How the World Championship Renewed My Love of Hockey

As we walked out of Wells Fargo Center before the end of the final game of the Flyers 2018/19 season, I wondered if my love for hockey was dead.  The Flyers had played with no passion, looking as if they couldn’t wait for the season to be over.  Also, I was disappointed because my favorite Flyer had been sent to the minors for the remainder of their season, so I missed the chance to see him play once last time this season.  That seemed par for the course considering how life as a Flyers fan had been going of late.  It had been a Flyers season full of one disappointment after another, and more front office drama than a soap opera.  I could barely gather enough enthusiasm to cheer for the night’s team awards, even though I generally still had good feelings about the players.  It was the organization itself that I felt had let us down.  I convinced myself that the disappointing season was somehow not the players’ fault – that they were the victims of a dysfunctional management group that translated to a poisonous locker room and no motivation to play the game they love with passion and conviction.  However, most fans did not give the team such allowances, and the boos had been reigning down at Wells Fargo Center for months as season ticket holders swore to not renew their plans next year.  My husband and I came to the same conclusion, though I convinced myself it was a practical decision based on the stunning increase in ticket prices and increasing annoyance at making the two plus hour trip up I-95 from Virginia numerous weekends, most times going up and back the same day.  But deep down I was heartbroken.

The Phillies are my husband’s team since birth, but the Flyers are mine.  Though I have only been a fan for about eight years, that fandom has been strong, and going to Flyers games has been one of the highlights of my life.  After the Flyers season ended, I tried to care about the NHL playoffs, and got a little enjoyment out of the fact that a hockey team from my southern state of North Carolina almost made it to the Stanley Cup finals.  But in the end, I was left with a void that I could not fill.  I continued to scroll through social media related to the Flyers, but generally had little interest.  Every post brought out a mix of sadness, anger, and fear that I might never see a Flyers game in person again.  One day recently, however, a twitter post caught my attention. My favorite Flyer, rookie defenseman Philippe Myers, had surprisingly been called to join the Canadian National Team in the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Slovakia due the injury of another team member.  I was peripherally aware that a few Flyers were playing in some tournament in Europe and that Sean Couturier was playing for Canada, but that was the extent of it.  But now, as I was missing hockey so much, I was thrilled at the chance to see my favorite Flyer play hockey again.  The tournament had already been going on for a week by this time, but there was still a week left to go.

I watched Team Canada’s preliminary round game against Denmark and was hooked from minute one.  Canada had three Flyers players, all favorites of mine, plus several other NHL players who I had heard of.  Even the players I had not heard of became familiar to me very quickly, and I became I huge fan of this team very quickly.  There was something different about the players in the uniform of their home country.  Somehow, they looked more confident and passionate than any hockey player I had seen in quite a while.  I looked at these familiar Flyers and wondered where this passion was all season in Philly.  But I think I get it.  Playing in the NHL is their job.  Playing for their country is an honor and all about pride and bragging rights.  I watched Canada dominate Denmark on their way to a 5-0 victory with Flyers rookie goalie and fan favorite Carter Hart getting the shutout.  The IIHF website coverage of the games was perfect.  It was no frills, behind-the-scenes (i.e., the players walking to the locker room), and just the facts – exactly the way I like my hockey.  The larger international ice surface seemed to make the game faster and more wide-open with fewer penalties and other stoppages.  It was so refreshing to watch a hockey game and not notice the officials after all of the focus this past NHL season on uneven and sometimes downright horrible officiating.  I was thrilled when Canada won, and was especially happy for young Phil Myers to have such a great opportunity to play for his country under the tutelage of Alan Vigneault, who was recently named Flyers head coach for next season.

Suddenly, this exercise in watching a few familiar Flyers players had become something much bigger.  Not only was I cheering on Team Canada, I was cheering for Team USA, which consisted of one Flyer and many young NHLers and prospects with whom I am familiar, and keeping track of the entire tournament.  I download the tournament app and found myself checking all of the scores, schedules, and stories several times daily.  It was great fun and little by little over a very short period of time I felt my love for hockey return.  I remembered why I love the game, what first attracted me to it years ago as a Capitals fan, and what keeps me invested in it year after year.  I began wishing that this tournament could go on for months, not mere weeks.  And I wondered if the NHL adopted international rules and the larger ice surface would things go better.  I even started entertaining the idea of going to Switzerland for the 2020 IIHF tournament.  Every time they cameras show the fans in the stands cheering with painted faces waving their country’s flag, I wanted to be there in a USA jersey with a US flag painted on my face cheering my heart out.

