Philly Sports Talk

Everything Old is New Again

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Craig Berube is the Flyers’ 7th coach since the year 2000 and the 15th since their last Stanley Cup championship.  Is he the answer?  Are we asking the wrong questions?  Let’s see if we can’t find the common denominator in nearly four decades of frustration.

Full disclosure:  My first memory of hockey was the Flyers getting swept in 1976 by the Habs.  So, this will be coming straight from my repeatedly broken heart.

Let’s begin on June 2, 1978.  Legendary cup-winning coach Fred Shero, having seen his team bounced in consecutive years by the Boston Bruins, had submitted his resignation to the Flyers.  The Flyers refused to accept it.  So, when Shero, thinking he was free to work elsewhere, signed a five year deal to coach the New York Rangers, he exposed his new employers to tampering charges.  In order to avoid those charges, the Rangers offered their 1st round pick in the draft as compensation.  With that pick, the Flyers selected Ken Linseman.  The ‘Rink Rat’ would become a fan favorite and one in a long line of ‘Bobby Clarke Types’ to be selected by the team in an ultimately fruitless effort to recreate the Broad Street Bullies.  With Shero gone, the team promoted Bob McCammon, the coach of their minor league affiliate in Maine.

With that, the wheel starts to spin … Here we go!!!!!

Bob McCammon – 1978-79 – Inherits a mix of aging Bullies and transitioning youth.  After 42 games, they are 22-14-6 and in the thick of the conference standings.  But, an 0-3-5 stretch had the Spectrum crowd chanting for change and GM Keith Allen pulled the plug.

Pat Quinn – 1979-1982 – An assistant under Shero, he had been offered the Maine job as consolation when McCammon was hired.  His tenure had two unforgettable highlights.  The Streak, an exhilarating 25-0-10 run from October 1979 to January 1980 that set a major team sports record for consecutive games without a loss which still stands.  This was followed by a run to the Stanley Cup finals and the catastrophic game 6 loss to the New York Islanders.  That pole axe to the sternum is an article all to itself.  So, I will simply remind you all that Leon Stickle is the anti-christ and leave it at that.  A few years later, the perception within the organization was that Quinn was too autonomous and was not developing the young talent enough.  So, as the team was gearing up for the late-season run to the playoffs, he was replaced by …

Bob McCammon (wait … what??) – 1982-84 – Yes, that Bob McCammon!!  He had gone back to coaching in Maine.  Snider and Allen liked the way he was shaping their young prospects and decided that he was himself more refined as a coach.  At the end of the ’83 season, he leveraged an offer from the Penguins into a promotion to Coach/GM of the Flyers.  Ultimately, embarrassing playoff losses to the ‘Smurf’ Rangers in ’82 & ’83, then the upstart Capitals in ’84 were his legacy.

Mike Keenan – 1984-1988 – The first Flyers coach since Shero to come from ‘outside’, Keenan inherited a strong young core of players.  That core was augmented by the first draft of new GM Bob Clarke.  With apologies to the Bullies and the Lindros teams, this would become the greatest Flyers team ever assembled.  Unfortunately, they were assembled at the same time as the Edmonton Oilers dynasty of Gretzky, Messier, Coffey, Fuhr, et al.  So, there would be no coronation parade down Broad St.  Keenan built a team whose talent was only surpassed by their grit and desire to win.  This led them to great heights.  But, also led to inevitable attrition.  Twice Keenan led teams to the finals against the Oilers.  Both times they arrived so badly wounded that they simply fell short.  Eventually, his pedal to the metal approach began to grind the machinery.  As is often the case, his message began to fall on deaf ears as he lost ‘the room’.

Paul Holmgren – 1988-1991 – The first former Flyers player to helm the team.  As an assistant, ‘Homer’ had been the calming conduit between the gruff, insatiable Keenan and his players.  His promotion was seen by many as the inmates running the asylum.  The years under Keenan, while successful, had been hard years.  Holmgren inherited a team of diminishing stars.  Kerr, Howe, Propp, Poulin would lead a parade of players on the wrong end of great careers that departed during his tenure. A gritty run in the ’89 playoffs ended when Ron Hextall assaulted Canadiens’ defenseman Chris Chelios at the end of game 6 of the conference finals.  The ’89-’90 season began with Hextall serving a 12 game suspension and closed as the first ever Flyers season to end without an invitation to the post-season tournament.  The ’90-’91 season ended similarly and by Thanksgiving of 1991 “Paul Must Go” chants were echoing through the Spectrum.

