Spectrum memories: Paul must go

To celebrate my 25th year of hockey fandom, I will occasionally step into the way-back machine and write about events in the Flyers’ past. For the balance of the season, I will be dipping into the well to ruminate about some things related to my love of the Philadelphia Flyers, and in general about the fan experience as a youngster. This is the second in the series of Spectrum Memories.

…and Paul eventually went.

In most years my family bought tickets, the first game in the matinee plan was the semi-regular Friday-after-Thanksgiving afternoon contest.

The opponent always varied, as these were the days of 21 teams in the NHL, and the Flyers played each team in their division seven times and everyone else at least three times. You were as likely to draw Toronto or Edmonton as the Rangers or Capitals, but since multiple games against all other teams were assured, the games were never boring.

Problem was, by the early 1990s, the games were never boring because the rest of the league had caught up to the Flyers’ ineptitude in the front office and on the ice. It was too often the bad side of “you’ll never know what’ll happen next” for 17,000-plus. One of the rivals who took particular delight in stomping our collective faces in the dirt was the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Western PA club had only recently halted a 16-year winless streak in Philadelphia, and with a loaded roster that featured names like Lemieux, Jagr, Stevens, Francis, Mullen, Murphy and Barrasso, were on the brink of winning the first Stanley Cup in team history when they invaded the Spectrum on November 29, 1991.

It was the beginning of Year Three of the five in the non-playoff wilderness, and the Flyers, under head coach Paul Holmgren, were in the midst of a slide. Though they began the year at a respectable 8-8-1, they were winless in four by that Friday.

Two nights prior, a Hartford Whalers club propped up in the Adams Division by a horrendous pre-Lindros Quebec Nordiques turned in a 7-3 win which got the upper-level denizens howling for blood.

It didn’t take an eighth-grader to know the team was in trouble and their head coach wasn’t going to go down with the ship so easily. Still, I remember taking my seats in the nosebleeds that day just hoping the Flyers weren’t going to be embarrassed.

Fat chance.

Despite controlling play through most of the first period, the Flyers just couldn’t convert. Kevin Stevens played the role of maestro, notching a natural hat trick with goals at the five-minute mark, before nine minutes were played, and with roughly 4 ½ minutes left.

The natives started to get restless. It was a given in those days that boos rained down from on high to the athletes below, but that day, it was more immediate, more venomous. It didn’t matter that the Penguins put together an offensive machine that rivaled the Oilers – nobody expected back-to-back embarrassments on home ice.

Pittsburgh controlled play in the second, toying with the Flyers and holding that three goal lead. But just when things seemed to quiet down…

BAM! Jagr scores and it’s 4-0. BAM! Stevens gets his fourth and it’s 5-0. BAM! Lemieux follows 6-0. Three goals in 1 minute, 42 seconds.

It was during this rally that I heard something I thought I never would…the crowd angrily turning its wrath against its own head coach. At first, it started out calmly, but rose in volume by the time it made one whole circuit around the arena.

Paul must go…Paul Must Go…PAUL MUST GO…PAUL MUST GO!…PAUL MUST GO!!

By the time the sixth goal was tucked away, the ire was so pervasive, that two separate sides of the stadium chanted their hellish rondo let completely out of sync, crashing together at each side of the stands near center ice.

PAUL MUSTPaulGOMustGo…PaulPAULMustMUSTGOGo…PAUL MUSTGO!!!…

By the third pass, even my dad was willing to get into the act. He’d watched the Flyers since the glory days of the 1970s. They used to be the only other thing except Barney Miller that he’d watch when he was studying to become a doctor. He got back into the game when I was old enough to watch, during the mid 1980s He felt cheated out of his money. So did I, and I was only 13.

BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Something even stranger happened in the third period. The fans cared so little about the outcome, that they started applauding every little thing the Flyers did. And it wasn’t a Bronx cheer, it was genuine – which made it seem all the more sinister.

A good hit: BRRRAAAAHHH!! YEAAHHH!!! A decent shot on goal: WHOOOOO!!!!

There was no question the Flyers knew what was going on. They came out and started skating like they gave a damn, and didn’t give a damn what the final score was. Dan Quinn scored at 1:34. Then Rod Brind’Amour got two in a row in an 18-second span after the midway point, and with the crowd finally engaged at 6-3 we had a game!

No, we didn’t have a game.

The Penguins scored not once, not twice, but three more times before the final buzzer. Lemieux, Joe Mullen and Mark Recchi. Embarrassing. 9-3.

PAUL MUST GO! PAUL MUST GO! PAUL MUST GO! PAUL MUST GO!

Face-off, stoppage of play, penalty, goal, Lou Nolan announcement. It didn’t matter. The chant drowned out all else over the final seven minutes.

The winless streak reached six the next night in Pittsburgh, which showed mercy and won only by 5-1. Two days later, the Rangers won 4-2, and the screaming faithful finally got their wish as Paul did finally go.

I hope I never get to witness an ugly spectacle like that again. Even though the Flyers finished dead-last in the NHL in 2006-07, at least there was a sense early on that the jig was up and expectations were to be lowered. I defy anyone who paid for a game that season to find a home game even close to as distraught and venomous as the one I described.