Just as I was getting in the groove of watching Team Canada play, it almost came to a screeching halt.  Canada played Switzerland during the quarterfinal game and spent most of the game a goal behind.  Switzerland was looking to make it to the semifinals with a 2-1 lead with less than a minute to go.  I was sitting in my car waiting for the end of the game before going into the house.  As I kept refreshing the score page on the IIHF app, it kept saying the same thing:  SUI 2, CAN 1.  I kept thinking that must be incorrect, that the game must be over, and that Canada lost.  But as the ‘80s pop hit “Send Me an Angel” played on the radio, I sent all the positive vibes I had towards the Canadian team, knowing that if they lost, my brief glimpse of meaningful (to me) hockey would be gone for months.  As it seemed that tears might well up in my eyes, I looked in shock and amazement as the score updated to show SUI 2, CAN 2 at the end of the third period.  I would later find out that Canada’s Damon Severson scored with one second left in the game to tie it.   I couldn’t believe it and somehow knew that Canada had this game now.  Sure enough, Mark Stone scored in overtime for the win.  I started watching the game just as Canada won, so I got to see the team’s elation at the victory, their pride when the Canadian national anthem was played, and the sheer joy as the players filed into the locker room whooping and hollering.  I was especially happy to see an overjoyed Myers yelling “Let’s Go!” and grinning from ear to ear.  He seemed so serious the first time I saw him play for this team, no doubt the new kid feeling his way and trying to soak in every part of the experience.  Now, here he was, in the middle of a celebration by a team with its sights on gold.  And here I was, loving hockey again and looking forward to watching some exciting games over the next few days.

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Why All the Hate Over the New Flyers Jersey?

Yesterday the Flyers unveiled the long-awaited 50th Anniversary jersey.  My initial reaction was pleasant surprise.  Yes, it features a lot of gold (gasp!).   But the gold stands out nicely against the cool white surrounded by the familiar Flyers orange.  My first thought was creamsicle….in a good way.  The jersey looks new, fresh, and different.  Not just another boring variation of the same jersey over and over again. 

But apparently I am in the minority.  Based on the overwhelming reaction of Flyers fans on social media, the new jersey is a big dislike.  Apparently, people are very unhappy about the gold.  And they keep making references to the hated Penguins, as if the Penguins own the color.  Never mind the fact that, at least according to my eyes, it is a totally different tone of gold.  One fan on Twitter photo shopped the new jersey, changing the gold to orange.  I thought it looked only a little different than the gold, and a 100% more boring.  But apparently some fans are more comfortable sticking to orange and black.

In my mind, this jersey unveiling at the One Liberty Observation Deck (great location for such an event) signaled the cutting of the ribbon on the 2016-17 Flyers season, which celebrates the team’s 50th Anniversary.  (Symbolized by the color gold.)  The season is upon us.  It’s World Cup, training camp, pre-season, then bam…the regular season starts.  So I was thrilled to see Flyers hockey news front and center yesterday.  And I will be putting one of those jerseys on my back my next visit to Wells Fargo Center.

Three Reasons To Be Excited About The Flyers Next Season

The Flyers season has come to an end after a valiant effort against the “mighty” Capitals in the first round of the playoffs. The lockers have been cleaned out, the post-season interviews are complete, and the team is scattering for several months to rest, heal, and rebuild in preparation for training camp in September.  I, like most fans, started thinking about the promise of next season the second the final playoff game ended.  Here are three things we learned about the Flyers this season that make the promise of next season so exciting:

The plans work. Flyers GM Ron Hextall has a plan to be patient and grow the organization from within. In a similar way, rookie coach Dave Hakstol has a plan for how to guide a winning hockey team.  And this season proved that both plans are working well.  The Flyers had a very successful 2015 draft, taking several highly-touted prospects in early rounds, including number seven pick, defenseman Ivan Provorov, who is regarded as one of the top NHL prospects.  The Flyers’ farm system is stacked with many other promising prospects who could make a huge impact on the Flyers within the next few years.

When many people thought that Hextall would take the conservative route and hire a seasoned NHL coach at the beginning of this past season, Hextall went outside the box and hired University of North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol. I am sure there were people who did not think Hakstol could make the leap from college to the NHL.  And though it took a little while for the Flyers to adjust to Hakstol’s system, they did and have thrived in it.  I think that the team gelling together in Hakstol’s system was a main reason for the Flyers’ successful season-end push to the playoffs.  I see this positive trend only getting stronger as next season gets underway.

