A player’s longevity doesn’t always guarantee he will have iconic status with Philadelphia’s demanding sports fans.
Effort trumps longevity in this city.
Take Phillies centerfielder Aaron Rowand and Flyers winger Ian Laperriere, for instance.
Both had short playing careers in Philadelphia. Both were good players who gave great effort. Both became Philly sports legends because of plays that will forever be etched in fans’ collective minds.
Rowand was with the Phillies for just two seasons, but during a rainy 2006 game against the New York Mets, he crashed against the unpadded center-field fence, face-first, at Citizens Bank Park and took a bases-loaded, extra-base hit away from Xavier Nady. The Portland, Ore., native broke several facial bones, including his nose, which had to be surgically repaired.
He bled profusely as he was helped off the field to a standing ovation.
Three years later, while helping to kill a penalty during his first and only season as a Flyers player, Laperriere also became a Philly icon. The hard way. He blocked a first-period blast by Buffalo’s Jason Pominville with his face, lost seven teeth, had his lip split in two, and needed about 100 stitches.
Oh, yeah: He put on a face shield and returned to play later in the game.
In the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs against New Jersey, Laperriere blocked another slap shot with his face. He suffered a bruised brain, a broken orbital bone, and a concussion — and required nearly 70 stitches to repair a cut above his right eye.
Laperriere returned later in the playoffs — the Flyers finished two wins shy of winning the Cup — but the injury eventually forced him to retire.
That led him to a career in management and coaching. First he was the organization’s director of player development, and then he served eight years as a Flyers assistant And, now, his job is to develop the AHL prospects who could someday help the Flyers end a long Stanley Cup drought.
Laperriere, 47, was recently named the 11th head coach in the history of the Phantoms, the Flyers’ top farm team.
He is all in, even if it means being away from his family for big chunks of time, renting an apartment in Allentown to be close to the PPL Center, the Phantoms’ home arena.
“To me, it makes sense to live close to the rink because I’ll be there all the time,” he said Thursday. “I’m a rink rat. For me, I just need a bed to sleep in and then I’ll be back at the rink. I was like that as a player and I’ve been like that as a coach.”
His wife, Magali, who 31 years ago became his high school sweetheart in Montreal, will visit when she can. But she will be looking after their youngest son, Zach, who will be finishing his final year at Haddonfield High, where he is a talented lacrosse player. Their other son, Tristan, is attending Towson (Md.) University and majoring in sports management.
“I’m committing myself 100 percent to the organization and the city,” Laperriere said. “My parents did that — committed themselves 100 percent with their work and with their kids. I try to do the same things.”
Flyers fans still waiting
Laperriere, who will stress fitness with his players, understands that Flyers fans are championship-starved because their team hasn’t won the Cup since 1975. At the time, Laperriere was a 1-year-old in Montreal.
He understands that the prospects’ development is even more important than usual because the pandemic has caused a flat salary cap in the NHL. Young players are generally cheaper, of course, and their contributions are critical in today’s game.
He understands that, just because he spent 16 years in the NHL as a gritty winger, he needs to prove he can be just as effective as a head coach.
Laperriere, whose Phantoms will use the same system as the Flyers — probably a 1-2-2 — is excited for the challenge.
“For me, as a staff and an organization, the biggest challenge is going to be getting those guys better,” said Laperriere, adding that he was going to “demand” a system of solid play. “I want to win. Winning is part of development. I want to win in the right way. I want the players to feel important in their chairs. I want to find the right recipe to include all the younger guys and older guys and, at the end of the day, playing hard hockey and having the people in Allentown proud of the team. At the end of the day, if we do that and I can get those guys a little bit better, some of those guys will have a shot at the NHL. Others won’t, but if they can be the best player they can at the AHL level, I’ll feel like I’m doing my job right.”
He knows his courageous style as a player will not make him immune to fans’ criticism as a head coach. Fact is, he heard criticism when the penalty kill slipped and he directed it as a Flyers assistant.
