Saturday, November 10, 2007

Eric Lindros: Retirement, Legacy and Hockey Hall of Fame Consideration

Eric Lindros officially announced his retirement on Thursday. As he recounted his career, presented a 5 million dollar cheque to the hospital where the press conference took place and joked with the media, Lindros seemed more relaxed and content that he had been at any time during his playing days. An aura of relief seemed to surround him and there was a sense that the drama and controversy that dogged him as a player is finally at an end.

As Lindros steps away from the game far earlier than he probably expected way back on that draft day in 1991 when he snubbed the Quebec Nordiques and set the course for his career, the debate over whether he belongs in the Hockey Hall of Fame heats up. It seems that more than most former NHLers, this will be decided as much by the perception people have of him as a player and a person as by any hard facts.

The Eric Lindros saga resonated from the beginning with anyone who has even a mild interest in the game. The response of fans and the media to many of the melodramas that surrounded him were visceral. The discussions over his legacy are just as often based on emotions as on any concrete statistics or evidence. Lindros is kind of like Neil Young, reality TV shows or marmite; you either love him or hate him.

For those arguing in favour of Lindros as being one of the game's great players, a few standard lines are brought up time and again. The most common is "During his prime, he was the most dominant player in the game."

I have a few problems with this statement. First, it is the kind of claim that is rarely quantified. That's because defining such a word is not easy. Even if an acceptable definition is agreed upon, getting consensus on whether individual players reached that level is difficult due to the fact that such a determination is not based solely on points.

Only those who watched Lindros play the game night after night over a period of numerous seasons can really weigh in on whether he was in fact a dominant player. The repetition of that line by others comes across as begging the question. Simply a convenient mantra that is rarely broken down and articulated by those who spout it. Of course, this doesn't mean there isn't any validity to the description of the Big E as a player who could control a game and single handedly make a difference.

A high scoring center who could also hit, fight and drive through opposing players, Lindros was the deciding factor in many games throughout his career. However, there are other elements that detract from the most oft repeated adjective used to describe portions of his career.

And that is the most important thing that takes away from highlighting him as such a pivotal and overwhelming force. He missed too many games in which he was eligible to play due to injuries that resulted from a fundamental flaw in his playing style. He was hammered and concussed on numerous occasions because he failed to keep his head up, a fact which he jokingly referred to during his press conference.

That is at the heart of his other major shortcoming as well. Lack of playoff success. If you aren't playing you can't help drag your team into the playoffs, can't help your team win the Cup and can't be dominant.

With the exception of 2002-03 when he was far removed from his prime, Lindros failed to play a complete season throughout his entire career. Other injuries that reduced his playing time but were no fault of his own are unfortunate but the "if he had been healthy," arguments are ultimately meaningless.

Proponents of Lindros also seem to both dismiss points totals as a deciding factor in qualifying for greatness, or the very least Hall of Fame status, while at the same time pointing to the fact that he did have decent numbers. They are good without a doubt but definitely not great. There are others with higher totals who may not be inducted. Regarding his points production, the most positive spin is that his per game average is at least within the top 20 all time.

When passing judgment, detractors of Lindros are usually guided by the impressions of him that took root early and were validated throughout his career. Sullen, joyless, selfish and petulant are words that come to mind.

His off-ice behaviour, including the demands, melodramas and meddling by his family, were all distractions that did nothing to help the teams he played for. For someone who had so much potential and at times lived up to the hype, his lack of leadership skills are also a mark against him.

The Lindros story-line that was so compelling to fans contributes to a higher profile than many other players before him who accomplished far more. That increased awareness of him as evidenced by the amount of debate over his legacy probably will push him towards acceptance in the Hall of Fame sooner than it would have otherwise. That and the fact that the standard for inclusion really isn't that high.

The real question though, is how will he be remembered a generation from now? Will it be for his marginal accomplishments, both personally and through the teams he was part of, or will it be for the off-ice clashes, career shortening injuries and unfulfilled potential?

For the answer, simply ask yourself what images and thoughts rise in your mind when his name is mentioned.

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