There are three kinds of players who get into the Hockey Hall of Fame. There are the absolute no-brainers like Wayne Gretzky or even Teemu Selanne, who will be eligible for the first time in 2017. Then there are the players who might never get recognized but finally get their due, like Kings’ great Rogie Vachon. Then there are the players, often controversial, for whom it’s just a matter of time.
Eric Lindros falls into the last category.
The former Philadelphia Flyers star will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on November 14th and, at least from the outside, it felt inevitable. “I wouldn’t use that word,” Lindros says from his home just days before the ceremony. “I was anxious.”
He was the only skater to win the Hart Trophy as league MVP since 1954 and not be in the Hall. That alone made it feel inevitable. He waited through six years of eligibility before getting the call from Hall of Fame Chairman and Hall of Fame forward Lanny McDonald in June.
Selected first overall by the Quebec Nordiques in 1991, Lindros refused to play for the team and owner Marcel Aubut (who has recently been accused of harassment). Lindros sat out a year, going back to juniors where he was an immensely dominant player for the Oshawa Generals. “My decision not to play for the Nordiques was solely based on the majority owner. It had nothing to do with anything other than that,” Lindros says. “It had nothing to do with language; my wife is [French-Canadian]. It had nothing to do with the size of the population. It was solely based on ownership. That’s about as clear as I can make it.”
Eventually, the Nordiques’ hand was forced. They traded him to the Philadelphia Flyers where he’d wear number 88 and enter the conversation as one of the all-time greats in orange and black.
But his introduction to playing against NHL players came earlier. He was the only non-NHL player selected to Canada’s 1991 Canada Cup team, playing on a roster that featured Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Mark Messier and a host of future Hall of Famers.
“I was just honored to be invited to the tryout, to summer camp,” Lindros recalls. “The first day that I walked into Maple Leaf Gardens, I’d never been in the Maple Leaf dressing room before and just walking around and looking at the various names that were asked to tryout, it was a bit overwhelming, let’s not kid ourselves. Words are hard to put into place here for a real description of that feeling.”
It was immediately clear Lindros would be a force in the NHL. Through eight tournament contests, he scored three goals and five points en route to a championship. His success there was prologue to the instant damage he’d cause in the pro ranks, scoring 41 goals and 75 points through 61 games his rookie season.
Though concussions cut seasons short multiple times, he was one of the three or four best players in the NHL at the height of his career, quickly becoming Philadelphia’s captain.
Concussions would loom large in his career, not only making him miss time but ultimately cutting a great career short. He suffered at least six concussions between 1998-2000.
It was also a concussion that played a role in his departure from Philadelphia. His family took concussions seriously at a time when there was less known about the injury. (His brother Brett, a first-round pick for the New York Islanders, played only 51 games before his career was ended by a concussion.) It led to his family seeking assistance outside of team doctors and it had a hand in him not playing during the 2000-01 season and his ultimate trade to the New York Rangers prior to the 2001-02 season.
However, it says a lot about him that then-general manager Bobby Clarke has been an advocate for Lindros’s induction despite the tension of that moment, which included the removal of Lindros’s captaincy. “There was a conflict over medical situations,” Lindros says, “but in terms of playing, Bob knew that I wanted to win. There wasn’t a question about that.”
Now, Lindros is an advocate for research and standardizing practices on how concussions dealt with. He speaks on the matter and has been a part of a group looking to establish a standard concussion protocol for athletes and teams with Rowan’s Law in Canada.
Lindros didn’t just post great numbers at the height of his game, he broke the mold. When he entered the NHL, there wasn’t a power forward like him. There weren’t players his size capable of scoring finesse goals like he could.
He balks at giving himself too much credit for the rise of the power forward. “I don’t think you know it then,” he says. “I think it all changes with the rules. The rules were completely different back then in terms of hold ups, in terms of what is a legal check and what is not a legal check, grabbing sweaters, taking people’s ice.” It’s a completely different game,” he points out.
“Stick checking too. Say we got off the ice in our groups Thursday or Tuesday (when he still skates now) and we’ve all grown up playing a certain way. Now, there’s no body contact or anything like that [in our games], but some of the stick checks, I bet you we would be penalized in today’s game, but with how we grew up playing, that’s a regular hockey play.”
Nonetheless, the Hall of Fame is the proper place for an MVP who altered the game. He’ll enter the ranks of hockey’s greats with a class of players who have had to bide their time. Russian legend Sergei Makarov, coach Pat Quinn, and Vachon, who is now 71, all enter alongside the Flyers legend.
But Lindros doesn’t regret the wait. “The upside,” he says, “is that I was driving downtown, coming back with my oldest guy in the car. The route that we were taking had the Hockey Hall of Fame right there. My wife was in the passenger seat and she said to Carl Pierre (their two-and-a-half-year-old son), ‘Look out the window.’ At the Hall of Fame, they have everyone’s picture up at the top of the building and my little guy looked up and said, ‘Hockey. Dada.’ You know, I wouldn’t have had that moment years prior. That was really cool.”