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ERIC THE BAD : The Bruising Flyer Rookie Rocks Hockey With Raw Talent, Bad Manners and Frank Pleasure in the Violence of the Sport

April 11, 1993|Peter de Jonge | Peter de Jonge is a free-lance writer living in New York City. He has written profiles about athletes and actors for the New York Times Magazine.

ON THE THIRD FLOOR OF THE PHILADELPHIA FLYERS' TRAINING FACILITY IN Voorhees, N.J., hockey's new prince of darkness is standing barefoot in soaked, gray sweat shorts and T-shirt, working on a skill that separates him from the rest of the game's superstars.

"Relax and crush," whispers the team's conditioning coach, Pat Croce, and 20-year-old Eric Lindros' huge, meaty white fist comes flying off his shoulder, followed by the flatulent splat of wood inhaling leather, then the rat-tat-tat-tat as the force of the punch plays itself out on the speed bag.

With Lindros' younger brother, Brett, looking on, Croce schools the rookie on the tenets of the sweet science--balance, keeping your weight over your legs, how to twist into a punch, not lean into it. And Lindros is a natural student, just as at 6 foot 4 and 230 ripped pounds he is a natural heavyweight, not the inflated product of a weight room. "It just goes on," Lindros says offhandedly about the muscle, "it's a disease." He even has a fighter's thick stump of a neck.

Eventually, Lindros tires of the pugilistic niceties. With his left hand held straight out in front of him as if he were clutching someone by the jersey, he starts wailing, throwing right after right, until Brett, in the name of decency, mockingly moves to intercede. "The scrap's over," he says. "It's history. The guy is down. He's unconscious. He's dead." But Lindros ignores him and keeps firing, now grunting with every punch, his dark curly hair matted against his head, green eyes glaring at the fat leather bulb that keeps coming back for more.

This is the player who coincidentally is hockey's best hope and least likely new ambassador, a media star who, at the end of an injury- and trouble-plagued rookie season, is nevertheless being counted on to carry the Flyers to half a dozen Stanley Cups in the next decade, justifying the $15 million, six players and two No. 1 draft picks they sent to the Quebec Nordiques for the right to sign him. The big, bruising center is also expected to pick up the mantle from the aging Wayne Gretzky and the reticent Mario Lemieux and elevate hockey to the major status enjoyed by football and baseball in America.

But are his shoulders broad enough to carry that load? Lindros seems supremely unqualified for any diplomatic assignment. For starters, there's his less-than-winning ways with the media. Throughout our interviews, Lindros makes the distracting point of hailing every Flyer or team official who walks by, and his signature gesture is a luxuriant, leonine, boredom-induced yawn that frequently takes half a minute to work its way out of his system.

Then there's his delight in the kind of violence that many hockey people think is precisely the direction the sport should not be heading in if it's going to broaden its appeal. The last major athlete to enjoy hurting people as much might be the incarcerated prizefighter Mike Tyson, who, oddly, shared with Lindros the habit of going into battle without socks inside boots.

Asked if he enjoys a crushing body check as much as a goal, Lindros, who has been an angry outsider since his days firing slap shots on a back-yard rink while listening to heavy metal AC/DC hits like "Back in Black," gets a twinkle in his eye and says "Oh yeahhh, I get off on it, you know. It turns my crank."

Nor did it help Lindros' image when photos of him handcuffed in the back seat of a police cruiser were plastered across the Canadian front pages after a beer-spraying episode in his favorite Whitby, Ontario, pub. The incident, early in the season, led to an assault charge. "I smiled for my mug shot and got some ink on my fingers," Lindros says in his best gangster imitation. Even his acquittal provided little damage control, since Lindros testified that he had virtually taunted the complainant into pressing charges by telling her, "I make $3.5 million a year. What are you going to do about it?" a line that many Lindros watchers feel captures the young man's condescending arrogance.

Then there is the matter of his parents. In the course of their son's remarkably polarizing career, Carl and Bonnie Lindros have successfully taken on the entire hockey power structure, first refusing to send him to the top minor-league team that drafted him, then defying the National Hockey League draft. In the process, the outspoken Bonnie has antagonized almost every segment of society in Canada, hockey's heartland. As Daniel Poulin, author of an unauthorized Lindros biography, "Doing Right For Eric," puts it: "The problem with the Lindroses is that they think they are above the rules and regulations and laws affecting the rest of us."

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