The last time Keith Yandle faced Derick Brassard, Yandle tried to fight him.
“Tried” is the operative word because Brassard, who was with the New York Islanders, would not engage with the then-Florida Panther.
Cam Atkinson, then with Columbus, also played the Islanders that year, in 2019. Atkinson has actually never been in an NHL fight, but he, too, did his best to antagonize Brassard, just as he does every single time he plays him.
From afar, this may look like animosity, but Yandle and Atkinson both count Brassard among their best friends.
“Obviously all the refs know us, but they don’t know how tight people are,” Atkinson said. “And every time I see [Brassard] on the ice, every time I play against him, no matter what happens, I always go after him, give him jabs to the face. And they actually think we’re going to drop the gloves.”
Now, all three are teammates with the Flyers, where they join another close friend, Kevin Hayes. The four of them have crossed paths as competitors and teammates for years, but it wasn’t until the Flyers’ summer roster makeover that all four were able to link up on one team.
Atkinson, Hayes, and Yandle go back the farthest. Both Yandle, 35, and Hayes, 29, grew up in Boston, where the Hayes family was well-known in the hockey community. Atkinson, 32, is a self-professed “Connecticut kid,” but his prep school (Avon Old Farms) played Yandle’s (Cushing Academy) once a year, introducing the competitors from a young age. The 34-year-old Brassard, meanwhile, grew up in Hull, Quebec, speaking French, something the others love to tease him about.
Atkinson and Hayes were the first to become teammates when they attended Boston College. They overlapped one year at BC, but that was enough time to form plenty of inside jokes, their conversations often filled with “hidden gems,” according to Atkinson. Twelve years later, they have picked up as teammates right where they left off in that regard.
The reunion has also proved timely for Hayes, as he copes with his brother’s tragic death in August. Having friends like Atkinson, who roomed with Kevin’s brother Jimmy at BC, as well as Yandle, one of he and his brother’s best friends, has helped Hayes as he grieves.
“Obviously, I was pretty negative for a bit in the last month, and then you realize what has turned out to be and who is here with me,” said Hayes. “I am living with Keith and he is probably my best friend in this whole entire world after my brother. The fact that he is living with me is special. I have some bad days and he is just an awesome dude. He really is. You guys will get to know him. He really just makes it a lot easier.
“Cam Atkinson was my brother’s roommate at school, so I have known Cam for a long time. Brass [Brassard], I played with really early in my career. He used to come to Boston and be with me and my brother all the time. Reamer [James van Riemsdyk] played with my brother for a while. It is cool how things played out and I think it will make things a lot easier.”
‘Like a third child’
Atkinson was also the first to play with Brassard. In 2008, Atkinson was drafted by the Blue Jackets, whom Brassard had been with since 2006. When Atkinson reached the NHL in 2011, Brassard took the younger player under his wing and they’ve “been the best of friends ever since,” Atkinson said.
Over the years, they’ve roomed and trained together, and Brassard was a groomsman in Atkinson’s wedding. Shortly after moving to Philadelphia, Brassard moved in with the Atkinson family again.
“And then I kicked him out of the house because he’s like a third child,” Atkinson said while Brassard sat back, making no attempt to defend himself.
Brassard did not stay with the Blue Jackets long after Atkinson’s arrival. But his next stop tied the four future teammates closer together.
In 2012, Brassard was traded to the New York Rangers. In 2013, Alain Vigneault was named the Rangers’ head coach. A year later, Yandle and Hayes both joined the Rangers. Under Vigneault, the three of them reached the 2014 Stanley Cup Final, one of their favorite memories of their careers.
By 2016, Vigneault, Yandle and Brassard were no longer with the Rangers, although Yandle and Brassard were briefly teammates again with the Florida Panthers. By 2019, all four players were scattered across the country.
Then Vigneault became Flyers head coach on April 13, 2019. Shortly after, the Flyers signed free agent Hayes, reuniting the coach and player. Hayes fit in “seamlessly,” teammate Scott Laughton said, and has become the “heartbeat” of the team, Travis Konecny added.
Following a strong 2019-20 season, the Flyers suffered through a nightmarish 2021. In response, the team decided the roster needed a makeover with an emphasis on acquiring veteran leadership. The mission resulted in four (including Patrick Brown) of Hayes’ friends and former teammates being acquired.
When the news broke that the Flyers had traded for Atkinson, the first call came from Hayes. As he shared his excitement, Hayes also prepared Atkinson by telling him a story about each of his new teammates.
Knowing both Hayes and Atkinson were already on the team made it even more exciting for Yandle to sign. Even though Yandle had never played with Atkinson, he was friendly with him because of their mutual friends and as someone he respected as a player.
“He was always a guy that you had to worry about, you know, intercepting a pass in a breakaway, making good reads,” Yandle said.
Yandle heard stories about each player as he picked Hayes’ brain.
“Having a guy like Kevin who’s been here and — you know how he is — he’s a guy who gets along with everyone, includes everyone in everything,” Yandle said. “For me, personally, it was great to have him … because some of the guys, when you’re on the ice against them, playing against them. ... Then when you come in the locker room, you’re like, how could I not like that guy?”
“That was, besides Gritty, probably the main reason I signed here,” Yandle joked.
Potential for success
While all three were on the team by the time Brassard joined, he claims that he didn’t talk to them much ahead of signing. The potential for success was the biggest lure for him.
“I think [they] kind of helped me make my decision,” Brassard said. “But at the end of the day, it’s all about winning, and I feel pretty comfortable playing with those guys.”
The other three, however, argue that a reunion with Vigneault was the bigger draw for Brassard than his friends.
Now, the four of them have been through their first training camp together, although Hayes has been sidelined with an injury. Despite many years apart, these two weeks have shown not much has changed about any of them.
“We’re all still big little kids,” Yandle said.
However, it has given them insight into how all of them have become the players they are. Hayes is the loud one and also the pulse of the locker room, the person who says good morning to every player and sets up team dinners. Yandle is the NHL’s active Iron Man and always has a one-liner for every situation (GM Chuck Fletcher called him a “beauty”). Brassard is a smart player who Atkinson feels is underrated. And Atkinson is a guy who likes to keep it light but is also a “true pro” whom younger players can look up to, Laughton said.
From morning coffee in the hot tub (all three agree that the “Philadelphia Hot Tubbers” are the best part about being a Flyer so far) to team bonding golf trips where they joined together to cheer on an 8-year-old with “an unbelievable chip shot,” the four of them have continued to build their friendship, and with it, the locker room.
“Those friendships help them coming in, and it just expands from there,” Laughton said. “I think it just makes it a lot easier of a transition for guys and for our group as well, to have those friendships and continue them.”
The returning Flyers don’t want to dwell on last season. However, the change in the locker room is noticeable, Laughton said, and guys like Atkinson, Brassard, Hayes, and Yandle have a lot to do with it.
The season hasn’t started, so the difference on the ice is still to be determined, but there are positive signs, from Brassard and Atkinson’s chemistry on the second line to Yandle’s impact on the power play. As always, the four are chasing a Stanley Cup, but this time, they’re all doing it together.
After the Flyers claimed another one of Hayes’ former teammates in Patrick Brown on Monday, van Riemsdyk quipped:
“That A on his [Hayes’] jersey might stand for assistant GM.”