Bill Dineen – 1991-93 – A grandfatherly hockey lifer, Dineen had inspired legendary loyalty from the teams he coached in Houston and New England in the WHA.  He was an interesting choice in light of the Flyers recent acquisition of his son Kevin from the Hartford Whalers.  But, the team itself was still a mess under GM Russ Farwell and the playoff drought continued.  After the ’91-’92 season, the team pulled the trigger on the massive deal which brought Eric Lindros to town.  Dineen would end up overseeing the growing pains as a team was slowly constructed around the young star.  His team finished the ’92-’93 season with 8 straight wins.  But, the decision was made to move on without him.

Terry Simpson – 1993-94 – A one-time adversary of GM Farwell in the WHL, Simpson was the only choice (after a late-season offer to Mike Keenan was rebuffed).  He had some success in a stint with the Islanders and had been an assistant in Winnipeg since.  He coached one forgettable season before being a collateral casualty of  GM Farwell’s dismissal.

Terry Murray – 1994-97 – Another former Flyer, Murray would serve as the calm center of the Lindros storm.  After frustrating playoff losses to New Jersey and Florida, his ’96-’97 team rampaged through the Eastern Conference playoffs and was the prohibitive favorite to top the Detroit Red Wings in the Cup Finals.  After a Game 3 loss, en route to a horrific sweep, Murray seemed to place the blame squarely on his team by making his infamous ‘choking situation’ comment.  This apparently caused an irreparable schism in ‘the room’.

Wayne Cashman – 1997-98 – Really??  You’re going to bring a Bruin in here???  By this time, Bob Clarke had returned and was comfortable enough as GM to install his old Team Canada buddy behind the bench.  It didn’t work. ‘Cash’ lasted 61 games before accepting a demotion to assistant in favor of legendary coach Roger Nielsen.

Roger Nielsen – 1998-2000 – The colorful and vivacious coach arrived with a system to implement.  He had acquired the nick-name Captain Video for his pioneering use of video scouting.  His teams were perennial contenders.  But, injuries and unsure goaltending were their undoing.  In February 2000, he stepped down in order to fight bone cancer.  In his absence, the team came within one win of the finals.  The decision was made to leave the team in the hands of the interim coach and Nielsen was excused.

Craig Ramsay – 2000 – After only 28 regular season games, Ramsay was dismissed.  Without the injured and disgruntled Lindros, the team foundered.  Again, they looked into the past.

Bill Barber – 2000-02 – A popular choice, the Flyer legend had coached their minor-league affiliate to a Calder Cup championship.  In 2001, he was the NHL’s Coach of the Year.   Tragically, he also lost his wife to cancer that same year.  During the regular season, his goalie Roman Cechmanek was among the best in the league.  Unfortunately, Cechmanek never grasped the importance of the Stanley Cup and simply checked out every spring.  This led to embarrassing first round exits in ’01 & ’02.  The perception in the media and with the fans was that Barber’s message of effort and grit wasn’t enough. They wanted a system.  Apparently, so did the Flyers brass.

Ken Hitchcock – 2002-06 – ‘Hitch’ had served as an assistant to both Holmgren and Dineen before eventually winning a Cup as the head coach of the Dallas Stars in 1999.  He arrived with a proclamation from owner Ed Snider that it was time for some coaching stability.  The fifth coach in the 6 seasons since their loss in the finals to Detroit, he was assured that he would be given time to build his team.  After a heart-stopping playoff run in 2004 ended in Tampa.  The subsequent labor lockout stemmed the momentum.  When play resumed, the revamped team, led by Peter Forsberg, fell flat in the first round of the playoffs and started slow the following season.  Only 8 games in, after a 1-6-1 start, Hitchcock was fired and GM Bob Clarke resigned.  Assistant GM Paul Holmgren was promoted to GM and Assistant Coach John Stephens to coach.

