As the plane emerged from the clouds, Brent Flahr, then a young man from beautiful Vancouver Island, looked below at what appeared to be a lunar landscape. He had been told that Princeton University would be a beautiful place for him to continue his hockey career, but this scene, of the factories and refineries that surround Newark Airport, was something out of a Bruce Springsteen song.
"I thought, `What did I get myself into?' ’’ said Flahr, the Flyers’ assistant GM who will be team’s point man for this Friday’s NHL draft.
The answer, he has learned over the next 20-odd years, is a long and unlikely course through the various levels of professional hockey, a journey that took him from his playing days as a defenseman at Princeton to his first job in the ticket offices of the Florida Panthers, to jobs as a video coordinator, scout, contract reviewer, negotiator, and for the last decade, as an assistant general manager in the NHL.
It has taken him to a range of unlike landing spots: Fort Lauderdale, San Antonio, Anaheim, Ottawa, Omaha, Minneapolis and now, since December, here in Philadelphia.
The common thread that weaves through this narrative is Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher. He was in Panthers’ front office when Flahr pretty much forced his way in with an exhausting and exhaustive willingness to do any job in it.
And Fletcher has sought his counsel and companionship – sometimes unsuccessfully – each time he has changed jobs.
"It’s not just that I trust him,’’ Fletcher was saying this week. "I trust him to tell me whether I’m doing things the right way or not. He’s a straight shooter. He’s extremely honest. Which I think you need. You don’t want people around you who tell you what you want to hear. You want people surrounding you who have an idea of what they think is right and wrong as well.
"He’s somebody I can trust to give me a straight answer.’’
As he did during much of Fletcher’s nine-year tenure as the Minnesota Wild’s general manager, Flahr will oversee the NHL draft for the Flyers beginning Friday night -- in, of all places, Vancouver. The Flyers have the 11th overall pick, but due to Tuesday’s trade for San Jose defenseman Justin Braun, their next pick will not be until the third round, the 65th overall.
The Flyers pick again seven spots later and still own eight picks in the seven-round draft. And while Flahr was mostly scouting during what can best be described as a lame-duck half season in Minnesota (as assistant GM to new boss Paul Fenton), he has said repeatedly that he will lean heavily on the Flyers’ scouting department that has mostly remained in place during the change in GMs from Ron Hextall to Fletcher.
Flahr was hired soon after – a move that took literally no one in the NHL by surprise. The relationship between Fletcher and Flahr goes back to those days with the Panthers in the mid-1990s. As Bryan Murray’s assistant GM, Fletcher played a role in springing Flahr from the ticket office to coach Terry Murray’s video room.
"I took a big pay cut, too,’’ Flahr said, laughing.
From there his jobs multiplied and intensified. Everything from compiling contract comparisons to organizing training camp and scouting -- his true passion.
As Fletcher said, Flahr is no yes man. And he’s no clone. The two are political opposites, and the temperaments aren’t exactly the same, either.
"There’s lots of arguments,’’ said Fletcher. "But we both enjoy a good debate. I think that’s why we get along so well. We’re not the same person, that’s for sure.
"I need somebody like that. To help remind me of what we’re trying to do and stay on the right path.’’
"We kind of work well together. He gets amped up. I’m fairly calm for the most part. I can help him settle down, come back to earth. But we have similar philosophies in what we like in players and what we like in a team.
With trades for two veteran top-four defensemen this week that cost cap space and draft picks, that philosophy appears to differ greatly from the one employed by Hextall. But Hextall had intimated several times that his process might undergo a similar acceleration once he felt the status of the team and the farm system warranted it.
Adding the 6-foot-2 Braun and 6-1 Matt Niskanen to a defense group that might next season include three players over 6-4 (Travis Sanheim, Phil Myers, Samuel Morin) is a window into how Flahr and Fletcher view the success of the Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues.
"I think it’s a trend,’’ Flahr said. "You can’t have the big, bad Flyers quite anymore. … But you look at St. Louis winning. They’re a big, strong team. I think a lot of things worked out for the Blues. Goaltending. But to have size. … There was just no space. It was really hard to operate. I think they wore Boston down.’
"Things do change, and it’s cyclical. And it’s a copycat league, too. Chicago was winning with smaller, mobile guys, and you wanted to be them. Now it’s back to the bigger guys.’’