The first time he hits the ice on a Saturday night in early autumn in Hershey, Pa., there is this brief pause, a collective gasp, really, as if the air is being sucked out of this hangar of a building.
You expect to see a gangly teen-ager, not some football player in hockey skates. But here he is, No. 88, a 6-foot-5, 235-pound rock skipping along the ice. The fans like that and begin to fill the Hersheypark Arena with applause. They have come to see a preseason game between the Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers, but they have been drawn by curiosity, to see if this kid paid millions has the goods.
Eric Lindros, No. 88, is everywhere. He plants himself in front of the Capitals goal and takes a dozen shots. Defensemen try to move him, and he won't budge. A tough guy named Al Iafrate goes with him into the boards and is dropped as if he hit a Zamboni or something.
Finally, No. 88 gets a goal. Nothing fancy. A power-play number on a pass across the crease. One flick of the stick -- score. It's so quick you have to check the replay to see if it really happened.
Later, he misses an empty-net opportunity, flinging the puck off the glass, and a couple of fans start screaming at him, a little bit mad that the Flyers are losing 7-4.
But it's only an exhibition game, the third one in three nights. And, afterward, the kid is sitting on a bench in a grimy minor-league hockey locker room, reaching for his clothes that hang on a nail, answering questions from a cluster of local reporters.
He is handsome -- dark curly hair, glistening eyes. Even a bump on the nose like a young Brando.
After a million interviews, he has the cliches down cold.
His personal goals?
His hopes for the season?
"Trying to fit in."
Playing under the weight of expectations?
"The attention has been there a few years. It's sort of like a road show."
This is the autumn of Lindros.
He is the new act in the NHL, which begins its 76th regular season tonight. By late spring, when the playoffs are winding down, it's unlikely that Lindros will be on center stage. But it doesn't matter. Not yet, anyway.
Wayne Gretzky is out indefinitely with a herniated thoracic disk. Mario Lemieux and the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins are likely to be on cruise control until the playoffs. The expansion teams in Ottawa and Tampa, Fla., are expected to be among the worst in the history of professional sports.
Hero and villain
But there's Lindros, the next Gretzky, the next Lemieux, goodness knows, maybe even the next Gordie Howe. He is 19, a legend in some provinces of Canada and a villain in others.
The Quebec Nordiques drafted him No. 1 in 1991, and he wouldn't go. He sat out one NHL season, playing in the juniors and the Winter Olympics. Finally, when the Nordiques decided to cut their losses and trade his rights last summer, they liked it so much they did it twice in 20 minutes.
Lindros was a Flyer. And a New York Ranger. Until an arbitrator finally awarded him to Philadelphia.
L Now, he's a franchise, signed for six years and $20 million.
And he's still a kid. You see it and hear it in so many ways.
He'll talk in wonder of "trying a little chemistry" in the kitchen of his condominium in New Jersey, of putting potatoes in the microwave and pork chops in the frying pan.
On the day of his signing, he wasn't awed by the glittering downtown hotel ballroom in Philadelphia, the wall-to-wall media and fans, even the numbers in his contract. What really got him was meeting Will Smith, the Fresh Prince.
But the kid can play like a man. He finishes checks. He rams in goals. He is a center who possesses an artistic sense of how gorgeous hockey can be, threading passes from the high slot, finding the open man on the wing, leading a rush up ice.
And he can fight. A three-punch decision over Tampa Bay's Joe Reekie in an exhibition game last week sent a chilling message throughout the NHL: Don't mess with Lindros.
"Eric has as much speed and skill as the other superstars in this league," said Capitals general manager David Poile. "And he is even bigger and stronger than the others. You don't even shut down guys like that."
A fit for Philly
What makes the whole package perfect is that Lindros is in a city that will go absolutely bonkers over his style. In Philadelphia, they take their pretzels with mustard and their sports with a sneer. This is a city that loved the leader of the Flyers' Broad Street Bullies, Bobby Clarke, all heart, and yet for years loathed the Phillies' future Hall of Fame third baseman Mike Schmidt, all style. They even put up with all of Charles Barkley's trash talking until his words were finally louder than his actions.
Lindros is tough, a little abrasive, even.
"He could be a villain around the league," Clarke said. "With his style of play, he's in the middle of everything. With Gretzky and Lemieux, you may not like their team, but you have to respect their skill. But when a player is as physical as Eric, well, he'll get booed."
That's fine for the Flyers. Three straight years out of the playoffs, a new $170 million Spectrum II arena on the horizon, the team needed a boost to retool the franchise and ensure all those luxury suites will be filled for the rest of the decade.
To get Lindros, the Flyers had to give the Nordiques goaltender Ron Hextall, defensemen Steve Duchesne and Kerry Huffman, centers Mike Ricci and Peter Forsberg, their top draft pick in 1993 and $15 million.
