As Lindros enters his fourth season, this is his time. There was no Stanley Cup for him last spring, but Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier needed five NHL seasons with the Edmonton Oilers and Mario Lemieux took seven with the Pittsburgh Penguins before winning Cups. Lindros came of age in 1995. Hadn't Jaromir Jagr, in accepting the Art Ross Trophy, given to the league's top scorer, said that he won the scoring race only because Lindros had missed the last two games of the regular season? Didn't reporters backstage ask Lindros if he was going to win the MVP again in '96, as if it were as much a part of the natural order as ice in winter?
Five months earlier, as Lindros was punching a Florida number into his home phone, nothing could have been less obvious to him.
"I was afraid of being a bust," he says.
The conceit seems funny: Lindros as failure. He has succeeded spectacularly by any definition. He played on world junior-championship teams for Canada in 1990 and '91. As a precocious 18-year-old he played on a Canada Cup winner. He won a silver medal at the '92 Olympics. He and his parents, Carl and Bonnie, forced the Quebec Nordiques to trade his rights after Quebec made him the first pick of the '91 draft. He led a Flyer team that hadn't made the playoffs in five years into the conference finals last season. He was league MVP. He is midway through a six-year, $21 million contract.
But last February, about the time Philadelphia president Bob Clarke was acquiring wing John LeClair and defenseman Eric Desjardins from the Canadiens in a season-turning deal, Lindros decided to expand his calling circle. Five months before, he had been named the NHL's youngest captain, and Philly was foundering. "We were 3-7-1," he says. Lindros spreads his thumb and pinkie and raises them to his face, pantomiming a telephone. "Help."
Lindros called Jim Loehr, a sports psychologist in Orlando. Lindros was angry. He was angry with himself for missing 42 games because of injuries his first two years in the NHL. He was angry with the Flyers because they were lousy. He had been curt with friends and family during the previous summer. Lindros had taken on everyone since the day he walked into hockey, but as he peeled away the layers of frustration, he finally confronted himself.
"Everybody's biggest fear is losing, and I didn't want to be associated with that," Lindros says. "That's how seriously I took it. I was getting hurt all the time—knees, shoulder—and I wasn't on a strong team. I had trouble dealing with it. I mean, I knew I wasn't a bust in that sense. Just sometimes you need reinforcement."
Lindros had frequent discussions with Loehr about keeping things simple. Lindros changed this. He fine-tuned that. He figured that if he made five changes that each improved his life by 10%, he would be a happier person by half.
So after years of barreling to the top, he chose to slow down. He left hockey at the rink. He went to the driving range. He worked on the house he bought in South Jersey, staining the porch and putting locks on the fence. "Went down to the local Rickel Home Center and hung out with the guys," Lindros says. "Got a buy on a power drill. Took that thing home and Tim Taylor-ed it up. Vroom, vroom! That's fun. But I really hate decorating." He hung around with Bacchus, an 11-month-old Great Dane named for the "god of fine wine and wild behavior," Lindros notes with a quick grin.
Lindros had stepped away not from the mantle of greatness but from the hassle of greatness, an ongoing struggle for someone who was a personage—at least in Canada—before he was wholly a person. Lindros, whose family lives in Toronto, sparked a national debate at age 18 when he snubbed the Nordiques, a controversy that went to the heart of some of the most profound issues in the land: the province of Quebec's place within the confederation, schisms between French- and English-speaking Canadians, hockey's role in the life of the nation itself. Even Brian Mulroney, then Prime Minister, weighed in with the suggestion that Lindros sign with Quebec.