Hard Choices Always Have to be Made

While us penguins continue to wilt in the usual Northeastern Summer heat, pining for the days when a cool iceberg awaits our collectively scorched behinds, thoughts about the upcoming (and too far off) season still seep their way into our Sun-addled brains.

This is the first in a five-part series which intends to examine the ways the Flyers front office, though publicly professing to want to win the Cup by any means necessary, just ends up conducting business as usual year in and year out.

It could have been said any time over the last 25 years: At the end of the painful second-round sweep at the hands of the eventual champion Boston Bruins. After questions about the abrupt changing of the guard in the Fall of 2006. In the wake of subpar efforts during the five-year wilderness of non-playoff hockey.

But it was actually uttered when Flyers General Manager Paul Holmgren was rewarded with his last contract extension, a three-year deal issued this past January.

 “Part of being a Flyer is bringing your lunch pail,” Holmgren said. “That’s part of our culture, part of our tradition.”

 Bob Clarke was literal the embodiment of that ethic, and his stamp on the franchise as a player and then as GM carried the weight of that burden all the way down from Canada to Philadelphia.

Released from the steady but backbreaking life of the mines in his native Flin Flon, Manitoba by his drive and talent for the game, Clarke’s will to win both on and off the ice was grounded in good old fashioned hard work.

And when others didn’t live up to his own personal code, he let them hear about it as captain and as the man Upstairs. He had not been one to spare the rod. The only problem was, after a generation as the face of the franchise, Clarke lost his passion.

And when that happened, nobody was empowered enough to tell him to step aside. The dignity of a working man who faithfully puts in his days, weeks, months and years at his post and rises through the ranks often does not permit outside interference to cloud judgement. He simply wasn’t going to let go until he decided it was time, but by then there had been obvious signs of trouble. Like forgetting Claude Giroux’s name at the podium at the draft. Or his inability to deal with the sudden flux in the fabric of the game after the cancelled season of 2004-05.

Clock  in. Do your work to the best of your ability. Clock out. Be a team player, protect your interests, reward others and be rewarded for loyalty. Make decisions that improve conditions. Success will follow.

It’s an ideal that’s very noble, yet antiquated. Solid yet uncertain. Basic yet all encompassing. And it’s at the very heart of why the Philadelphia Flyers cannot reach beyond a certain level in their pursuit of the Stanley Cup.

Holmgren is cut from the same cloth, though born and bred American. He worked his way up, from the streets of the Twin Cities, to minor-leaguer, to WHA reject, to an early form of power forward for the Orange and Black. Became an assistant coach under the equally-exacting Mike Keenan, then was given the reins himself to mixed results.

A short period of exile followed, in Hartford, in rehab, and then back to the Flyers as an assistant GM for a decade. Then it all exploded one early Sunday morning in October, and Holmgren finally had the stage he prepared for most of his professional life.

Five years later and Holmgren’s tenure, like Clarke’s, is dotted with plenty of strokes of good fortune, though too frequently marred by inexplicable hiccups that both men have explained away with the old chestnut about doing what was best for the organization.

From making trades to denying trades, to laughing at other general managers over the phone at what is assumed to be ridiculous demands, both Clarke and Holmgren have set up the franchise as one that won’t be duped so easily — but at the same time one that sets itself up as a master of puppets, always trying to work an angle to steal value from another club while giving up little in return.

“Paul had to do what was best for the team and what was best for us long term,” Luukko said. “Those are difficult decisions to make, but he made the decision and certainly you learn a lot about someone in the toughest of times.”

I’m sure that a lot of Flyers fans are still reeling from the events of June 23. I know I am, and I left the boundaries of fandom a while ago. A Summer of relative inactivity on the hockey front makes it harder to forget, and to move forward, even if you stand by what Holmgren accomplished.

But all the same, Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, supposedly the twin bedrocks of future leadership, were sent to Columbus and Los Angeles, respectively. The goal was to free up money to sign free-agent goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov under orders from the very top, and all it took was some serious financial acrobatics to accomplish it.

It also took some serious verbal acrobatics as well, with both guys, by all accounts Flyers through and through despite their faults, serving as sacrifices in the name of “altering team chemistry” or whatever the narrative was in the mushroom-cloud-shaped afterglow.

Carter’s move was imminent, Richards’ relocation ominous.

But why did it have to be them, both on the same day, and both the targets of unequal parts praise and scorn about their (un)developed abilities? Now, every single decent player on the Phantoms’ 2005 Calder Cup winners has been scattered, predominantly to the Western Conference.