This team has tons of heart and perseverance. Innately talented, smooth-skating teams are a dime a dozen. I’ll take an underdog with heart and a no quit attitude every time.  And that is what we saw from these Flyers in every minute of play versus the Caps during the playoffs.  The Caps were bigger, faster, and more talented, but they almost didn’t win the series.  (And, it’s tough to lose when it seems like even the officials are on your side.)  But personal feelings about the horribly uneven officiating aside, the Flyers never gave up, even after going down 0-3 in the series.  I was at the first playoff game in Philly and it was not a pretty sight.  No one would have blamed the Flyers for giving up after that one.  But they didn’t.  They never gave up and were within a goal of pushing the series to a decisive Game 7.  And, in every penalty kill, impossible save, and struggle for a quality shot on goal, the Flyers stayed in the game by sticking together and never giving up.  That is a team that any fan will be proud to cheer for when hockey season starts again.

The future looks bright. Thanks to Hextall’s focus on building this team from within, the Flyers are already looking like an incredibly promising team over the next few seasons as the stable of elite draft picks start making their way to Philly. The names go on and on (Konecny, Provorov, Sanheim, Morin, Stolarz, Hagg) and it is feasible that all of them could make a huge impact on the Flyers soon.  Add them to the solid core that already exists and the sky’s the limit.  And Hextall has proven that he is capable of making nearly impossible deals to clear cap and roster space to make room for the rookies when they are ready.

Is it October yet? The 2016-17 season can’t get here soon enough.

 

Flyers Not Playing Boldly

By guest blogger Joseph Franco

#PlayBoldly! That is the Flyers slogan for the season. Too bad the Flyers’ marketing department didn’t check with the players before plastering this phrase all over souvenir cups and the like.

Let’s take a look at a season that started with a good effort versus Tampa. That’s about where the season ended.  Since that opening night in Florida, the Flyers traveled to Miami, where they ran on the beach before the game and then didn’t #PlayBoldly versus the Panthers. They’ve also managed losses against New Jersey, who was projected to be as bad as the Flyers. The Flyers then lost to Buffalo at home and lost to Buffalo in Buffalo. They gave up 49 shots while putting up only 22 in Edmonton. They lost to Calgary, who had been 1-5 in their building before the Flyers came to town. The Flyers also carried a four-plus goals against for that stretch.  #PlayBoldly.   And let’s look at the goals scored on that trip. Buffalo: 1,  Vancouver: 1, Edmonton: 2, Calgary: 1.  And the picture looks even more bleak tonight after a shutout loss to Colorado and another team meeting.

And the pride problems run deep in this organization. The newly-promoted president, Paul Holmgren, started the problem when he was general manager. He signed several big-dollar, long-term contracts with veterans that didn’t pan out. And it will take new GM Ron Hextall several more years to dig out from under the impossible salary cap situation that Holmgren left him. Yet Holmgren still collects a paycheck from the organization.

After the loss in Calgary, the team strives to remain positive. Michael Raffl was quoted as saying “if we play like we played last night, we’re going to win a lot of games.” But here’s the problem, did I mention that the Flames only beat one team in six tries before the Flyers came to town? And that they gave up an ungoldly 4+ goals a game at home? So, it’s great to be positive, but Raffl, your squad just lost to a team that is BAD. You’re not going to win games when you can’t win a game against a team that hadn’t won at home.  Follow that with Dave Hakstol’s quote: “We earned a point.” Well, I know that you’re coming over from college, but the game in the NHL is to win. A point isn’t helpful when it’s against a team that gave away 10 before you came into town. It’s a loss. It is what it is.

And all of this brings me to the subject of leadership. Where is Giroux? Where is Voracek? Didn’t they both recently sign big contracts? I seem to recall comments from the captain such as “we’re hungry after reflecting on last season.” Really? #PlayBoldy? Really?   There seems to be a lack of pride amongst the team. Raffl’s quote could be taken as being good with losing. Team meetings mean nothing if they don’t translate into change. Too many men on the ice penalties. Twice in a game? Three times in two games? Where is the focus? Where is the pride? Where is the leadership? Where is Hextall (who is actually trying to fix the mess)? At the very least, the Flyers should be competitive. And the team should figure out how to play 60 minutes every game, not just the games against winning teams. The fans are paying big bucks to fill the Wells Fargo Center seats and are devoting time to the team only to watch losses to bad teams. Sloppy play. No defense. No offense. Pride? Where is it?

#PlayBoldly?  Really?  When does that start?

Hextall’s Plan Requires Patient Fans

Since the day Ron Hextall became General Manager of the Philadelphia Flyers, he has preached his philosophy of building the team from within by drafting and nurturing young talent. Hextall has kept that promise with a fruitful 2015 draft and a vow to not rush the Flyers growing stable of young prospects. This fan has been on board with Hextall’s plan from day one, and I believe that developing young talent is the only way for the Flyers to “right this ship” and become a Stanley Cup contender again. What I didn’t realize until this week was how difficult it would be for fans to be patient with the implementation of Hextall’s plan when face-to-face with that that young talent in action.

