Eric Lindros Was the Sports Hero Philadelphia Deserved
For a guy from Ontario, Lindros, who will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, sure seemed like he could've been from South Philly.
"I think he's the greatest player in the NHL and I just wanted to say hello."
This story—a Philly sports fan meeting a member of the Flyers at a trendy Philadelphia bar—wouldn't be of much interest if not for who that Philly sports fan was. "Skinny" Joey Merlino was the boss of the Philadelphia Crime Family. He met Eric Lindros twice: at Rock Lobster (when, per Merlino's recollection Lindros would have been underage) in 1992, and at Continental in 1996. They also ran into each other at Boyd's, an upscale men's clothing store.
At least, that's what Merlino said on afternoon drive-time sports talk radio. The first rule of the mafia is silence, but Merlino felt the need to call in to tell WIP's Howard Eskin and his listeners that he and Lindros had in fact only met three times. This was the kind of town Philadelphia was in the 1990s. This is the kind of sports hero Eric Lindros was.
"It's a crime," said the man who was once convicted of stealing $350,000 from an armored car. "I went up to him—he never came up to me. He didn't know who I was. I'm a hockey fan ... Anyone would want to walk up to him." The Flyers, for their part, released a statement saying they "will not respond to ridiculous, unfounded charges and innuendo."
The whole thing started when the Daily News reported that Merlino was in Lindros' seat at a Flyers game. Lindros said Merlino purchased the tickets after he turned them over for resale. Philly sports media personality Mike Missanelli wrote in his magazine that Merlino and Lindros were friends, and later reports had it that Lindros went out with Merlino's sister. WIP was all mob talk for a week after that. "Why don't you ask him who's next on the hit list?" a caller asked Eskin.
A year later, the Flyers actually sued WIP—which broadcast its games—and host Craig Carton over a report that Lindros missed a game because he was hung over. "We were willing to give them the benefit of the doubt the last time," then-Flyers owner Ed Snider said. "They finally went over the ledge. Snider was so angry he crowed to the Inquirer about the lawsuit. "Snider said he believed the suit was a precedent: The Flyers are the first NHL club to sue its flagship station for what [attorney Phil] Weinberg said was the libeling of a player," Tim Panaccio wrote.
Lindros wasn't part of the mafia. But, inflamed by sports talk radio, Philly fans were ready to believe it. Lindros, who learned yesterday that he'll be in the next class of the Hockey Hall of Fame, owned the city in the 1990s. Philly's usual celebrities are local news anchors and athletes—and, back then, mobsters. Lindros was not just an all-world hockey player. He was, and is, a bonafide Philadelphia sports legend.
At age 18, Lindros stood 6-foot-4 and weighed 225 pounds. He was such a sure thing the Quebec Nordiques selected him with the first overall pick in the 1991 NHL Draft, even though he said he wouldn't play for the club. The Nordiques figured they'd wait him out; hockey players are supposed to do what they're told. Lindros sat out the season.
At the 1992 draft, Quebec traded Lindros to the Flyers. Then, they backed out of the deal with Philly and traded him for what they felt was a better package from the New York Rangers. The Flyers filed a grievance, and it was left to an arbitrator to decide which team would get the coveted prospect.
I remember sitting on the phone with my best friend as we waited to find out if the Flyers were going to get Lindros. I was too young to remember the Flyers' run to the Stanley Cup Final in 1987. They were a perennial loser by the time I started watching sports, some two years later. But we were sold: The Flyers were going to get Eric Lindros, and he was going to make the team great.
We rejoiced when arbitrator Larry Bertuzzi delivered the news: "I find that Philadelphia made an enforceable deal with Quebec." The Flyers traded Steve Duchesne, Peter Forsberg, Ron Hextall, Kerry Huffman, Mike Ricci, Chris Simon, two draft picks and $15 million for Lindros, and we were set.
"I remember [Flyers GM Russ] Farwell saying this kid is going to change the face of hockey," Flyers beat writer Chuck Gormley said. "He's going to make kids in the U.S. and Canada want to be just like him." That was definitely true in Philadelphia. Never before had I picked up a hockey stick—I can't even skate—but Lindros made regular street hockey players of my friends and I in Northeast Philly. We played as the Flyers in the NHL series for Sega Genesis. Lindros' Oshawa Generals rookie was the only hockey card anybody wanted—and Lindros even had a baseball card, too. He was a legend here before he even played a game.