And the cupboard, now perched precariously in Glens Falls, still remains bare.

Though Peter Luukko paints those shocking deals with the poetic brush of character revelation, how hard a choice were they to make, really? Holmgren knows the clear divisions, schedule-wise, between East and West. How the limited cross-over prevents such things as the typical “playing hard to show up your former team” over the course of 82 games.

He also knows the franchise has gone to the well often with the same trading partners on the opposite side of North America in terms of rivalries: Phoenix, Columbus, Nashville, and now West Philly West, a.k.a. Los Angeles, joins the roll call because the Kings’ GM, assistant GM, assistant coach, head coach and former players all have Philly connections. 

Regardless of whose names are on the trading block, that’s not a test of bravery and character and resolve — that’s called stashing in the sense that it frames or continues a better future business relationship between the Flyers and those teams.

It’s kind of like the agreement the New York Yankees had with the sad-sack Kansas City Athletics through the late 1950s and early 1960s. When discipline problems or flashes in the pan failed to man up, they got shipped out West, and when Yankee scouts detected diamonds in the rough stuck out in Missouri, the A’s simply got fleeced.

The only way that either guy can do any damage now is in the not-bloody-likely event of a Philly-LA or Philly-Columbus Stanley Cup Final. Or so we thought, with a pertinent example below.

How much more balls would it have taken for him to ship either guy to Atlanta Winnipeg or Ottawa, especially if either guy was as divisive a presence in the locker room or as much of an immature choke artist when the pressure was on? After all, Clarke showed how low his swung 10 years ago when he waited out Eric Lindros for a whole season, then pawned him off on the hated New York Rangers of all teams.

But Holmgren certainly didn’t count on the schedule-maker’s karmic retribution, having the Blue Jackets and Kings come back to Philadelphia so early next season. Still, it’s hard to think he even cares because, in his mind, he’s doing what he has to do to move things forward.

After all, this is a man who was certainly feeling no pain after engineering the best one-season turnaround in club history in his first full season at the helm. 

Apparently flush with the euphoria of a surprise run to the East Finals in 2008, “Homer” felt confident enough to dump R.J. Umberger on the Blue Jackets, citing salary cap concerns and a glut of young forwards in the wings. Conveniently, he made no mention of how Umberger talled 10 goals in the ’08 playoff run, eight in one series alone, displaying the traditional energy and passion Flyers clubs of the past used to subdue the opposition.

It can be easily argued the Flyers don’t beat Montreal without his eight scores in those five games. But no matter. When hard choices have to be made — and they always will have to be made, it takes a special kind of working man, one with blinders affixed to his temples, to shut out any reality and logic, and all thoughts but the ones he is convinced will lead him to the right decision.

Three years later, and Umberger’s casual dismissal to Central Ohio has still cost this team, whether Holmgren publicly or privately ever wants to admit it. It reminds me of a similarly tossed-away up-and-coming forward who now “toils” for a team in the West. 

“We felt that with all the injuries we have had that Matt would bring more versatility to our lineup. He can play center and wing. We always felt that Patrick was a better center. We have lots of centers, even though we have some injuries right now. We just felt that Matt was a better fit for our team, although we realize that we gave up a good young player.”

Thus spake Clarkie in the Fall of 2005, when (if you believe anything printed in the paper, spoken on TV and hurled at message boards), Patrick Sharp was the unsuspecting victim of: a glut of centers, an overcrowded roster, then-head coach Ken Hitchcock’s ire, or rumors of a slack work ethic.

The “Matt” in question goes by the last name of Ellison. He played in all of seven games in parts of two seasons before his burial in the minors and exile to Russia.

Sharp has five straight 20-or-more goal years to his credit and you might recall, he won a Stanley Cup in 2010 with Chicago…whose opponents were our beloved Flyers. But at the time, the ‘Hawks were just about to emerge from the rubble of a decade of terrible management and seemed to be going nowhere fast, so of course, there was no harm done in taking care of some administrative business.

Who was Sharp removed to make room for? Why, Carter and Richards and Umberger, and Simon Gagne and Mike Knuble and Sami Kapanen and Brian Savage and Turner Stevenson and Ben Eager and Ryan Potulny and Michal Handzus and Peter Forsberg. Note that most of these names on the list didn’t make it past 2009 here.

