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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.

The first league the Lindroses brought to their knees was the Ontario Hockey League, which infuriated the family by allowing the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds to make Lindros their first draft choice in 1989. It's easy to understand why the family would not be eager to have their son play junior hockey in a town that is a 500-mile drive northwest of Toronto, where some road games require eight-hour bus trips. But it's just as understandable that the Greyhounds would choose the best player available, just as 12 years earlier when they drafted Gretzky.

Gretzky went, Lindros didn't, moving in with a family in Michigan and playing hockey for a Detroit minor-league team. A few months later, the Ontario league, fearing that Lindros might play American college hockey and bypass its program altogether, abolished the rule that had barred teams from trading their first draft choice. The provision, which became known as the Lindros Rule, allowed the Greyhounds to swap Lindros to the Generals of Oshawa, near Toronto, for three players, $80,000 Canadian and future considerations later said to have been worth almost $500,000. In Canada's highly stratified junior system, players progress from Peewee to Midget to Junior B to Junior A and, finally, if they're good enough, to the professional NHL.

The Sault Ste. Marie controversy proved to be a scaled-down model of what would happen two years later, when the Quebec Nordiques made Lindros their first pick in the NHL draft. Once again the family deemed the location unacceptable. They claimed that their son would have a hard time adjusting to Quebec's French culture and complained that being an English-speaker in a Francophone city would limit his local endorsement potential. Bonnie Lindros also said that the town wasn't big enough to provide privacy for a star of the magnitude her son was likely to become. Furthermore, the provincial taxes were way above the American rate that he would pay if he played for one of the league's U.S. clubs.

And once again the family was indignant that their wishes, made clear to the Nordiques well before the draft, had been ignored. If the residents of Sault Ste. Marie had felt slighted, Quebecers, already defensive about what they perceived to be the highhandedness of English-speaking Canada, were outraged. Tensions heightened when two French Canadian players--Martin Lapointe of the Red Wings and Gino Odjick of the Canucks--disclosed that as junior players Lindros had called them "frogs," the derisive slang for the French.

Although team members and local columnists never directly attacked Lindros, not wanting to alienate the player they still hoped might lead them to glory, they lambasted the family, particularly Bonnie. "They ripped my mom," says a still-bitter Lindros. "They ripped my mom."

A column in the Ottawa Citizen reflected how deeply "L'Affaire Lindros" affected the French Candian psyche. "If Canada flies apart in the next few years part of the reason will be a 6-4 inch man on skates named Eric Lindros," it said.

This time Lindros had to sit out a year before he could force a trade. Marcel Aubut, owner of the Nordiques, held firm, insisting a trade was out of the question. But then at the league's annual meeting, the weekend before the draft, Aubut took advantage of the trading frenzy that often envelops the proceedings, turning the Radisson Hotel in Montreal into a kind of bedroom farce with rival general managers of NHL clubs sneaking down the hallways trying to outdo each other's outlandish bids for Lindros. Late on the night of June 19, Aubut traded the rights to Lindros to the Flyers. Aubut got so carried away he also traded Lindros to the New York Rangers a couple hours later, requiring an arbitrator to unravel the mess.

IF THERE IS ANYTHING THAT MAY DERAIL Lindros, according to hockey people, it's the extreme involvement of his parents in his career, which, if possible, is increasing. Days after Lindros signed the contract with the Flyers, the family fired Curran as Eric's agent, announcing that Carl would be quitting his job as an accountant to represent his son full-time. Team officials suggest he shares the job with his wife.

A striking couple of former athletes--she is a high school basketball and track star, and stands 5 foot 11 while he is 6 foot 5--Bonnie and Carl are like other parents who have invested enormous energy on a child with a rare gift. But the Lindroses' distrust of the motives and competence of outsiders appears to be rabid.

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