What's left is a group that is potentially weak on defense, explosive on offense, yet seemingly overmatched in the chase for the four playoff berths from the powerful Patrick Division.
And, of course, Lindros is there. "I'm just one of 20 guys," he said.
The team crafted an advertising campaign around No. 88, selling club seats for a reduced price of $8,800 in the Spectrum II, due to open in the 1994-95 season.
Want a No. 88 Flyers' jersey? Only costs $88.
Lindros is in the midst of a media and fan deluge. He is surrounded by as many as a dozen reporters while his teammates are ignored. Fans encircle him for autographs as he makes his way to a bus. Asked if he can ever walk 10 feet without signing an autograph, Lindros said, "Yeah, from my locker to the shower."
"There is nowhere this guy can go, no shift he can have, that is not subject to scrutiny," said Flyers general manager Russ Farwell. "People are always waiting for something to happen."
In the past year, this teen-ager became an almost mythical figure in hockey. The longer the holdout, the greater the mystery, the more tantalizing the future.
"There weren't many highs in the last year," he said. "I wouldn't want to do it again."
Hockey is accustomed to high-powered debuts. There was Bobby Orr in the 1960s. Gretzky in the 1970s. And Lemieux in the 1980s.
But Lindros is different.
The expectations are greater because they've had a year to gather and build.
In Canada, the best juniors are known throughout the country, and once, every generation or so, a player comes along who is so good, so poised that stardom is not so much predicted as demanded.
The player of the '90s is Lindros, put in skates as an overactive toddler, reared on a pool frozen over behind his family's home, polished in the rough and tumble world of the Ontario Hockey League.
"On the Eighth Day, God Created Eric Lindros," was the slogan that overwhelmed junior hockey during the 1990-91 season. Playing for the Oshawa Generals, Lindros scored 71 goals in 57 games. He also drew 189 penalty minutes. It was the mesmerizing blend of talent and toughness that the NHL covets.
No, no, Nordiques
But then the Nordiques drafted him No. 1, and the story turned ugly. Lindros went home that night and cried on the shoulder of his younger brother, Brett. His parents, Bonnie and Carl, vowed he wouldn't play in Quebec. It had nothing to do with politics and everything to do with money and long-term goals.
Yet the story was complicated because here was Lindros, an English-speaking Canadian, refusing to play for the Nordiques, a team representing the capital of French-speaking Quebec.
And in the middle of the controversy was his mother, who took on a male-dominated game and stuck up for her son.
"We never anticipated it would get to this extreme," said Carl Lindros, who soon will leave his position as a partner in a Toronto accounting firm to oversee his son's business career.
"When it's national news, that's when you realize things had gotten out of hand," Carl Lindros said. "Eric was used as a symbol for people to communicate a point of view."
Throughout the holdout, Eric said the issue wasn't "French-English," it was "labor-management."
Lindros was out in the cold for a year. He had played with Lemieux and Gretzky in the Canada Cup and then went back to the juniors. At to the Winter Olympics, he led the Canadians to a silver medal. And, then, he was off to the golf course.
He was waiting. Waiting for the Nordiques and their unpredictable owner, Marcel Aubut, to buckle under.
"You wouldn't know what the guy would do," Lindros said. "You'd prepare for the funniest."
Finally, Lindros won. A clean sweep. He got out of Quebec. And the Nordiques looked inept at best, greedy at worst, trading him twice.
' One of the guys'
The happiest day of his life, Lindros said, was arriving in Philadelphia and pulling the Flyers jersey over his tie and sport shirt. Now, all he wants to do is fit in with his new teammates.
"Eric doesn't have to try at all to be one of the guys," said his linemate, Mark Recchi. "He just is."
You find Lindros after practice in the locker room. He is sitting on a bench, taking the skates off his bare feet, letting the sweat run down to the floor. Nearby teammates roll their eyes as Lindros prepares for yet another interview.
Kevin Dineen, the forward whose father, Bill, is the team's coach, looks at Lindros, and then, imitating the women who swarm around the team bench before games, says, "Oh, he's so pretty."
He's asked about fighting.
"I haven't played too dirty yet," he says. "It's still the preseason. There will be a little animosity. It will be exciting."
He's asked about Lemieux and Gretzky. Suddenly, he starts talking about the Rangers' Mark Messier, the league MVP.
"When Mark Messier skates on the ice, he doesn't have to prove anything," he says. "With him, it's respect. He's awesome. He's the best. He's No. 1."
Finally, someone asks him about the season, about being a star and a villain.
"It has been going on since Day 1," he says. "I'll get the cheers at the Spectrum. Forty-two times a year."
The kid knows the score. This year, he owns the autumn. But give him four years, and he just might own an NHL spring.