John Stephens – 2006-2009 – Like Barber, Stephens was a former Flyer (9 games – 2 assists) and, like Barber, he had coached the Phantoms to a Calder Cup title.  It was clear that there was a young nucleus to be developed and Stephens’ cool and calm demeanor was a good fit.  The ’06-’07 campaign was painful, easily the worst in team history.  But, out of it came a team of exciting young talent that would run to the Eastern Conference finals the following season.  He was unable to recreate that magic the following spring and after an uninspired start to the ’09-’10 season, Stephens was done.

Peter Laviolette – 2009-2013 – ‘Lavvy’ arrived with a plan to make the Flyers the best conditioned team in the league.  Eventually, they slipped into the playoffs with a shoot-out win over the Rangers on the season’s final day.  Suddenly, his plans started to take shape and the fuse was lit on a historic rocket ride to the Stanley Cup finals against Chicago.  As had been the case for most of the last 20 years, the goaltending was just not consistent enough.  No one guy had stood up to take the job.  Ilya Bryzgalov was brought in to solve that issue.  But, the massive contract he was given necessitated the trading of foundation forwards Jeff Carter and Captain Mike Richards.  When stalwart defenseman Chris Pronger was lost to a freak eye injury and subsequent concussion issues, the team never really recovered.  Add to that Bryzgalov’s mediocre play and you have a recipe for disaster.  As the 2013-14 season opened, it was clear that Laviolette was on a short leash.  An 0-3 start was the death knell.

Fifteen coaches, zero Stanley Cups.

It has become the fashion to blame it all on Ed Snider and his devotion to the glorious past.  That is a reasonable conclusion.  But, it isn’t the whole story.  Perhaps Snider’s devotion to the past is most damaging when it manifests itself in personnel decisions.  Whether stated outright or tacitly implied, there has been a clear philosophy, a brand even – Flyers Hockey.

But, has the game outgrown that Flyers brand of hockey?  Time and again this team has come tantalizingly close, only to see the a different team with an entirely different approach snatch it away.  The Habs beat them in 1976 then won three more Cups.  The Isles topped them in 1980 to begin their own run of 4 championships.  Edmonton won 4 titles in the 1980′s, twice at the expense of the Orange and Black.  Then, the Lindros-led offensive juggernaut of the 1990′s could not solve defensive-minded teams like Florida and the Devils. When they did get to the Finals, Detroit reset the paradigm and began their own mini-dynasty.  The mission has always been clear – WIN THE STANLEY CUP.  But, the game plan constantly seems to be a step behind the times.

Coming out of the lock-out, they signed Derian Hatcher and Mike Rathje in free agency.  The two massive, lumbering defensemen were steady blueliners in the ‘clutch and grab’ NHL.  But, they looked like spinning, table-hockey figures in the new wide open league.

Since the acquisition of an aging Darryl Sittler in the early ’80′s, another Flyer tradition has been to bring in Hall of Fame caliber players who were past their expiration date.  It was ramped up considerably during the Lindros era and since – Hawerchuk, Coffey, Roenick, Amonte, Forsberg, Nedved.  In a bizarre twist, they then traded away a fistful of players that wound up as cogs in Cup-winning teams in Chicago and Los Angeles.

If you consider the effect that injuries have had on this franchise, it is hard to ignore.  Bernie Parent’s sudden retirement after a freak eye injury, the MASH unit Keenan teams including the untimely death of Pelle Lindbergh, young Ron Hextall’s recurring groin issues, Eric Lindros’ concussion issues and, most recently, Chris Pronger’s eye and concussion problems.  One can only imagine what might have been had they not encountered these injuries.

To me, it is clear that no one factor is solely to blame for the title drought on Broad St.  Yet, all of these factors do have one common denominator – the philosophy of Flyers Hockey.  So, it is easy to see where the promotion of Craig Berube can be seen as ‘more of the same’.

Officially, they are touting Berube’s advanced hockey mind, they have to.  Personally, I hope that Paul Holmgren is actively searching for someone else to take the reins.  Someone who not only has a system to implement, but who knows the kind of personnel he needs to best execute that system.  In order for the next guy to implement his system with the players he wants, it might not be the worst thing if Snider was to seek out someone to replace Holmgren and perhaps even himself.

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