PRALOGNAN, France -- Eric Lindros is out in the cold. One night, he is riding a bus through western Czechoslovakia. The next, he is gasping for air and lurking like a Gulliver among Lilliputians while playing in indoor-outdoor arenas perched in the French Alps.
Tiny players bounce off him and goalkeepers flop to the ice at the sight of his menacing shadow. He is 6 feet 4 and weighs 220 pounds, the closest thing to a linebacker on hockey skates. But the next Gretzky, the next Lemieux, is now a National Hockey League holdout in hiding. He is training with the Canadian national team, preparing to re-emerge on a world stage at the Olympic Winter Games in nearby Albertville, Feb. 8-23.
Lindros never planned to be an outcast. He only wanted to be a superstar. After busting scoring records and busting heads while performing for the Oshawa Generals of the Ontario Hockey League, Lindros was prepared to begin his NHL career. But he was drafted by the Quebec Nordiques in June and soon became locked in the most ferocious contract dispute to hit his country.
Now, Lindros is like any other 18-year-old with an Olympic dream, even if his desire for a gold medal was whetted by his search for millions of dollar bills.
"The fun of the game has been sucked out for me," he said. "It wasn't fun for a while back home in Canada. But now I'm getting it back together."
Lindros is trying to adjust to new teammates, attempting to leave his anger off the ice and modulate his bullying style for the finesse needed to excel in the international game. He met his new teammates during an airport changeover in Toronto Oct. 31, earned the instant nickname of "Jumbo," flew to Vienna, Austria, and took a bus trip into Czechoslovakia for games in Liberec and Usti Nad Labem. He scored three goals in two exhibitions against a Czech national team. He added a goal in a 1-1 tie against the French Olympic team last Monday night in Courcheval. The next night, he was instructed not to body-check for fear he might injure an opponent. Lindros managed to savage the French, anyway, scoring two goals and three assists in a 12-0 rout.
"He is fitting in," Canadian coach Dave King said. "It has been an easy transition. We're still a decent team without him. We're better with him. It's great for Canada to have him in the Olympics. The Canadian public seems satisfied. The situation in Quebec is a difficult one, an awkward one. He has had to cope with a lot of things this summer."
Even though he may transform himself into a national hero this winter, Lindros is in many ways a national villain in Canada. Unlike in the United States, where contract battles are part of the sports business, Canadian fans are unaccustomed to having their athletic stars hold out for cash. But the dispute also inflames political passions, since Lindros, from English-speaking Toronto, is refusing to play in Quebec City, the capital of French Canada.
"Describe a villain," Lindros said. "Someone who has principles? Someone who doesn't put up with a whispering campaign? . . . I don't know why I was ever looked on as a bad guy. I'm supposed to be a racist [against French-speaking Canadians]. I'm supposed to be this or that. People were just jumping on some bandwagon."
HTC Before the June draft, Lindros warned the Nordiques not to select him No. 1. He told their management that he would refuse to sign and would, if cornered, remain out of the league for two years to regain his draft eligibility.
His reasons for refusing to play for the Nordiques were part economic, part social. There is less bang for the dollar playing in Canada, especially in the high-tax province of Quebec. He also cannot speak French and acknowledged that he would be uncomfortable playing and living in Quebec City.
Lindros wouldn't budge even after the Nordiques raised their contract offer to $3 million a year.
"I could see them taking me in the draft," he said. "But let's move on. Let's get some players. I'm so fed up with it. I don't care anymore. I'm sick of it. I'm not backing down. I will never play for Quebec. Never."
So he plays, and he waits.
Lindros provided a glimpse of his abilities by helping Canada win last summer's Canada Cup. He was a human checking machine, injuring three opponents and slamming another one through Plexiglas. But, after a moment of glory, it was back to Oshawa, back to the juniors. He decked one skater with the butt end of a stick and earned a three-game suspension. Clearly, he was frustrated by having to play a role of being a man among boys.
A tryout last month with the Toronto Blue Jays lifted Lindros' spirits even if it failed to impress the scouts. Lindros is a capable first baseman, but his swing was described as "raw" by Garth Iorg.
"I don't know if playing out of the NHL will make me a better player," Lindros said. "But I'll be a happier person."
For now, he will have to discover happiness in places far, far from the NHL. He is scheduled to play with the Canadian national team through a Dec. 7 exhibition against the U.S. Olympic team in Albany, N.Y. He will leave the team just in time, avoiding games in Quebec City against the Nordiques and in Montreal against the Canadiens.
"C'mon, guys, how could I play there?" he said.
After appearing in the Junior World Championships in Fussen, Germany, Dec. 26-Jan. 5, Lindros will rejoin the national team for the final push to Albertville. His goal is to win a gold medal and come in from the cold. Asked what he would be doing two years from now, Lindros said: "Playing hockey hard and playing hard."