That kind of detached adherence to the spirit of the present and doing right by what’s happening right now by both men reminds me of the old Steely Dan song, the one whose chorus goes:  “No hesitation/No tears and no hearts breakin/No remorse/Oh, congratulations/this is your Haitian Divorce”

Then, there’s this little nugget from Ed Snider in the aftermath of the Buffalo series five years ago:

“We’re not going to go and trade picks anymore, or trade our kids ever again for veterans. . . . We got carried away wanting to win [Stanley] Cups…”And if it takes us longer and we can’t win the Cup, so be it. We may win the Cup next year. But we are not going to go chasing the . . . Cup and giving away our future.”

OK, so what about Vinny Prospal and Jaroslav Modry (2008)? Oh, right, you’re just going to let them walk as free agents over money (Knuble, Kim Johnsson), or age (Mark Recchi, John LeClair, Tony Amonte) or age and money (Simon Gagne), or diminished role (Donald Brashear), or daring to express wishes to test the free-agent market (Jason Smith, Martin Biron).

Let’s not forget (under the heading “troubles, daily salary cap”) how, in order to accomodate young buck Giroux onto the roster in late 2009, Holmgren casually left both Glen Metropolit and Ossi Vaananen exposed to waivers. Both were immediately snapped up, and a Flyers club lacking grit and defensive depth let itself get crushed under the boot heel by Cup champion Pittsburgh in the first round.

And hey…wait…weren’t Joffrey Lupul and Luca Sbisa sacrificed two years ago for Chris Pronger??

But trading kids for kids is just kosher. Or trading “veterans” for kids (Carter, Richards). Trading one guy (Forsberg) for four people is OK as well. And so is trading veterans for veterans (Sanderson/Pitkanen for Smith/Lupul) — believe me, this was the hardest one of all to find because this team just does not go equal value for equal value unless in a difficult position.

And how about trading in the present for the future, which is what the Carter/Richards/Bryzgalov whirlwind seems to indicate? What crystal ball has anyone seen that guarantees a happier ending?

Here’s Snider in early May just after losing to the Bruins: “I thought there was a fight tonight … I don’t think they quit,” he said. “They kept playing. They played hard, but unfortunately we didn’t score enough goals to make a difference. Last year, we showed fight throughout the playoffs with very much the same squad so I have a lot of faith in these guys. They’re not going to ever quit.”

What then in the face of a sweep? If simply clocking in and putting forth your best effort isn’t enough to win, you turn around and rip the problem out at its roots? Hard work that maximizes talent simply isn’t enough anymore. Smart work, plus the right kind of talent and health, gets it done.

But if goal scoring is identified as the problem, why take away one-fifth of your total offense? Only Snider really knows the answer, or knows how to formulate an answer to that which pretzels logic to the point where it can make concrete sense.

So what exactly are the contents of the proverbial “lunch pail” that Clarke and Holmgren have droned on about lo these many years and that Snider alludes to in the attitude of the players?

Maybe a decent-sized sandwich, some fruit, a yogurt, and a beverage in a plastic thermos? Boundless energy and will to win? Or more likely a brush, two-tone paint, some rose-colored glasses, a PR guide to Philly media and much like the bottom of Pandora’s Box, hope?

How about the abstract, yet uncanny ability to convince yourself that every move is the right one all the time even when it involves something grave like ripping up the roster for the second time in five years?

If you’re the kind of person who is impressed with perpetual motion, and visible constant effort, and tireless public admissions of just how hard someone works, then the Flyers are a team you should stand by forever. If you’re the kind of person who examines the fruits of labor on their own merit, then you’ve got to turn two wary eyes from now on towards the 3600 block of South Broad Street.

Of course hard choices need to be made, when a majority of those made previously don’t pan out the way you think they should. Such is hockey, such is life. I don’t question the strength of the backbone, but the power of the brain above it.

It’s becoming more and more difficult to allow Holmgren, and ultimately Snider, leeway as time keeps on slippin’ into the future with little gain. All the ability to show backbone and make tough decisions has proven, is that they are content to be locked in their own version of Waiting for Godot. They will do just about anything to keep that silence at bay.

Good thing they’ve packed their lunch, isn’t it? You put that much energy into waiting that long and making sure the wait endures, that you’re bound to get hungry.

  • Rob

    Nice article! You’ve summed up many thoughts that I myself have had recently.

  • Rob

    Nice article! You’ve summed up many thoughts that I myself have had recently.

  • Bob H

    Thanks for the support, all.

    I usually tend to rant a bit in the first part of a series, because that kind of zealousness frames the impact I want to make on the last remaining Orange Kool-Aid drinkers out there.

  • Bob H

    Thanks for the support, all.

    I usually tend to rant a bit in the first part of a series, because that kind of zealousness frames the impact I want to make on the last remaining Orange Kool-Aid drinkers out there.