The first time he hits the ice on a Saturday night in early autumn in Hershey, Pa., there is this brief pause, a collective gasp, really, as if the air is being sucked out of this hangar of a building.
You expect to see a gangly teen-ager, not some football player in hockey skates. But here he is, No. 88, a 6-foot-5, 235-pound rock skipping along the ice. The fans like that and begin to fill the Hersheypark Arena with applause. They have come to see a preseason game between the Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers, but they have been drawn by curiosity, to see if this kid paid millions has the goods.
Eric Lindros, No. 88, is everywhere. He plants himself in front of the Capitals goal and takes a dozen shots. Defensemen try to move him, and he won't budge. A tough guy named Al Iafrate goes with him into the boards and is dropped as if he hit a Zamboni or something.
Finally, No. 88 gets a goal. Nothing fancy. A power-play number on a pass across the crease. One flick of the stick -- score. It's so quick you have to check the replay to see if it really happened.
Later, he misses an empty-net opportunity, flinging the puck off the glass, and a couple of fans start screaming at him, a little bit mad that the Flyers are losing 7-4.
But it's only an exhibition game, the third one in three nights. And, afterward, the kid is sitting on a bench in a grimy minor-league hockey locker room, reaching for his clothes that hang on a nail, answering questions from a cluster of local reporters.
He is handsome -- dark curly hair, glistening eyes. Even a bump on the nose like a young Brando.
After a million interviews, he has the cliches down cold.
His personal goals?
His hopes for the season?
"Trying to fit in."
Playing under the weight of expectations?
"The attention has been there a few years. It's sort of like a road show."
This is the autumn of Lindros.
He is the new act in the NHL, which begins its 76th regular season tonight. By late spring, when the playoffs are winding down, it's unlikely that Lindros will be on center stage. But it doesn't matter. Not yet, anyway.
Wayne Gretzky is out indefinitely with a herniated thoracic disk. Mario Lemieux and the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins are likely to be on cruise control until the playoffs. The expansion teams in Ottawa and Tampa, Fla., are expected to be among the worst in the history of professional sports.
Hero and villain
But there's Lindros, the next Gretzky, the next Lemieux, goodness knows, maybe even the next Gordie Howe. He is 19, a legend in some provinces of Canada and a villain in others.
The Quebec Nordiques drafted him No. 1 in 1991, and he wouldn't go. He sat out one NHL season, playing in the juniors and the Winter Olympics. Finally, when the Nordiques decided to cut their losses and trade his rights last summer, they liked it so much they did it twice in 20 minutes.
Lindros was a Flyer. And a New York Ranger. Until an arbitrator finally awarded him to Philadelphia.
L Now, he's a franchise, signed for six years and $20 million.
And he's still a kid. You see it and hear it in so many ways.
He'll talk in wonder of "trying a little chemistry" in the kitchen of his condominium in New Jersey, of putting potatoes in the microwave and pork chops in the frying pan.
On the day of his signing, he wasn't awed by the glittering downtown hotel ballroom in Philadelphia, the wall-to-wall media and fans, even the numbers in his contract. What really got him was meeting Will Smith, the Fresh Prince.
But the kid can play like a man. He finishes checks. He rams in goals. He is a center who possesses an artistic sense of how gorgeous hockey can be, threading passes from the high slot, finding the open man on the wing, leading a rush up ice.
And he can fight. A three-punch decision over Tampa Bay's Joe Reekie in an exhibition game last week sent a chilling message throughout the NHL: Don't mess with Lindros.
"Eric has as much speed and skill as the other superstars in this league," said Capitals general manager David Poile. "And he is even bigger and stronger than the others. You don't even shut down guys like that."
A fit for Philly
What makes the whole package perfect is that Lindros is in a city that will go absolutely bonkers over his style. In Philadelphia, they take their pretzels with mustard and their sports with a sneer. This is a city that loved the leader of the Flyers' Broad Street Bullies, Bobby Clarke, all heart, and yet for years loathed the Phillies' future Hall of Fame third baseman Mike Schmidt, all style. They even put up with all of Charles Barkley's trash talking until his words were finally louder than his actions.
Lindros is tough, a little abrasive, even.
"He could be a villain around the league," Clarke said. "With his style of play, he's in the middle of everything. With Gretzky and Lemieux, you may not like their team, but you have to respect their skill. But when a player is as physical as Eric, well, he'll get booed."