No keeping your eyes off 'big blue'

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:03 AM ET

He wore an open collar and a broad smile as he stepped into the maelstrom.

Eric Lindros pulled on a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey yesterday amidst a hail of flashes and instantly turned the Leafs into something different.

Go ahead, take your shot at figuring out exactly what. Everyone else is.

Eric Lindros has been a star nearly all his life, and even as injuries have decimated his production, Lindros has retained his celebrity allure.

In that way, he and the Maple Leafs are a perfect fit. There are better teams than the Leafs. Certainly in Canada, Vancouver, Ottawa, Calgary and perhaps Edmonton are better bets.

But with Lindros on board, no Canadian team will beat Toronto for notoriety, not with Tie Domi taking one for the team and playing for less than he could make elsewhere. Not with the club captained by the remarkable Mats Sundin, nor backstopped by the indefinable Belfour.

The Leafs may or may not have bettered themselves with their $1.55 million US investment, but they have made themselves impossible not to watch. For the lead star in the Canadian sports firmament, that's worth something, too.

So many questions. What happens to the leadership chemistry with Lindros casting a larger- than-life shadow over Sundin? Who plays where? (Look for Nik Antropov, if he is re-signed, to return to the wing). Who will be around to tap in the goals Lindros, Sundin and Jason Allison set up in an NHL supposedly free of obstruction? And what about injuries? Perhaps you've heard, Lindros has had eight concussions.

But yesterday was about dreams, specifically rendering real the dream Lindros always shared with his brother Brett, that both boys would wear blue and white.

Lindros even found New York, his home for three seasons, second-best.

"You go into New York, it's a huge city but its certainly not the hot-bed of hockey." he said. "When the team bus pulls into the arena, you know you're in Toronto. It's a wonderful place to play. Everyone is in tune with the game."

That scrutiny, Lindros said, "forces you to excel. It puts a little fire under you."

As for his health, Lindros said the 19-month layoff allowed him more time to recover from his latest concussion.

"You never know what lies ahead, but at the same time, I still have a lot to give," he said. "You always have the risk of something happening."

And then he smiled.

"I've been really working on stickhandling with my head up."

Nice shot. Lindros cracked a couple of concussion jokes, posed with his favourite jersey and was the picture of contentment. He looked like he had won the lottery.

In fact, he is the lottery. He is playing for relative peanuts with no guarantee of a better deal a year from now.

At 32, there is, he said, still plenty to give.

"I wouldn't come back and play again unless I felt I had something to contribute. I have high expectations of myself in terms of production and being part of the big blue unit."

The Big Blue Unit. From this moment forward, IBM must surrender proprietary use of the words Big Blue.

This, in the end, is how the Leafs will counter the signings of Derian Hatcher and Mike Rathje in Philadelphia. The Flyers got bigger on the blue line. The Leafs are now monstrous up front.

"If the rules are called the way it was discussed, it's going to be hard to impede a guy of that size and that skating ability going to the net," Leafs general manager John Ferguson said. "We look forward to seeing him around the opponent's net with regularity."

The Leafs, who consulted with concussion specialist Karen Johnston in Montreal and with the London clinic that performed Lindros' shoulder surgery, have little to lose in the investment. If he stays healthy, Lindros will deliver a solid or even spectacular return. If he doesn't, there's no lingering obligation. And the ratings will be great.

Lindros had some offers. The Columbus Blue Jackets were hunting him, but he says he sees a chance in Toronto to help the Leafs to the Stanley Cup. That of course, would mean he'd never have to buy a meal again in his life and there are only so many chances to make that happen.

"I see a team that can win." Lindros said.

"Let's not kid ourselves. You never know how long you have to play the game."


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