Let’s start with 18-year-old forward Travis Konecny. In his brief time in the Flyers camp this preseason, he was on fire, showing impressive speed and tenacity. I did not see him play in a preseason game, but I saw a clip of him speeding down the ice and making a big hit. His skating was so fast that for a minute I thought the clip was on fast forward. He impressed Flyers management, but was sent to his junior team earlier this week to gain more experience. When I heard the news my reaction was: I get it but I don’t like it. I knew he probably wouldn’t make the Flyers’ opening night roster, but I was hoping he would stick around camp for a while longer.

The second case in point, and perhaps the most difficult one for Flyers fan to swallow, is the case of 22-year-old defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere. I saw him score a goal Saturday night in the Flyers’ preseason game against the Islanders, his third goal in three games. He had a lot of ice time, making it obvious that the Flyers’ brass were giving him every opportunity to prove himself, which it seemed he did. But then came the news that he had been sent to the AHL Lehigh Valley Phantoms. Based on the social media reaction, most fans seem to get it, but some are confused and disappointed about this decision.

Of course the real answer as to why Ghost (and perhaps several other highly-touted prospects) are no longer in the Flyers camp is not so much because of Hextall’s plan as it is because there is no place for them on the Flyers roster even if Hextall wanted them there. Unfortunately for Hextall, he inherited a handful of under-producing veterans with expensive, lengthy contacts that are going to take a while to get rid of (one way or another). Until then, the talented kids will gain experience in the juniors and minors while us fans wish we could fast forward to a few Octobers from now. But if we patiently wait, I believe that Hextall will prove that his plan worked, and today’s prospects will become tomorrow’s Cup-contending Flyers.

 

 

Why Playing in Prague Made Giroux a Better Flyer

Flyers Captain Claude Giroux returned from the IIHF World Championships in Prague last week with a gold medal and no doubt a major feeling of accomplishment, especially after inexplicably being left off of Team Canada for the 2014 Winter Olympics.  Here are three reasons why playing in the World Championships made Giroux a better Flyer for the upcoming NHL season.

Confidence.  The past few NHL seasons, Giroux has gotten off to a slow start and ensuing dip in self confidence. Gathering 10 points in 10 games in the World Championships in May leads to a confident Giroux entering Flyers training camp in a few months ready to start the season in mid-season form.

Experience. Playing in Prague added valuable experience to Giroux’s already stellar resume. His World Championship teammates and opponents were some of the best in the world, and one cannot discount the benefit of being exposed to other coaches, arenas, etc. After all, learning is a lifelong experience.

Accolades. Giroux’s performance at the World Championships was very strong, and it earned him and Team Canada international accolades following their decisive gold medal victory over Russia. Accolades become part of a player’s resume and reputation and build a player’s confidence and experience. Flyers owner Ed Snider was recently asked how he feels about the Flyers core group of players heading into the upcoming season. The first thing he mentioned was the success of Giroux and several other Flyers at the World Championships. He knows that playing in Prague made Giroux a better Flyer.

Bittersweet Seasons End

A few weekends ago I lived this hockey lover’s dream:  two games in less than 24 hours played by my two favorite teams.  Unfortunately, these games marked the end of disappointing seasons for the Flyers and their minor league affiliate Phantoms given that neither team made the playoffs.  But being a fan means enjoying seeing your team play no matter what, so I was excited to attend my first Leigh Valley Phantoms game and my last Philadelphia Flyers game of the season.

My husband, who grew up near Allentown, eagerly watched the Phantoms’ new arena, PPL Center, being built over the last few years via the Phantoms’ live cam at the construction site.  He and I were very excited to attend a game in the new arena and had booked a room in the beautiful Renaissance Allentown Hotel that is part of the arena complex.  PPL Center did not disappoint and I now understand why Flyers GM Ron Hextall once joked that the Flyers players didn’t mind so much getting sent down to the Phantoms given the beautiful new arena and its amenities.

Though I was excited about seeing the new arena, I was most excited about seeing the Phantoms play.  I had seen them play two years ago when they were the Adirondack Phantoms visiting the Hershey Bears.  Getting to Adirondack to see them play was never going to happen, but I had kept up with how the team was doing.   And because I keep track of the Flyers prospects, I found that I was familiar with most of the players on the Phantoms roster.  In fact, I had seen several of them play for the Flyers this season.

