MERIBEL, France -- Eric Lindros is big. Very big.
He doesn't skate. He glides.
He doesn't hit. He crashes.
He is a villain dressed in a maple leaf. Even 4,000 miles from home, 4,000 miles from the National Hockey League, Lindros continues to hold center stage.
He received a concussion. He screamed at a Russian hockey legend. He scored a goal on a penalty shot that saved Canada from international disgrace in its national sport.
And, tomorrow, the player who took on the NHL will compete for the gold medal at the Winter Olympics. The teen-ager billed as the world's third-best hockey player behind Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux just might wind up a national hero after all, leading Canada to its first hockey medal since 1968.
Goodness knows, Lindros continues to attract attention. He is still a holdout, refusing to sign with the Quebec Nordiques. He remains, despite his protests, a symbol of the rift in Canada between the English-speaking majority and the French-speaking minority.
But he's just a kid. Eighteen.
When Lindros arrived at the Games, he told a group of reporters: "Everyone was put on this Earth for a purpose. Mine seems to be to sell newspapers."
His biography, "Fire On Ice," was published on the eve of the Games. The book could be subtitled, "The Bonnie Lindros Story," because it focuses on Lindros' controversial mother. She
continues to give NHL owners fits, backing her son in his holdout with the Quebec Nordiques.
Lindros' decision to refuse to sign with the Nordiques triggered a national debate in Canada. Two members of Canada's Parliament even moved to throw him off the national team.
But Lindros, who lives in Toronto, remains unmoved.
"I don't think I represent the rest of Canada or the conflict in Canada," he said. "I think I represent player-management relations at some companies."
The rub is this: It's not the language, it's the money and the taxes that matter. Lindros said he wants a big contract. He wants to play in a province or a state where the tax code doesn't slam-dunk multimillionaires.
"I don't think the language has anything to do with it," he said. "It has nothing to do with the people. I don't want to speak about that. It has to do with the management."
So he's a holdout, bouncing from team to team. Four at last count. Canada's world junior team. The Canada Cup team. The Oshawa Generals of the Ontario Junior Hockey League. And, finally, the Olympic team. Since Aug. 3, he hasn't stopped playing.
"Some people thought he could lead us out of the wilderness," Canada coach Dave King said. "Eric's performance level seems to be keyed to how he moves his feet. When he skis more than he skates, he is not as good as he can be."
He is very big in these Games. The French went after him in the opener and knocked him silly, gave him a concussion. The Unified Team took him on, too. A slash here. A butt end there. Lindros finally skated over to the Unified Team bench, pointed to the number 88 on his jersey and screamed at coach Viktor Tikhonov.
And then there was the wackiness with the penalty shots against that well-known hockey power, Germany. Tied 3-3 after regulation and a 10-minute overtime, the teams were forced into taking penalty shots. Did someone declare indoor soccer an Olympic event? Lindros missed his first shot and shook his head sideways in disgust. But he made his second, getting the game-winner, putting Canada into the semifinals.
"I'd rather play hockey," Lindros said. "That's not hockey. That's backyard-rink stuff."
He'll put up with the frills and follies of the Olympics. Hockey is fun again. He's playing for real again.
But, on the whole, he'd rather be in the NHL. If he doesn't sign this season, he'll have to sit out another. He talks of going to school. Yet 4,000 miles away, the trade rumors filter back from Canada. That he's headed for Detroit. Or Toronto. That some owner is willing to unload millions of dollars, a couple of players and a couple of draft picks to Quebec, all for the right to sign the kid, the world's third-greatest player.
"Because of the circumstances in the NHL and my feeling toward a certain organization, I'm here," he said. "It's a great second place to be. If this is second-best, I can't wait until first-best."