Lindros scored in his debut. He scored twice when he played his first game in Quebec, where he was taunted and called a baby. He had 75 points in his rookie season. The Flyers stunk, but Lindros was just 19. There was time.
In his third season, Lindros had 70 points in a lockout-shortened 48-game season and won the Hart Trophy as the league's MVP. With the Flyers in danger of falling into a 3-0 hole in the Eastern Conference Finals, he scored an OT game-winner against the New Jersey Devils. The Flyers ended up losing that series in six games, but bigger things were to come. "When Eric Lindros comes off the Flyers bench, I shake—every time," said Doug MacLean, Florida Panthers coach from 1995 to 1997. "That doesn't happen with anyone else."
Of course, things didn't work out. Lindros suffered a concussion on a hit from Darius Kasparaitis in 1998, and things were never really the same. He missed 18 games. He suffered at least six concussions in a Flyers uniform—once even in practice—and feuded both behind the scenes and openly with general manager Bobby Clarke. He rushed back from those concussions as the Flyers made a run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Then came the hit, Lindros' last play in a Flyers uniform. Scott Stevens drilled Lindros as he went down the middle of the ice in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. The Flyers lost the game—on home ice, no less—and the series after being up 3-1.
Some of Lindros' many concussions came from his of play: ''One of the stupidest mistakes I've ever made was trying to carry the puck with my head down,'' he said in 1999. Of course, he tried to skate down the middle with his head down a year later when Stevens delivered his famous hit.
But the Flyers did Lindros dirty. In 1999, Lindros felt team doctors had underplayed a rib injury. It turned into a collapsed lung. Lindros was rushed to the hospital. After Lindros publicly criticized trainer John Worley, the Flyers added three years to his contract. Lindros' father and agent, Carl, said the Flyers were trying to "kill" Eric. "All the controversies, Eric brings them on himself," Clarke said. " 'John Worley wouldn't treat Eric properly. I was going to put him on a plane to try to kill him.' This kind of stuff never ends."
The team knew he had concussion symptoms, but treated him with over-the-counter headache medicine. Jeremy Roenick, then with the Coyotes, was returning from a broken jaw, but Lindros wasn't ready for the playoff opener. "You gonna let that [unknown curse word] come back before you?" an assistant coach taunted Lindros. Clarke laughed. Lindros confronted him about it, and was told to "stop being a baby."
Lindros ended up sitting out another year as he recovered from the Stevens hit and the Flyers tried to figure out what to do with him. Lindros tried to force a trade to Toronto, but the Flyers didn't think the Maple Leafs were offering enough. He eventually went to the Rangers. "He hurt this organization," Clarke said. "I couldn't care less about him." Lindros would play another five seasons, and just three more playoff games, before retiring at 33.
But time heals wounds, and Clarke was "instrumental" in getting Lindros elected into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Lindros returned to Philadelphia for the 2012 Winter Classic Alumni Game. Lindros, for his part, is now blazing a trail for player safety.
"Listen, I wasn't perfect, no one is perfect," Lindros told The Hockey News. "But I do sit here and feel quite comfortable about my health going forward. I feel good. We're going to be fine. Our [kids] are healthy, and we're lucky." He's living quite comfortably in a posh Toronto neighborhood.
It's easy to look at Eric Lindros' career, even with the Hall of Fame nod, and think of it as a bit of a disappointment. He never won a Stanley Cup. He left the Flyers on acrimonious terms. He somehow inspired a headline, "Lindros denies mob connection."
But watch any of the highlight collections on YouTube and you get a sense of what a special player he was. He was the center on the legendary Legion of Doom line, along with John LeClair and Mikael Renberg. He was the first Flyer to have consecutive hat tricks. He scored on a penalty shot to help the Flyers tie the game. He scored on the Sabres from mid-ice. He lost his stick, yet somehow didn't give up the puck for what seemed like eternity on the boards. He got into a fight during training camp. For a guy from Ontario, he sure seemed like he could've been from South Philly.
And he made tons of Philly kids in the 1990s lifelong fans of hockey. The Flyers were awful in the years before Eric Lindros' arrival. Lindros made the Flyers a must-watch. He is a legend here. Skinny Joey Merlino thought he was the greatest player in the NHL. For a few years, he may have been right.