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Screen Shots: Beware, "Big E"

Enjoy it while it lasts, Eric Lindros. Get a nice, heaping helping of Leafs Nation's adoring masses, their cheers as they cascade down around you, their battles to see who gets to leap into the palm of your hand first. Enjoy the media monster as it purrs in your lap, and the car dealers fully prepared to give you a, um, Hummer, free of charge. In the NHL's most volatile market, the good times may not last the duration of your next bathroom visit, let alone the week.

But with six goals and eight points in seven games, with Tie Domi (!) and Chad Kilger (!!) as your linemates, with the injury-related baggage nobody lets you forget, and with a relatively cheap contract, you've earned every inch of the limelight and the many pleasant side effects that come along when you're an NHLer in Toronto. After all those years of chaos and clamor, after Phil Esposito in Sault Ste. Marie and Marcel Aubut in Quebec City and Bob Clarke in Philadelphia, what a welcome change peace of mind must be.

It's been a long, litigious road, getting to this place in your life. Twelve NHL seasons, to be precise. Over that time, the knocks on you -- Mama's Boy, Self-Immersed Superstar, Serial Killer of Dressing Room Chemistry, Dude Who So Selfishly Ate The Last Pizza Slice - came from every corner. Your combination of stoicism and stubbornness rubbed many hockey fans the wrong way - especially Canadians, chief subscribers to the “you'll eat this and like it” school of fall-in-linesmanship.

Trouble is, most, if not all of the criticism was balderdash. Only in the totalitarian world of pro sports could parents who refuse to relinquish complete control of their children's future be labeled interferers and malcontents. And even Stephen Hawking couldn't have explained nor fixed the Black Hole of Talent that was the Rangers' dressing room.

But because you didn't rip apart scoring records like Wayne Gretzky did, because Clarke couldn't remake you in his own image, because you wouldn't swallow whole the opinions of certain NHL medical staff - the way Dave Babych did, to his eternal regret - and because you didn't reveal all to the media, the blame for other people's failures inevitably was pinned to your lapel.

Now that you're wearing the Blue-and-White you've dreamed of wearing since childhood, those accusations have disappeared. You're happy and energized here, more comfortable in your own skin, at ease at last with what you can and can't do on the ice. You're the hometown hero now, working on the cheap, playing with a vigor many thought you'd run out of.

As the sage that was Styx sang, these are the best of times. Unfortunately, everybody knows how things usually pan out for Maple Leafs stars. For those who don't, things usually pan out for Maple Leafs stars in a manner that fails to interest the drama queens at Hallmark.

What usually happens is, Maple Leafs stars get traded, injured, booed out of town, scapegoated and alienated as the situation requires.

Think Wendel Clark and Doug Gilmour, one betrayed by his body and an ultra-competitive style, the other felled in Calgary after a knee-on-knee hit destroyed his hope of one last championship run with the team he almost single-handedly delivered one to. Think Larry Murphy, Lanny McDonald, Darryl Sittler and Borje Salming, and remember the previous owner of this franchise actually rationalized a way to deny Gretzky a place in Leaf lore. They chew you up and spit you out in this town, then rip you for not enjoying the downward trajectory.

That living nightmare is still a ways off for you, Eric. You can still meet the media scrums with a smile and marvel at fans' inexhaustible craving to know your every impulse. But something, eventually, will change all that.

You'll re-sign with the Leafs next summer for a more market-sensible salary, which will empower the sports radio loonies to rip you in a manner normally reserved for traitors to the state. Or maybe someone in management will deem you a salary cap liability, or decide your style of play no longer fits the team's plans. Or maybe the media turns toxic on you, the way it did for ex-Leafs Gary Roberts and Joe Nieuwendyk. Or maybe a seven-game losing streak combines with an eight-game pointless streak, resulting in a three-week, 24/7 marathon of “What's wrong with Eric?” talk.

When one or more of those things happen, it won't be easy to remember these good times. You've seen the knives come out for you in other cities, but they rarely cut as deep as they do in Leafs Land. And it could take years to put the pain behind you: Dave Keon, another supremely skilled Leafs star, hasn't yet healed his hurt, and it's been three decades since he got run out of Dodge.

So enjoy the mass back-patting while it lasts, Eric. If the past is any indication, it's only a matter of time until the “kick me” sign is added to the process.



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