHL game until a blockbuster trade could be worked out with the Flyers in 1992.
I was assigned to ref his very first pre-season game at the Philadelphia Spectrum. The opponents? The very same team that drafted him and he refused to play for – the Nordiques. Eric scored his 1st of many goals in that game.
Even though just an exhibition tilt, this game was such big news in Canada that my father, Hilt, flew in from Sarnia, Ontario to watch alongside my wife Kathy. After the game they asked me what I thought of this new kid Lindros. I’ll never forget my first assessment: I said he’s a tremendous talent and can be a dominant player in this league – IF he stays healthy. I recognized in that first game that the Big E was used to playing against boys and, maybe for the first time, he would now have to play against men. Instead of going around players, his preference was to bowl them over. His stature and his skill were an unparalleled combination, but his reckless abandon soon earned him his first knee injury and those injuries kept coming. Still, there was a reason the tabloids of the era billed him as “the Next One” when he first faced off against “the Great One,” Wayne Gretzky.
When a game was on the line, Eric could take it on his back and kick into an extra gear that was one part sheer determination and one part reckless abandon. He was an amazing competitor with a strong will that easily earned his starring role on the Legion of Doom with John LeClair and Mikael Renberg.
In spite of his intensity and aggressive play, he was always a player that I could communicate with – never were there foul or harsh words in any of our discussions and disputes. He was respectful, a holdover of the boy I met in the dressing room that first time years before. That’s not to say he never dropped his gloves; even though his team was better served with him on the ice, he didn’t shy away from settling a dispute with his fists.
In the strike-shortened season of 1995, during back to back games between the Flyers and the Montreal Canadiens, Lindros beat up defenseman Lyle Odelein. In a post-game interview “Odie” threatened that he was going “to get Lindros” in a return match back in Philly two days later. That night I got a call from the Senior Vice President of Hockey Operations, Brian Burke, reassigning me to officiate that game and keep the peace. When I dropped the puck during the opening face-off, it scooted between my skates and John LeClair went for it while I rotated my upper body to back up. He drove straight through my back, compressing discs L4 and L5. I found myself keeled over in a pretzel position and unable to straighten back up. The linesman stopped the play and I was dragged off the ice and into the medical room. I was stripped of my gear, skates taken off, and the doctor was in the middle of straightening me out when Brian Burke and his assistant Dave Nonis walked in. Burke asked what I was going to do and I said if you can get me dressed, then I’ll go out and finish the job you brought me here to do. Flash to Burke pulling up my girdle and pants while Nonis tied my skates! I was able to get back on the ice and the game finished without incident. By the end I shuffled out of the building and missed the next four weeks until I had a spinal block in order to return just before playoffs.
One of the most frightening incidents I ever witnessed on the ice was in Game 7 of the 2000 Eastern Conference Final between the Flyers and the New Jersey Devils. At this point we were in a two ref system and I was leading the play as Lindros carried the puck across the Devils’ blue line with his head down. I noticed the play was offside but the whistle was delayed, and I saw Scott Stevens cutting across the ice like a freight train, in his typical setup to deliver a devastating hit on an unsuspecting opponent. I watched the whole play unfold - offside at the blue line, the linesman on the opposite side and not moving the whistle his mouth, my internal screaming at Lindros to look up – but to no avail. Would a whistle, or faster action on my part, have prevented the hit that ended with Lindros in the fetal position on the ice, motionless? My initial thought after Scott made contact and Eric went down was that this was really bad; frankly I was afraid for Eric. My next thought was to worry about the retribution – the cavalry came to 88’s aid in the form of his teammates’ fists and we had to put the fire out while the training staff attended to Lindros. As for Scott Stevens, he had delivered devastating checks on many players throughout his career. I had never seen fear on his face, however, until he stood by his bench and looked upon his unmoving prey. His face was drained and I thought showed more than just concern – there was fear that maybe he had gone too far this time. Ultimately Eric was helped off the ice. The Flyers lost the game. The Devils moved on to, and ultimately won, the Stanley Cup. And Eric Lindros would never fly down the ice in the orange and black again.
In spite of an injury-shortened career, Eric Lindros finished with an impressive total of 372 goals, 493 assists (865 points) in 760 Regular Season NHL games ranking the big man amongst the games' most productive stars. As such, Eric was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2016. I participated in the Induction Alumni game and caught up with Eric in the dressing room prior to that game.
While it can certainly be debated that Eric never achieved his fullest potential for good reason, no one should ever question that Lindros was without a doubt one of, if not the most dominant players of his era.
Last night in the Wells Fargo Center the rabid Flyers fans honored their Hero once again as they watched his #88 Jersey hosted to the rafters to take its rightful place among the other Legends of this storied franchise.
Congratulations to Eric and his entire family on his career with many thanks for the thrills and enjoyment that his talent and exciting level of play provided all of us hockey fans.