On the first day of Chuck Fletcher’s regime as their general manager, the Flyers held a party.
OK, so the holiday family bash at SkateZone was planned long before Paul Holmgren and Dave Scott decided they’d had enough of Ron Hextall’s button-down world, but the timing could not have been more perfect for a team that has played most of this season as if their skates are two sizes too small -- play their coach again characterized Tuesday as “too leaky, too many holes.”
The assumption was those leaks and holes would end up costing their coach a job, but Holmgren shocked most of the hockey world last Monday – and disappointed a percent of fans – when he jettisoned Hextall, a man he had known for 35 years, while keeping Hextall’s controversial pick as head coach.
At least until a successor could be found to Hextall. That’s how Homer and Scott left it last week, when they said it would be Fletcher’s decision whether to retain Hakstol or find a new coach.
If this team felt their skates were tight before ...
And yet here was Hakstol on Tuesday, standing amid the turmoil as if he were Kilgore in Apocalypse Now, doing his best Robert Duvall as he downplayed the danger that surrounded him last week – danger that may still exist as he tries to coach his way out of the latest crisis in his four-season tenure.
“We all have a job to do,” he said at one point. “And at the end of the day, that’s the fact of the matter.”
That’s three clichés in one sentence, an impressive feat even for even Foreigner or REO Speedwagon. And that’s it for late ‘70s references from me, promise. The point is that Hakstol’s compartmentalization of the big picture may ultimately prove his undoing, but for this week anyway, it allowed his team and him to survive and even function amid the explosions of uncertainty all around them.
A big chunk of that uncertainty dissipated as each arrived for an optional practice Tuesday morning.
"He was the first one I saw when I walked through the door this morning. I opened the door and there was Fletch right there,” said defenseman Christian Folin.
Folin has some history with the man. It was Fletcher who offered the undrafted Swede a contract after his sophomore season at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, offered him the chance to play in the NHL immediately. This came months after Fletcher, as the Wild’s GM, flew from Minnesota to the school near the northeast border of New Hampshire just to introduce himself.
“He actually took the time to come out and visit me before the season,” said Folin. “We sat down and had a cup of coffee and talked about my future. It left a good impression, for him to take the time and come out and see me. I think it says a lot about him. That he really cares about his players. It’s fun that he’s here.”
Fletcher used Tuesday to introduce himself to the rest of Folin’s teammates, and to assure them he was there to improve them. And yet given his history – and his familiarity with this Flyers team through his previous job as a Devils consultant -- that improvement is more likely to make a few of them ex-Flyers by late February.
And that’s the elephant that remains in the room. Uncertainty. For the coach. For his team. Rick Wilson, his new assistant coach in charge of defense, was pulled out of retirement and could very well head back there at season’s end. Both Wilson and Fletcher know Hak and he them. But as Folin said, "Hockey is a small world,’’ and so familiarity should never be perceived as a portal to longevity.
“Everybody’s been through a strenuous and a tough week,” Hakstol said when asked whether there was any sense of relief after Fletcher’s hire. “But that’s the nature of the business at different times. Obviously, it’s not a week that you wish you have to go through. But, hey, it’s part of what we do.”
“I think the best thing we can do is win,” Claude Giroux said. "When you’re winning, good things happen in the organization, everything seems easier… at the end of the day it’s all about us focusing on our job and keep getting better as a team.’’
They do that, said the captain, and every day will feel as it did on Tuesday.