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Sunday, February 24, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Eric Lindros: The Can't Miss Kid

Knight-Ridder Newspapers

OSHAWA, Ontario - The world's greatest 17-year-old hockey player studies the National Hockey League from the bottom up. Eric Lindros knows that the team that finishes last picks first in June's NHL entry draft. And he knows that whoever picks first picks Lindros.

So he checks the standings regularly, imagining what life might be like in a French-speaking hamlet, such as Quebec City, or a giant metropolis, such as New York. Would it be fun to play in Minnesota, where the downtrodden North Stars draw fewer than 6,000 fans a game? Or how would he fit in a Canadian plains town, such as Winnipeg, which Lindros has termed ``Winterpeg?''

Lindros is hockey's Can't Miss Kid, the best prospect since Mario Lemieux in 1984. If Wayne Gretzky is The Great One, Eric Lindros is The Next One.

For now, however, he plays in the Ontario Hockey League, the NHL's version of college football, but without the glamour. Someday soon, he will be gearing up to take on the Canadiens and Flyers; these days, his opponents are the Owen Sound Platers and Kingston Frontenacs.

In many ways, Lindros stands poised between two worlds. Within months he figures to sign a multi-million-dollar NHL contract. Now, however, his weekly salary is about $50. He dreams of first-class travel and his own home. Now, life revolves around 3 a.m. bus rides from North Bay and boarding in another family's spare bedroom.

Knowing what lies ahead, how does Eric Lindros gear up to skate for the Oshawa Generals? How does he stay focused?

``It does me no good to concentrate on things out of my control,'' he said with a maturity that belies his apple-cheeked appearance. ``Where I end up, how much money I make, those are matters that I can't do anything about right now. I've got to live in the present.''

On this rainy Sunday night, living in the present means facing the Cornwall Royals. The usual sellout crowd of 3,400 jams the Oshawa Civic Center, joined by a dozen note-scribbling scouts and several drooling agents. Lindros, like many other Canadian juniors, has had an agent since he was 15, largely to negotiate schooling and benefits into his OHL contract.

In the hallways of this drafty ice rink, posters of Lindros sell briskly at $10 each. A color photo of the phenom laminated on a wood-veneer plaque goes for $20.

The crowd seems entranced each time Lindros take a shift. At 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, he is literally head and shoulders above the other teen-agers. His size and fame also make him a target - in 33 games, he has amassed 98 penalty minutes, many from fighting the opposition's designated bully. In most cases, Lindros won the fight.

``He's mean on the ice, I like that,'' said Don Luce, a former NHL player who now scouts for the Buffalo Sabres. ``Someday, he'll be as tough as anyone in the NHL. He can also skate, shoot and stick handle as well as any kid his age that I've ever seen. He's the complete package.''

Said North Star owner Norm Green: ``He's not far behind Mario Lemieux. In a couple of years, he'll probably be the third- or fourth-best player in the league.''

Tonight's game is typical for Lindros. Although shadowed by Cornwall's best checker, he scores one goal (on a rebound in the crease) and sets up another on a pretty cross-ice pass. He also takes two foolish penalties (for slashing and tripping), which he later rationalizes as ``a natural overflow of my aggression.''

After 33 games, Lindros had 39 goals and 37 assists. He certainly would be leading the OHL in scoring had he not missed nine games to play in the World Junior Championships in Saskatchewan, where he was the tournament's top scorer and most valuable player.

Sometimes, Eric Lindros' future steps into his present, and he enjoys it. Consider, for example, that he is probably the only 17-year-old athlete in the world with his photo on a trading card.

Five cards, actually. Major League Marketing, makers of Score hockey cards, paid Lindros an estimated $30,000 for the exclusive right to use his image this season. The current Score set features Gretzky, Lemieux, Mark Messier and Ron Hextall, but its ads promote five ``limited-edition'' Lindros cards. One shows him wearing the uniform of the Toronto Blue Jays, who gave Lindros a tryout last year. The cards already command prices of more than $8 each at collectibles shows.

As most kids might fantasize, Lindros glowed at the notion of seeing himself on cardboard. ``It was strange, but it was fun,'' he said. ``The (Oshawa) trainer first showed it to me in the dressing room, so I couldn't go overboard with excitement in front of the other guys. But I got pretty pumped up.''

Now - like other superstars - he has grown weary of being shown his card. ``It's no problem signing autographs,'' he said, ``but sometimes people come up to me with 50 cards to sign. Hey, I know what's going on. I know they're reselling them. Usually, I'll sign two or three.''

How hot a commodity is Lindros? Well, in Canada he is essentially the equivalent of Raghib ``Rocket'' Ismail. Consider that, in addition to Lindros' cards, he has a $35,000 deal to use Titan hockey sticks for the next two years. Just a handful of established NHL stars can command that kind of fee.

Lindros' agent, Rick Curran of Toronto, is also working on a deal in which Lindros and his brother, Brett, 15, will endorse a table-hockey game. Brett, who now plays for the Toronto Young National Bantams, is considered a possible future prospect.

``The truth is that we've turned down seven or eight other offers totaling about $60,000,'' said Curran, who represents about 50 NHL players. ``People wanted Eric to endorse clothes, posters, all kinds of things. But we've refused for two reasons: First, the amount he'll get a year from now makes it worth the wait. And second, if Eric does them all, it takes away from his focus on hockey. If you get greedy, you kill the goose that laid the golden egg.''

Curran, who met Lindros through a mutual friend two years ago, is one of four key advisers to the hockey prodigy. The group also includes Toronto attorney Gordon Kirke, who monitors unapproved use of Lindros' image and invasions of his privacy. Kirke has several suits pending against companies that have used Lindros in promotions without permission.

The two other advisers are Lindros' parents. Carl Lindros, a Toronto accountant, handles Eric's appointments and finances. All of the early-endorsement money, by the way, has been stashed in retirement bonds.

Bonnie Lindros is the family enforcer - ordering Eric to clean his room or chauffeur his sister, Robin, 12, trying to keep his life as normal as possible. She also tries to shield her son from the pressures of adult expectations.

``We put him in hockey to have fun with the other kids,'' Bonnie Lindros said. ``It's fun, but it would be a lot more fun if people would sit back and enjoy him without comparing him to NHL superstars. Eric isn't going to be the next Gretzky, he's going to be the next Eric.''

Two years ago, the Lindroses took a unique stand, bucking the OHL draft of 16-year-olds by refusing to allow Eric to play in Sault Ste. Marie, about 400 miles northwest of their Toronto home. They insisted he stay close to home for school (he now attends a freshman business course at Toronto's York University) and kept him out of the OHL until his rights were traded to Oshawa - 25 miles northeast of Toronto.

The unprecedented draft dodging made headlines across Canada. Lindros was labeled an ingrate, and his parents were termed meddlers. Even now, one NHL scout watching Lindros said, ``The biggest problem with drafting Eric is that you get his folks as part of the deal.''

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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