April 10, 1997. 7:32 PM, EST. The CoreStates Center, capacity 19,500. The hometown Broad Street Bullies and their arch-rivals, the Broadway Blueshirts, are at center ice. Taking the draw is Wayne Gretzky, holder of virtually every NHL scoring record, and the 6’5’’ 240-pound behemoth known as “Eric The Dread.”
Gretzky vs. Lindros.
The Great One vs. The Next One. The puck drops...
Actually, it didn’t happen like that. Flyers captain Eric Lindros was serving a two-game suspension for high-sticking gadfly Ulf Samuelsson.
But it was that sort of confrontation that Flyers owner Ed Snider had in mind when he acquired Lindros from the Nordiques in 1992. The Flyers franchise was floundering then, not for lack of talent, but for lack of focus. There was no franchise player, no one to build a dynasty around. The Lindros deal changed all that.
Bobby Clarke’s vision
When former Flyers GM Bob Clarke returned to Broad & Pattison in 1994, he brought with him a vision of what the new-look Flyers should be. Tough. Gritty. Skilled. Fast. And Big.
The former Caps coach was brought in to impose his defense-first system on the freewheeling Flyers. Trading Mark Recchi netted them John LeClair, who became a key component of the “Legion of Doom” and Eric Desjardins, who provided quiet leadership on the blueline.
The Roussel-Soderstrom netminding tandem was dismantled, and former Vezina/Conn Smythe winner Ron Hextall returned home after two stops in as many years. Holes in the lineup were filled by dealing for prospects or signing free agents. Only rarely has Clarke dealt for an established star, and when he did, it was for a reason. For example, he acquired Paul Coffey so that rookie Janne Niinimaa could get on-ice tutoring from the highest scoring D-man in history.
Building this way takes time and Clarke has had opportunities to accelerate the process by trading youth for experience. The names of highly-touted young Flyers like Rod Brind’Amour and Chris Therien are on every GM’s wish list. As the trading deadline approached this season, rumors were rampant Philly would move one of their youngsters to load up for the playoffs. It didn’t happen. Why?
Said Clarke: “You’ll pay like hell for doing that.”
Don’t believe it? Ask Rangers GM Neil Smith.
April 10, 1997. 10:17 PM, EST. The Rangers hammer Philadelphia, 6-3. Few players in the orange-and-black looked good, and netminder Hextall looked awful before he was pulled in the third. The 19,000 coaches in attendance screamed out the usual orders - “Shoot!” “Hit somebody!” - that is, when they weren’t booing. The biggest cheer of the night came in the aftermath of a Flyer-Ranger fan scuffle.
Security escorted the Blueshirt supporter out of the arena, spectators pelting him with trash all the way. The Flyer fan remained.
Just another hockey night in the City of Brotherly Love.
Philly and their beloved Flyers
That night aside, hockey is HUGE in Philadelphia. From an economic standpoint, things have never been better. Attendance is up 9.5 percent from ‘95-96, and stands at 97 percent capacity — 10 percent better than the hapless 76ers. The Core-States Center has 126 of the lucrative suites, as well as club seating for 3,000. It also doesn’t hurt that Phila-delphia is the nation’s fourth-largest television market.
But that’s just part of it. An admittedly unscientific polling of a dozen Philly residents left me with several distinct impressions. First, everyone — from cabbies to corporate execs — has an opinion about the Flyers, usually in regards to either team toughness or goaltending. Second, the Flyers rate a hell of a lot higher among Philadelphia sports fans than the 76ers, Phillies, or Eagles — the San Jose’s of their respective leagues. And third, Philadelphians perceive the Flyers as just a bunch of average Joes (well, millionaire average Joes) whose success is rooted more in hard work than natural talent. Basically, they love their Bullies.
And this love affair isn’t one-sided. Look at Rick Tocchet. The bad-tempered right winger hasn’t been a Flyer since 1992, but he’s still cheered every time he hits the ice in Philly, he keeps a home in the area, and he’s made no secret of his desire to finish his career there.