One of the things I like most about minor league hockey is the smaller arenas and thus the closer proximity to the ice.  We sat on the seventh row by one of the goals, but it felt as if I could jump into the face-off circle if I wanted to.  Hockey is one of those sports that is best appreciated in person, and most perfectly appreciated up close in person.  The game is fast and intense, and I don’t think that fact is truly appreciated until one sees (and hears) it firsthand.

After seeing dozens of NHL games and a handful of AHL games, I am convinced that AHL games are what I would call more “brutal.”  The intensity and physical play seems higher in the AHL than in the NHL (excluding the NHL playoffs, which are definitely a step up in intensity).   I am probably not the first person to point out this difference between the AHL and the NHL, and I am not exactly sure why it is true, but I suspect that is has to do with where the players are in their careers.  The AHL players are talented for sure (though maybe at more varying levels than in the NHL), but each one is fighting hard each night to prove that he deserves to play in the NHL.  The NHL players, on the other hand, are likely more evenly matched in skill level and do not have as much to prove since they now have the coveted NHL contract in hand.  As a fan who appreciates the physical play of the game, I find the AHL game quite thrilling.

The other aspect of the AHL game that I really enjoy is getting the chance to evaluate future Flyers.  Finally, thanks to Ron Hextall’s sound plan to rebuild the Flyers from within, the Flyers farm system is starting to get flush with prospects.  A few of those highly touted prospects played for the Phantoms this year and will hopefully have a shot at playing for the Flyers next season.  One of those prospects is Scott Laughton, who spent time with the Flyers this season.  He did not disappoint in this Phantoms game.  He scored the Phantom’s only goal in regulation and won the game for the Phantoms in a thrilling shootout.  Here’s hoping he is with the Flyers all of next season if for no other reason than to slay the shootout beast that continues to befall the Flyers.

Another prospect who looked sharp and nearly ready for the big time was young defenseman Robert Hagg.  His smart play and toughness are things that the Flyers could have desperately used this season.   At one point during the Phantoms game, Hagg got clocked in the face by what looked to be the elbow of one of the Norfolk Admirals players.  Hagg barely blinked, just briefly put his hand to his face and kept skating.  Tough as nails.  (Fortunately, the official finally acknowledged the infraction and called a high sticking penalty on the Admirals player.)

Fortunately for the Flyers, the defensive prospect depth chart is starting to look deep (and big).  Another Phantoms defenseman who saw some time with the Flyers this season is Oliver Lauridsen.  At 6’6”, when he is on the ice he towers above almost every other player.   As I continue to try to learn more nuances of the game, I spent one of Lauridsen’s shifts watching only him in order to study a defenseman’s every move on a shift.  He never stopped working, and he disrupted or blocked at least four shots during that shift.  I found myself wondering why he wasn’t in Philly all year.  Hopefully he will get his chance in the upcoming season.

The Phantoms and the Admirals were tied 1-1 at the end of the third period and went into a five-minute four-on-four overtime.  I had no idea how much taking two opposing players off the ice would open things up.  Lots of shots on goal ensued, but the game was still tied after OT.  Then came the shootout.  If it were a Flyers game, I would have gone ahead and conceded a loss considering their dismal performance in shootouts.  But I knew the Phantoms had a better shootout win percentage, and I had seen them win a shootout in a televised game over the holidays.  They did not disappoint as Laughton sneaked the puck past the Admirals’ goalie and skated back to his jubilant bench having sealed a Phantoms victory.

The next morning my husband and I got an early start and headed to Philly for the Flyers season finale at Wells Fargo Center that afternoon.  It was surreal to think this was the last time we would be at a Flyers game for months.  In the same way, though, the season-ending break seemed necessary.  Wipe the slate clean and start over again in October with hopes of a better season.  As the Flyers came onto the ice for their pre-game warm-up we saw two familiar faces:  Jason Akeson and Mark Alt, who had both played for the Phantoms the previous night, had made the trip to Philly to play in this game (and would be sent right back to Lehigh Valley after the game).

The game seemed like so many other Flyers games this season.  The Flyers looked capable of beating the Ottawa Senators, but then came the defensive lapses that left goalie Steve Mason vulnerable, and soon the Flyers were on the wrong side of the score.  Matt Read scored to tie the game in the second period, but soon the Senators were leading again.  Before I knew it, my husband and I were exiting the arena with only a few minutes left in the third period.  As we listened to the end of the game on the radio it hit me like a ton of bricks.  The season was over.  No more Flyers hockey.  I was stunned….and depressed.  What would I do without hockey?  But then I thought of the calendar:  draft in two months, preseason camp three months after that, and all of the hockey news that would occur between now and then.  The 2015-16 hockey season would be here before I knew it.