PHILADELPHIA - For 11 years, the final image of Eric Lindros in a Philadelphia Flyers uniform has been him curled in a fetal position, knocked cold after a brutal shoulder-to-jaw check on the open ice from New Jersey's Scott Stevens.
Two teammates escorted Lindros off the ice, then gingerly handed off his limp body to the training staff. The "Lindros 88" jersey faded into the darkness of the tunnel leading toward the locker room.
"I know what the story is going to be now," ESPN sideline announcer Al Morganti somberly told the viewing audience moments after the hit. "It will be whether or not he can ever play again."
Lindros did return to the NHL, but not until the end of an ugly 15-month saga over irreconcilable differences with former general manager Bobby Clarke that destroyed his relationship with the franchise and culminated with a trade to the New York Rangers. Lindros, one of the most gifted players of the 1990s and perhaps the Flyers' greatest offensive player, never got to give his final goodbye to the orange-and-black faithful.
Once he was gone, Lindros was gone for good.
For a franchise that prides itself on its deep, daily connection to the past (yes, they really do play a video of a women who's been dead 25 years singing "God Bless America" for good luck before big games), Lindros was persona non grata. No tributes. No banners. For a player once dubbed "The Next One," as in the next Wayne Gretzky, Lindros had turned into "The Forgotten One," a sad commentary on how ill feelings lingered for more than a decade.
All it would take was a move across the street to a baseball stadium for their connection to start anew.
With all eyes in the NHL on Philadelphia this week for the showcase Winter Classic, Lindros and the Flyers have seemingly patched their dysfunctional relationship and hope to put the past to rest when Lindros takes the ice in front of a sold-out crowd of 44,000 fans in Saturday's alumni game. He'll play for the Flyers organization for the first time since the first period in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final May 26, 2000.
Knowing one of the greats had to be included on a star-studded roster, general manager Paul Holmgren reached out to Lindros to ask about playing.
"It was great to hear Paul's voice on the other end of the line," Lindros said by phone from Toronto. "We had a real nice talk and I'll leave it at that.
"It was real positive and I'm grateful for it. I know they have a number of players to choose from, and I was fortunate to get the call."
Clarke, who had stripped Lindros of his captaincy and repeatedly blasted him in the media, believed the time was right to move on. He said Holmgren did not ask for permission to invite Lindros—nor did he need it.
"I didn't care," Clarke said. "Eric won the MVP as a Philadelphia Flyer.
"He's important to this franchise. He should be playing."
But it was Clarke who said in the months leading up the trade, "I don't care if I talk to Eric for the rest of my life—it won't kill me."
Clarke won a pair of Stanley Cups in the 1970s during the Flyers' "Broad Street Bullies" era. He's remembered as much for his role in the Lindros-Flyers soap opera that could have filled 52 weeks of programming for HBO's 24/7 series. While Clarke has been prodded to rehash Lindros's nightmarish final year, the 62-year-old Hall of Famer insisted he no longer had hard feelings toward him.
"As far as I was concerned, they were gone as soon as he was. When he left, it was over," Clarke said. "He went to the Rangers and it was all over.
"Whatever had gone on, was done. I didn't have any animosity."
The two Flyers greats—who led a triumphant final lap around the ice when the team left the Spectrum in 1996—haven't talked since the trade.
Neither knows what they'll say when the finally meet.
"I haven't thought about it," the 38-year-old Lindros said. "It's just two people saying hello to one another. I'll be a teammate of his in the alumni game, and I look forward to it."
Based on the numbers and achievements alone, Lindros's inclusion in the alumni game was as easy as an empty-net goal.
He won a Hart Trophy as NHL MVP, made six all-star teams, scored 40 goals four times over eight seasons, sparked the construction of a new arena, and led the Flyers out of the darkest period in franchise history and into the Stanley Cup final in 1997.
He was "The Big E," six foot four and 245 pounds of scoring force at centre whom the Flyers deemed worth six players, two first-round draft picks and US$15 million to acquire in a blockbuster trade with the Quebec Nordiques in 1992. With left-winger John LeClair and right-winger Mikael Renberg, the trio formed the Legion of Doom, a nickname popularized because of their muscular frames, tough play, and dominant scoring.
Lindros nearly became the first Flyer to win a scoring title, just losing out in 1995 to current Flyer Jaromir Jagr, and was only 22 when he won the MVP that same season.
Clarke said then Lindros could become the greatest player ever.
That promise went unfulfilled.
Lindros had his career derailed by a series of concussions, at least eight by his count, and the consequences of the devastating blow suffered from the Stevens hit played a role in what cost him the 2000-01 season.
The collapse stretched beyond the actual injury. Lindros had criticized the team's medical staff for failing to diagnose his second concussion of the season March 4, 2000. Clarke questioned the severity of Lindros' concussions, and ripped his parents, Carl and Bonnie Lindros, for meddling in their son's life. Lindros rejected the Flyers' qualifying offer, became a restricted free agent and demanded a trade.
While Lindros played through his share of controversy and injuries, he's refused to live haunted by what could have been had he remained healthy.
"There's no point in that. When you look back, you just want to look at the positive," he said. "It's upsetting we didn't win. It's extremely disappointing.
"Beyond that, when I think back to playing there and living there, I think of the good people that are around, and my teammates."
He's thankful he can look back in good health. While all those head shots rattled his brain, Lindros insists he feels good and doesn't suffer from headaches, memory loss or other symptoms associated with repeated concussions. Lindros still plays pick-up hockey at outdoor rinks throughout Toronto and practised this week for the alumni game with a junior team in the Ontario Hockey League.
Lindros said being smart about concussions at a time when little was still known about their destructive effects has saved him.
"I had time off in between, I didn't play," he said. "Sometimes, that wasn't the most popular course of action.
"There's some real unfortunate situations that some of the guys have had to go through. I count my blessings."
Lindros hasn't been forgotten in Philadelphia. He made his first public appearance in the city in years at a recent autograph signing at a suburban mall and 500 tickets were sold within hours. Fans lined up as early at 8:30 a.m. for the 6 p.m. signing he had with LeClair. Fans gushed as a steady stream of 8x10 prints, pucks, and figurines slid past him. Money raised from the show and a luncheon all went to a Philadelphia children's hospital.
"I'm a Flyers fan because of you! I started watching when you came!" one woman told him.
They'll all be watching Saturday.
"It's a great opportunity for the fans to give Eric a big thanks for the time that he spent in Philadelphia," said Flyers broadcaster and former teammate, Keith Jones. "I know there's a lot that want to do that.
"This is their chance to come out and give one final goodbye to a player that brought a lot of fans out of their seats in Philly for a long time."
It might not be his last hurrah.
Lindros said he's "open" to continuing his relationship with the Flyers beyond the weekend.
For now, his wave to the crowd at the NHL's version of Old Timers' Day can become the new final image of his Flyers career.