“I’m not too worried about that,” he said of the criticism. “There’s always people complaining about whatever you do. At the end of the day, I learned a lot in my eight years as a coach in Philly. One of the things I learned was to quit Twitter, and it really helped me. You get abuse from people who are sitting in their basement and don’t really know what’s going on.”
“I’m going to be way too busy to waste time worrying about what people are saying about me,” he said. “My focus is on the team and the guys who wear the Phantoms jersey and making them the best they can be, and if I can do that, we’re going to win more games than we lose. That’s my goal.”
Laperriere said when the Flyers lost 10 straight games early in the 2017-18 season, he stopped reading Twitter “for my mental health. And you know what, I felt sooooo much better. … Criticism is part of the game, but if you can control some of it by not reading the comments, you’re better off.”
Over the years, the fans at the Wells Fargo Center have still roared — louder than for many of the players — when Laperriere was introduced as one of the assistants. His cheers were born from his fearless play on the ice.
“People in Philly are blue-collar people,” Laperriere said. “They work hard for what they have, and I wasn’t the most skilled player out there, but I feel like I gave my all as a player, and people really recognize that I was willing to do whatever it took for the team. I did that as a player and I feel I did that as an assistant. I’ve been moved around [as an assistant] and the coaches have asked me to do different things and I’ve never had any pushback. I love the Flyers. I was willing to do whatever it took to help the team. I think people recognize that and they can relate to me because they’re hardworking people in this town.”
Respecting his roots
Growing up in Montreal, Laperriere said he got his work ethic from his parents, Michel and Francine. His father was a night supervisor at Kraft Foods, and his mother was a secretary at a hospital.
His father passed away 18 years ago, but his father and his mother, now 76, had a big influence on their son.
“Every hockey player has a similar story. Mom and Dad working extra hours to buy you the nicest pair of skates they could,” Laperriere said. “My dad had the night shift and it wasn’t easy, and my mom would get up in the morning and drive me to practices. Typical Canadian kid story whose parents gave me and my sister all the opportunities to succeed. They sacrificed for us. At the end of the day, I believe you lead by example, and both of my parents did that. I feel that was the biggest gift they gave me — hard work.”
Laperriere’s work ethic and his boundless energy were among the reasons then-general manager Paul Holmgren hired him as player-development director in 2012.
Because of post-concussion syndrome, Laperriere didn’t play in 2011-12 and he officially retired after that season before Holmgren reached out to him.
More than anything, Holmgren recalled last week, Laperriere’s “passion and enthusiasm and his love for the game” caught his attention. “To add Lappy with his experience as a player and the quality person he is, it made a lot of sense for us,” Holmgren said. “He’s on the right path now, but he would have been a great player-development guy, too.”
Laperriere will be trying to balance winning in the AHL with developing players to reach the NHL.
“It’s one thing I’m going to learn. I won’t lie to you,” he said of a league that is new to him. “I don’t know much about the American League. I know by watching it and being around people that coach there and play there. There is a fine line, for sure. At the end of the day, it’s going to go back to the way I want the team to play and back into the structure. I want to have those kids buy into that structure. And if they do get better, it won’t be a free ride. If they don’t play in your structure, they won’t play.”
Laperriere is hoping to hire two assistants with AHL experience next month. That should help him make a smooth adjustment to the league.
General manager Chuck Fletcher said Laperriere and Flyers coach Alain Vigneault, having worked together the last two years, are already on the same page and that will aid Laperriere as he implements his systems.
“Lappy also has a very strong relationship with our player-development staff, and I think this move allows us not to just integrate our NHL coaching staff, but how to smartly integrate our AHL coaching staff with our player development [staff],” Fletcher said. “The American League is a big part of that development.”
Laperriere is “well-schooled on what works and what doesn’t,” Holmgren said. “He’s probably going to have to find his own path, like all coaches do. Not only am I rooting for him, but I expect him to do well just because of the type of person he is.”
A person who, like Aaron Rowand, would shatter his face to show Philly fans he cares as much as them.