The players contribute to the community. They visit hospitals. They host autograph signings. They participate in the Flyers youth hockey program. And, occasionally, they’ll do something a little unusual. Recently, seven-year-old Joey Capelli, who suffers from cystic fibrosis, got to meet Lindros after a team practice. He also got to play with LeClair in a two-on-two scrimmage. It cost just 30 minutes or so, but it was priceless to Joey.
And then there’s the Flyers’ Wives Fight For Lives Carnival. Now in its 21st year, the carnival is a day-long event at the CoreStates Center, with proceeds going towards cancer and AIDS research. Fans can take shots on the goalies, get autographs, play games, bid on donated memorabilia, and, of course, visit the ever-popular dunk tank. This year, the carnival raised a record $1,024,455.
Just a million more reasons for Bob Clarke to say “Philadelphia is probably the best hockey town in this country.”
Can they win the Cup?
So can the Flyers deliver on Ed Snider’s promise to win the Cup in ‘97? After all, Philadelphia was the preseason pick of both The Hockey News and The Sporting News to meet Colorado in the Finals.
But not at presstime. ESPN’s John Davidson feels that the Devils are tops in the East. “New Jersey is a better defensive team and stronger with four lines that can score. The Devils have an experienced defense — no rookies there — and they’re all big. And, meaning no disrespect to the Flyers, I firmly believe that they are better in goal.”
Davidson isn’t alone in his analysis. The Hockey News had made New Jersey the odds-on favorite in the East over Philly, while the Vegas line on both teams to win the Cup was New Jersey, 9:2 and Philadelphia, 5:1.
Why the turnaround? Most analysts point to several possible weaknesses. Injuries to key forwards have kept the second line from gaining any consistency. Philadelphia still lacks a crease-clearing defenseman.
But the biggest doubts involve the goaltending. Backup Garth Snow had a breakthrough season — he had a 16-game unbeaten streak — but has had little payoff experience. And Hextall? Hexy had an uneven season, and entered the playoffs looking very beatable. He gave up four goals on 11 shots in the Flyers final game vs., interestingly, New Jersey. It was a carbon copy of his abysmal performance against the Rangers April 10. The Flyers need much more from him.
For his part, coach Terry Murray claims to be not “overly concerned” about Hextall’s play, and still pegs him as his go-to guy. Hedging his bets a bit, John LeClair says that “we have confidence in whoever is in goal.” In the last year of his contract, Murray better have, too.
His job may depend on it.
Future looks bright
Fortunately for the Flyers organization, failure to win the Cup in ‘97 won’t bring on the Apocalypse, as they haven’t sold out the future for the present. If anything, Philly’s fortunes look even brighter down the road. Careful drafting over the past four years has netted the franchise a great crop of prospects, several of whom have already joined the lineup.
Janne Niinimaa has shown signs of following in boyhood idol Paul Coffey’s footsteps as a dominant puck-rushing defenseman. Vaclav Prospal, an overnight success three years in the making, has impressed with his hockey sense, soft passes and a surprising physical element. And 18-year-old Dainius Zubrus, already an imposing 6’3,” 215 pounds, has drawn rave revues from Terry Murray, who says that “someday he’s going to be a star in this league.”
From day one, they have looked right at home and impressed knowledgeable observers such as John Davidson: “It’s an organizational dream to be able to play them — play them a LOT — and still end up near the top of the conference. It’s the way it should be.”
And they’re likely to be joined by other rising stars over the next few years, including possible Hextall heir Brian Boucher, Jr. LeClair left wing Colin Forbes and gritty right wingers Paul Healey and Brian Wesenberg.
Not that they’ll have to shoulder the burden right away, though. Goaltender Snow, four of the top five blueliners, and eight of the top ten forwards will be age 31 or younger five years from now. Compare that to the Rangers. Two-thirds of their current lineup will be retired, including Wayne Gretzky.
Philadelphia might win the Stanley Cup this year. Or not. But, as one fan put it, “We’ve waited since ‘76. We can wait a little longer.” It won’t take long, though, because the Flyers are headed in the right direction. Up.