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PHILADELPHIA—When Eric Lindros and the Philadelphia Flyers parted ways in a fog of acrimony back in 2001, it would have been an outlandish scene to conjure: Lindros’s No. 88 raised to the rafters in the Flyers’ home rink.
But such was Thursday’s hell-frozen-over moment on Broad Street. On a night that saw every seat draped in a commemorative No. 88 T-shirt complete with the captain’s “C” once stripped from Lindros’s sweater, Lindros was asked at an accompanying press conference if he could have imagined such a production when he left Philadelphia in 2001. The man they called the Big E laughed a little.
“No,” Lindros said. “You?”
Uh, no. Don’t forget that Lindros was only traded to the New York Rangers after sitting out the 2000-01 season dealing with post-concussion symptoms and demanding to be dealt to the Maple Leafs. So the whole thing, held in the lead-up to a Flyers-Maple Leafs game, was hard to fathom. The massive on-ice projections that made Thursday’s ceremony a stunning production read “88 Forever.” But Lindros, though he was hockey’s biggest star at the height of his considerable powers, was only around these parts for a relatively short time. The MVP of the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season, Lindros played 486 games for the Flyers, which ranks 37th on the franchise’s all-time list. To put that in perspective, current Philly captain Claude Giroux was playing in his 701st game for the Flyers in Thursday’s post-ceremony tilt, and Giroux only turned 30 last week.
Lindros, 44, peaked in his age-22 season with a 47-goal, 115-point campaign. After that he played parts of just four more seasons for the Flyers, missing an average of about 28 games a season to a series of injuries, including concussions. (His brief turn with the Maple Leafs, wherein he managed 11 goals and 22 points in 33 games in 2005-06, was waylaid by a wrist injury.)
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All that said, nobody in attendance at Wells Fargo Center seemed to mind the sight of Lindros’s number being hoisted alongside Philadelphia immortals Bernie Parent (1), Mark Howe (2), Barry Ashbee (4), Bill Barber (7) and Bobby Clarke (16). Lindros, standing before a massive centre-ice rendering of his No. 88, was bathed in lengthy standing ovation.
“(This is) one of those days you take for the rest of your life — the special moments,” Lindros said. “It’s just an extremely special moment where you feel lucky. You really feel lucky.”
For years Lindros and Clarke, the latter the club’s general manager during Lindros’s playing days, were embroiled in a bitter feud. After Lindros criticized the team’s medical staff for misdiagnosing his injuries around 2000, Clarke stripped Lindros of his captaincy. Fed up and rocked by a series of head injuries, he sat out that full season demanding he be dealt. Their mutual dislike simmered for years. Still, no matter their feelings — and Lindros said Thursday he was looking forward to seeing Clarke, who was said to be in attendance — it was Clarke who publicly made the case for Lindros’s induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame, which finally came in 2016.
“We disagreed on some things, there’s no doubt,” Lindros said, speaking of Clarke. “But when it came down to hockey, and if winning is it, I can’t question Bob and his desire to do what he could in all cases to win.”
Lindros’s love of the game has never been questioned, either. He spoke of how he still plays in a couple of weekly shinny games near his Toronto home. And on Thursday, after the Maple Leafs concluded an optional morning skate, Lindros spent 15 or 20 minutes on the ice, taking what he called “a little twirl” with 3-year-old son Carl Pierre, one of the three children he shares with his wife Kina.
“You just never know when you’re going to have another chance to do that with your kid,” Lindros said. “Carl’s at an age now when he’s starting to grasp hockey . . . That’s the coolest part. He’s fired up . . . You’ll never have a chance like that ever again.”
Lindros was asked how he might fare in today’s game, where predatory hits — like the bit of Scott Stevens viciousness that ended Lindros’s last game as a Flyer in 2000 — are no longer deemed legal.
“I think it’s wrong to speculate. You play with the rules you’re given,” Lindros said. “I’m glad that things have progressed. I’m glad that (concussion) awareness has truly picked up. I just wish there was more research we could rely upon for change . . . (Concussions) will occur. It’s inevitable. I think overall the league has done well. I just really hope they would involve themselves on the research side of things.
“We’re nowhere near where we need to be. A lot of it stems from the (lack of) research dollars.”
On Thursday, Lindros gave a speech that would have seemed unfathomable not too many years ago, paying tribute to Legion of Doom linemates Mikael Renberg and John LeClair — the latter of whom Lindros said “belongs in the Hockey Hall of Fame” — along with a long list of former coaches and teammates. Lindros also spent time crediting Flyers president Paul Holmgren with helping mend the once-massive rift between No. 88 and the franchise of his prime. Thursday’s peace offering also included a Rolex, presented to Lindros after Holmgren pointed out that in the half-century-plus of Flyers history, “only a few names come to mind immediately . . . and Eric Lindros is one of those names.”
“You’re back where you belong,” Holmgren said. “And this time, it’s forever.”