There’s more to a memorable sports quote than just the words and the pithiness and the refreshing instant of recognition that accompanies it — Man, we’re gonna remember that one. It has to capture perfectly a moment or an era or a timeless sensibility. It has to have some staying power.
If the New York Jets, for instance, had lost Super Bowl III to the Baltimore Colts, history would have cast Joe Namath’s pregame guarantee of victory as a silly, arrogant assertion of a too-brash quarterback who didn’t know his place in the hierarchy of pro football. Consider the best Philadelphia sports quotes. Ricky Watters’ “For who? For what?” was fitting for his three-year tenure with the Eagles: He put up marvelous individual stats; they won one playoff game. Aaron Rowand’s “For who? My teammates. For what? To win” wouldn’t have resonated as it did, and still does, if he hadn’t crashed into the center-field fence at Citizens Bank Park, turned his face into tenderized round steak just to catch a fly ball, and established himself as a symbol of what became a golden age for the Phillies. Everyone would have forgotten “You want Philly-Philly?” if Nick Foles didn’t haul in Trey Burton’s feathery little corner fade.
None of that is to say that Alain Vigneault’s noon news conference Tuesday — 10 hours and change before the Flyers beat the Islanders, 4-3 in overtime, to force the teams’ Eastern Conference semifinal to a Game 6 — will stand the test of time the way those other quips have and will. The Flyers are still trailing the series, three games to two, and they made things unnecessarily hard on themselves in Game 5, coughing up a two-goal lead with less than five minutes left in regulation.
All of it is to say, though, that Claude Giroux scored the Flyers’ first goal and assisted on Scott Laughton’s game-winner. And that James van Riemsdyk scored the Flyers’ second goal. And that when he was asked Tuesday afternoon about those two players, Giroux and van Riemsdyk, and their lack of production in this postseason — neither of them had a goal before Game 5 — Vigneault didn’t exactly suggest that he’d be cool with the two of them just giving it the ol’ college try and hoping for the best.
“Now it’s their turn to put the big-boy pants on and to get out there,” he said. “I’m looking at the eight teams that are in the playoffs right now. The eight teams, you’re looking at their top line and their production. I believe our guys have more to give and more to do. I’m not at all questioning their will. I’m not at all questioning their work ethic on the ice. They have to find a way to come through. We have no choice.”
Vigneault might not have much to say on all matters social justice, but since becoming the Flyers’ head coach, he has shown no hesitation in prodding or challenging or criticizing his players publicly. He did it early in the regular season, when he wanted and expected better play from Giroux, van Riemsdyk, and Jake Voracek, and he did it Tuesday. But — and here’s the key — he also did it privately, before he met with the media, so that nothing he might say surprised the players.
“They’ve heard the big-boy pants,” Vigneault said after Game 5. “Honest to God, I’m not sure what they hear [from the media] here in the bubble. The big-boy pants is something they’re aware of. They don’t need me to motivate them. They’re a group that motivates themselves.”
That’s true to a degree, as it is for virtually all professional athletes. Of course they’re self-motivated; they wouldn’t have reached the highest levels of their sports if they weren’t. And it’s always an open question as to just how much public criticism — whether from a coach or a media member or fans, whether it’s basic and straightforward or delivered in the colorful phrasing that Vigneault used — inspires them. “Don’t take it personally, but I try not to read too much, especially lately,” said Giroux, who entered Tuesday with one goal in his last 26 postseason games. “It hasn’t been very positive.” Like Giroux, they usually say it doesn’t affect them. Like Giroux, they never sound particularly convincing.
But Vigneault carried a credibility with him to the Flyers that his most recent predecessors didn’t have. He had guided two teams, the 2011 Vancouver Canucks and the 2014 New York Rangers, to the Stanley Cup Final. He’d won the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s coach of the year. He has won 684 regular-season games in his career, the 10th-most in league history. He can say things behind closed doors or in front of a room full of microphones, and if his players don’t heed or respond to his words, he has the power and the stomach to demote or bench them — a fact of which they are well aware.
“Obviously, he’s got that experience and that track record,” van Riemsdyk said. “Ultimately, in games like this, you need everyone pulling the rope in the same direction, and you need guys leading the way. Everyone did their job tonight.”