The Flyers have had 20 head coaches in their history — if you count Bob McCammon only once — but Scott Gordon, the current interim, is the first former goalie among that number.
There have been 10 forwards and seven defensemen and, in the interest of full disclosure, neither Roger Neilson nor Ken Hitchcock played professionally, so it’s hard to determine where they stood on the pond. They didn’t stand in the crease during a high-level game, however, and that is one of the unique gifts Gordon brings to his job.
It’s odd in a game that is so dependent on the position — and within an organization that has been so unlucky in its run of goalies — that the Flyers haven’t hit upon giving one a try before this. Goalies are the only guys on the ice for the entire game, and even when it isn’t their night, they are watching everything with a studied eye. No player is better equipped to tell you which of the beautiful patterns woven by an offense is more likely to succeed or fail.
Gordon was not chosen for his playing career, though, even if it becomes a lucky accident that he arrived at the same time as Carter Hart, who might be the goalie for whom this team has been waiting. Gordon is with the Flyers because the team was in a hurry to replace Dave Hakstol and the organization did not extend its search much beyond the Northeast Extension.
This is nothing new for the Flyers. It is the ninth time they have changed coaches during a season and, counting Gordon, four of their last five coaches have arrived in that manner. In fact, the last coach who wasn’t replaced in-season or wasn’t an in-season replacement was Terry Murray, and he was fired 22 years ago. So, there’s your background on job security for hockey coaches.
Gordon knows all about the tenuous nature of the business. In his previous head-coaching job in the NHL, he was replaced when the Islanders stumbled out of the gate in his third season there. Chuck Fletcher, the new Flyers general manager, might have other ideas for the future, and the rumor that the Flyers reached out to Joel Quenneville, the three-time Stanley Cup winner let go by the Blackhawks in November, was probably more than just a rumor.
If Gordon is coaching scared, however, it doesn’t show. He’s loose and engaging while presenting his demands, and the team has responded, going from last in the conference to the very edge of playoff contention. Gordon keeps up a steady stream of observations, both praise and criticism, from behind the bench, and that’s a big change in communication during games. The players had to turn around to make sure Hakstol was still back there.
Nothing works forever in the NHL, of course, or even for very long. But two things might work to keep Gordon around for a significant stint. One would be if the team keeps winning, and the other would revolve around his relationship with Hart. If the organization feels its most important player is made better by his bond with the head coach, then the head coach isn’t going anywhere.
That’s why Gordon’s handling of Hart recently was interesting, both before and after the team learned Hart had an ankle injury. Hart was pulled after 10 minutes of his last two starts, having given up three goals in each, and Gordon needed to determine if the 20-year-old would be back in goal for the hoopla of last Saturday’s outdoor game.
You think the boys in the suits wanted the franchise savior to play in front of 69,696 fans? You think Hart wanted to play? Both things were true, but Gordon didn’t let either pressure affect his decision.
“What would I do if this was October or November?” he told Hart. “Would I come back to you for a third game after pulling you twice? The answer is no. If I do that, now all of a sudden you get into your own head and you’re looking over your shoulder.”
He didn’t give Hart what he wanted, but he gave him the explanation he needed, even though Gordon is still enough of a player to see all sides of it.
“My first thoughts were for Carter, because he’s gotten us here,” Gordon said. “The anticipation of playing that outdoor game … for every player, it’s something they all want to do. But I had to block that out and look at what was right for the team, and it was an easy decision.”
When it was later revealed that Hart had the ankle problem and had been trying to play through it quietly, Gordon had another conversation with the goalie. He explained that when a forward or a defenseman tries to play but can’t, there is always a Plan B that can be employed. It’s not necessarily that way for goalies. Maybe the backup did extra work the morning of the game because he wasn’t starting. Maybe he didn’t prepare at all the way he would have. The team suffers.
“If you are ever in that situation, come and tell me,” Gordon said to Hart. “Don’t feel like I’m going to frown upon it, or that I’m going to feel like you’re not tough because you don’t play. Don’t ever think you have to force yourself into that situation if you don’t feel right.”
It is all part of the education of a young goalie, even a great one whose greatness has been predicted for a long time. It is also part of the growing bond between the coach and a player who will have a lot to say about his job tenure.
Gordon does what he thinks is right with Hart, however, not what makes his job security more likely, and he is more qualified to do that because he has stood in the same spot as the young man. After all these years, the Flyers finally have a coach who was a goalie, and not coincidentally, they might finally have a goalie, too.