Sunday, October 22, 2006.
I wonder how and where millions of other Flyers fans heard the news, whether they were wide awake or half-asleep or just simply couldn’t believe what they were hearing. For me, it might as well have been the continuation of a dream.
The night before, my working life was put on pause for my 10th high school reunion, and to say I tied one on (aside from slipping back into euphemisms from the 1950s) would be serious understatement.
The alarm went off at 10:35 AM — plenty of time to crawl out from the sanctuary of my covers and presumably plenty of time to get my hurtin’ self out of the house for a 12 PM work shift.
But it just didn’t work out. Frozen in place first by a wicked hangover, then by the faint flickering in my brain which sounded like a 610 WIP sports update saying the entire Flyers front office had been rearranged, it was an easy decision to remain in place. In warmth. In safety.
Out there was the prospect of a zombified 8-hour workday. Out there was the spectre of a Flyers team that was 1-6-1 and showed no signs of life.
Even after faintly processing the shocking news that a) Bob Clarke chose to resign, b) Paul Holmgren would be elevated to general manager and c) Ken Hitchcock was fired in favor of d) John Stevens…it just didn’t register. That’s what going overboard at the bar tends to do — compounded by 6 hours of deep but hardly restful sleep.
(As a quick aside, my 15th reunion was last Saturday night. It was basically lather, rinse, repeat from the 10th. Hangover, cemented to the bed in the morning. I fully expected to wake up hearing something awful, but didn’t).
By all reckoning, the A-bomb should have been dropped four days earlier, when the 1-3-1 Flyers cruised into Buffalo in the midst of a four-game East Coast road swing that opened with a narrow loss three days prior in East Rutherford.
A scoreless first period gave way to a six-goal Buffalo burst en route to a stupefying 9-1 loss which was one of the worst in franchise history — both by margin of defeat and by attitude of the players. Despite a 38-37 shot advantage, it didn’t take a man staring blankly into a projection screen while killing a plate of wings and a pint of lager to see a team that was totally outclassed.
But it wasn’t until back-to-back losses against Tampa Bay and Florida on Thursday and Friday, coupled with a six-day break, that the shiny red button was pushed.
So Clarke, the favorite son whose job security was only outstripped by Supreme Court Justices and the Pope, was given the opportunity to call it a resignation and a kick upstairs after 12-plus years in his second term as GM.
Those of us who remembered his Senior Moment at the draft the previous June when all he had to do was say “The Philadelphia Flyers select Claude Giroux from the Gatineau Olympiques of the QMJHL” but instead morphed into a Marx Brothers routine, suddenly were jolted back to that moment and realized that it was a huge sign.
And Hitchcock, who even grated on the most entrenched veterans that bought into his methods, had to go because his demeanor apparently didn’t fit with a young roster almost completely turned over from the veteran-driven run of 2004.
Of course, the convenient solution to Philadelphia’s version of Mutually Assured Destruction was to promote from within: Holmgren who had served forever under Clarke, first as a player and then in the front office, got his chance to run things. Stevens, the laconic New Brunswick native and career minor-leaguer who won a Calder Cup as a player in 1998 with the Phantoms and then as head coach with a stacked roster in 2005, got his chance in The Show.
Apparently with nothing to lose, the season played out as we know it did.
A win over Atlanta in the first game since the moves, then losing seven of the next eight. A realization that we had to just sit back and take it, and hope that things could be rebuilt from the rubble. Dead F******* last in the NHL. Worst record in franchise history. A record 49 players suited up for at least one game.
It’s been a long and bittersweet ride since then.
The plusses of some different blood at the controls has yielded the great playoff runs of 2008 and 2010 undercut by the only small changes in organizational philosophy and the constant inability to understand the salary cap every season.
Stevens eventually was given the axe with his team in injury-precipitated free fall almost two years back, and Peter Laviolette was brought in to provide some actual, rather than anecdotal, emotion and intelligence.
I believe we’ll never really know if Holmgren ever made a difference until the franchise changes hands — because the guys at the top will stay at the top as long as Ed Snider’s shadow is cast over the whole operation. That could take a lot longer than another 5 years. He’s nothing if not loyal to those who will offer theirs.
And as long as “winning” is defined as taking enough regular-season games to make the playoffs and to put a sellout amount of butts in the seats, there will be no change.
It could be worse. But those of us who remember the sting of being out of the playoffs for five straight years can see how much better it was and could be, if only the braintrust would accept powering down in the short term in order to build a team with enough picks in the long term which can get that Silver Chalice.
One year of failure produced such panic that we’ve been on a rollercoaster every season for half a decade furiously trying to forget it ever happened. If anything can be said, it’s that this regime shows a lack of consistency in key points but miraculously maintains the status quo.
Where do you stand? For, against, or happy with a separate version of what’s always happened?