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  • canada sked medal results SLAM!  NAGANO

    Saturday, February 14, 1998

    Is Eric's mettle golden?

     NAGANO -- The perception, in some quarters of the hockey world, is that the Team Canada brass did Eric Lindros no favor by naming him as captain as early on as they did, and that they gave the young superstar's leadership the flavor of a papal blessing, the unlikely pope in this case being Team Canada general manager Bob Clarke, who is also the GM of Lindros' Philly Flyers.
     Add to this the fact that Mark Messier, the inspirational heart and soul of virtually every Team Canada heretofore, didn't even make this squad, and that Wayne Gretzky, that most tested of Canuck heroes who has risen to every challenge thrown his way by the game and the country, has taken a bit of a corporate backseat to Lindros on this team, and what we are left with is the much-anticipated passing of the national hockey torch.
     The only question is if the torch-passing is occurring naturally, in the ordinary order of things, when the old lions are ready to yield a little ground, or if it is a change orchestrated by management, in which case the question is, can leaders be made as well as born?
     Shortly after Team Canada's arrival here, they had a meet-the-club press conference at which the coaches and managers first came on stage in the big meeting room here, and then a select handful of players -- starting goalie Patrick Roy, defenceman Ray Bourque and Lindros -- took their spots on stage before the microphones to answer questions.
     But the great crush of reporters from all over the world had come for Gretzky, and when the formal part of the conference was over, they rushed him, and the scene became chaotic: Why wouldn't the man most in demand, who earlier in the day had been mobbed at the Nagano train station, the man Clarke calls "the best athlete Canada has ever produced," also have been on stage, with a mike, so all of those who wanted to hear him could and so he wouldn't be swarmed by the baying hounds of the press?
     A day or so later, Clarke, too, was wondering if they hadn't made a mistake. "We were trying to share that kind of responsibility around," he said, "to let someone else be there first. It wasn't to hide Wayne or anything."
     These are delicate matters, it seems to me, in which there is no easy right or wrong and no Miss Manners to show the graceful path. It is quite true that Gretzky has given more than his share to hockey, and that he might indeed welcome a lessening of that burden; it is also possible that he is reluctant to say goodbye to any of it.
     "I wouldn't," Clarke said the other day, "we wouldn't, ever put a player in a position we didn't think he was ready for. Eric has done the juniors, the Canada Cups, the Olympics, the national teams, the Stanley Cup finals. I think we could have chosen any number of guys from this group as captain and done fine, but he is the player taking over some of the responsibility that Gretzky and Messier have borne for years."
     Everyone gets older, Clarke noted, "and they (Gretzky, Messier et al) need their teams now."
     Clarke is clearly fond of Lindros. "He's a little guarded with some people," he said, "but he's a real nice person. His parents raised him well. He's got good values. It's a good close family; that's all most of us really want, isn't it?"
     He says Lindros has "matured really well. It was hard because he couldn't just come in the way other young players can and mature at his own pace. The team (the Flyers) were needing so much from him, the game was demanding so much from him so fast. But he's got better every year, he's demanding more of himself, he's doing it to himself. He's getting to know the decisions he has to make as part of the team."
     Clarke also recognizes that while everyone on Team Canada will have to play to the best of his ability, Lindros, because "he does have more ability than most," is going to have to be a dominant presence in this tournament. "Some of his skills are physical, and he's going to have to play physical," Clarke said.
     The Big E, for his part, downplays the significance of the captaincy.
     "It's a great opportunity, a great challenge, but the big thing is to go out and play.
     "It's six games," he said, with typical dry understatement, of what will be required from him and assistant captains Steve Yzerman and Joe Sakic. "It's not a state of the union address. You go play. Hockey can get complicated if you make it complicated."
     The way he played it in Canada's early matches wasn't complicated, but it was massively effective. Lindros was a monstrous presence, creating all kinds of room on the already vast Olympic ice surface, flattening anyone who even looked as though they were thinking of getting in his way, moving like the great young pup he is, better with one huge paw on his stick (he even scored one of his two goals this way in the team's first match against Belarus) than most mortals are with two.
     I like him too much to approach objectivity, but he looks ready to me, at his very best -- a little mean, gravely aware of the responsibility you have when you wear the Maple Leaf in the national game, and still managing to enjoy the Olympic experience. It may be that the mantle of leadership has come to him in a somewhat artificial manner, but it would have come regardless. Eric Lindros is to the hockey manor born, as surely and unmistakably as were his predecessors.