When the city of Philadelphia hosted the NHL Winter Classic in early 2012, the most memorable event of the weekend wasn’t the Rangers-Flyers game. Somehow, in a city that oozes delicious controversy like Cheese Whiz, it wasn’t even Ilya Bryzgalov’s bizarre benching. It was an alumni game that took place two days prior, in front of more than 45,000 highly emotional fans.
Eric Lindros wasn’t exactly sure how he would be received. His final years in Philadelphia were acrimonious in an almost unbelievably public way, and he’d been mostly estranged from the organization ever since. (Let’s pause for a moment to reflect upon one particular spat that involved a collapsed lung, a bathtub, and GM Bob Clarke saying, “All the controversies, Eric brings them on himself.”) But the no. 88 jerseys in the crowds largely outnumbered any grudges. Even fans who had soured on Lindros by the time he left Philly seemed more wistful than hateful. When his name was announced at the start of the alumni game and the big guy raised his stick, he was greeted with a standing ovation that could make your hair stand on end.
On Monday, he was once again finally given his due. Lindros was named to the Hockey Hall of Fame, after six years of mostly silly rejection, and it’s about damn time. Ever since he was a teenager, the center was an unceasing, and worthy, obsession of the hockey world. He was huge (6-foot-4, 240) and hugely skilled, capable of playing a style of hockey that seemed more of an abstract ideal than an actual bodily possibility. (Instead of using the 20/80 scale to evaluate prospects, hockey scouts ought to just rate them from 1 to Eric Lindros.) He was, for a time, hockey’s avatar. In the biopic he’d be played by Channing Tatum, and you’d spoil the viewing experience for your kids because you’d keep pestering them: No, you don’t understand, there was no one like him in his prime.
The problem, in the eyes of the dudes who gatekeep the Hall of Fame (Clarke being one of them), usually had to do with the span of that prime. Lindros played 13 seasons in the NHL, but is remembered mostly for an outlandishly dominant mid-to-late-’90s. He reached the Cup final once and was swept. If Lindros epitomized everything hockey could be, he also was a model victim for all the ways the game could do you wrong, from the self-defeating suffocation of hype to the short- and long-term distress of head injuries.
He had the worst kind of helicopter parents. He (and they) ruffled many feathers and made lots of enemies in the sport, which didn’t do Lindros any favors every time the Hall of Fame selection process rolled around. He was infamous for refusing to play for the Quebec Nordiques, who drafted him first overall, and forcing a trade for the ages, but he had a point: Athletes do have an odd lack of control over their professional futures. Hockey fetishes longevity, and Lindros’s penchant for injuries, many of them to his head, was long considered a strike against him. (Some say that he was so good as a teen that he never learned to properly watch out for incoming hits.) But watching old videos of that era, knowing what we know now, it’s tough not to feel empathy for how much punishment he routinely took, and to understand why, in his retirement, Lindros has become increasingly outspoken about player protection. It also, in a way, makes some of his stats all the more bonkers: In 1996–97, he missed 30 games and still finished the season with 79 points.
What should a Hall of Fame be? This is a question that all sports face; baseball has a whole steroid-fueled generation that it may never decide how to properly judge. Should the place feel like an encyclopedic compendium of a sport’s most successful players as defined by known, unassailable metrics — career length and Cup wins included — or should it have more laid-back shrine-to-the-glory-of-hockey, this-is-what-things-were-like-back-then vibes? I’m an extremist, but my ideal Hall of Fame would be the best kind of museum, the type that immerses you in the context, ugly and beautiful, of all of hockey’s eras. Hell, put an interactive NHL on Fox glowing-puck exhibit next to Lindros’s bust. Few things are so specifically, disgustingly mid-’90s.
Ultimately, a “weak” class of eligible players helped enable Lindros to earn a Hall of Fame spot this year. (Which is slightly amusing, considering that his career was full of exactly the opposite: He put up huge numbers during an era in which scoring was quite difficult to come by.) But the strange and sometimes petty machinations behind the decision will fade with time, and the Hall of Fame will be better with Lindros in it, just as the NHL once was, and just as that Winter Classic alumni game was.
Those sorts of nostalgia fests can often be mildly depressing affairs, wincing reminders of fleeting beauty and the death march of time, but when Lindros passed to his former “Legion of Doom” linemate John LeClair midway through the first period and LeClair turned it into a goal, everyone in Citizens Bank Park felt young again. I grew up hating Philadelphia sports, despised Lindros in particular — we all have those athletes we hate in our formative fan years, and he and Reggie Miller were mine — and even I had to blink back tears in the ballpark press box that afternoon. It was a fun moment to reflect back on one of the most frustrating and dynamic players in hockey history. In a perfect world, wouldn’t this be how celebrating your favorite sport’s past always makes you feel?