CALGARY, Alberta - The dressing room was mostly deserted as the new Reebok sweaters were being hung in the Flyers' stalls.
Mike Knuble sat in front of his and pondered the not-so-distant past of last season's 40th anniversary Flyers annihilation.
"Your hope is all the crap we went through last year becomes the motivation for this year," he said, amid the humming of fans. "How lousy you felt every day getting up and coming to the rink. Staring at the standings that never changed. You hope that becomes a huge motivating factor."
Given an entirely new array of talent on John Stevens' club, this season simply has to be better. Veterans Kimmo Timonen and Jason Smith will anchor the defense. The magical hands of Danny Briere, which could produce 50 goals, are only outshined by his ballet-like skating ability in warp drive.
Marty Biron has legs of a scarecrow, yet his upright-to-every-shot posture, combined with his glove hand, indicates he's destined to be among the NHL's elite.
Finally, the B movie cast of last fall that failed miserably has been replaced with more skillful forwards, led by Scottie Upshall, Scott Hartnell and Joffrey Lupul, plus some who surprised at making the cut, including Jesse Boulerice, Riley Cote and Jim Dowd.
Truth is, it's hard to envision Knuble walking into the dressing room this season and seeing the nameplate that reads Flyers at the bottom the standings.
"People may not expect a turnaround in one year, but I think that is what people will see," said Comcast president Peter Luukko. "Paul Holmgren made all these moves to retool. We expect to be in the hunt again."
The hunt begins tonight in Calgary against the Flames. History bodes poorly for the Flyers in season-openers on the road. All-time, they are 2-7-4. From Calgary, the Flyers hit Edmonton, then a little R and R in Whistler, British Columbia, and finally on to Vancouver.
"I'd like to believe we can compete for a playoff spot," said Holmgren, the team's general manager. "But that's why we play these games."
They say, in hockey, it begins and ends between the pipes. There's another axiom - when a team begins a season with injuries and hasn't quite found its footing, it looks for goaltending to buy time.
For the Flyers, who are nursing key injuries and still haven't a clue as to what the third defensive pair will be, Biron could be their salvation.
After carting around his pads as a backup in Buffalo - he hasn't been a confirmed starter since 2003-04 - Biron welcomes the chance to show he is a legit No. 1, capable of hoisting the Flyers upon his shoulders and carrying them a spell.
"Everyone feeds off pressure," Biron said, unwinding mounds of two-inch-wide, clear plastic tape from his ankles. "People in this room feel this organization has laid it out for everybody to go and run with it and be successful.
"Does that add pressure? Yeah? Is it fun? Yeah, it is. You want to feel that sense of responsibility and focus. I've been waiting for this opportunity. I can do as good a job as any other goalie in the league.
"I don't have to prove it to anybody. It's not the right approach. Do I want to have success? Yes, I've been waiting for this opportunity."
Biron is not alone. Everyone in the Flyers organization has been waiting impatiently since April to demonstrate that last year was a fluke. The Flyers don't finish last. They finish in the hunt.
"Something in the atmosphere was missing when we started [last] season," recalled Simon Gagne, the club's back-to-back 40-goal scorer. "I don't know what, but this year guys seem excited to come back."
Which is why the marketing campaign this season is "Back With a Vengeance."
That was Holmgren's idea. He blurted it out one sweltering day this summer in a marketing meeting. Someone asked him what would define this team. Holmgren grumbled, "We're coming back with a vengeance."
Of course, given the left-hand injuries to Upshall, Lupul and R.J. Umberger, vengeance won't come easy at the outset. There figures to be some turmoil.
Which bring us to the wall in Stevens' office. Two pictures of lighthouses being shelled by high waves. Between them, a picture of a large sailing ship knifing its way through a rogue wave.
"The old story is, 'Don't tell me how rocky the waves are, just bring the ship in,' " Stevens said. His point? Chaos abounds.
"Whether things are really good or really bad, there is always some kind of turmoil to deal with in life," he said. "Find ways to get better."
No one is under more scrutiny this season than Stevens. It's no coincidence that Jack McIlhargey and Joey Mullen are at his side as assistants. They represent the security detail if Stevens fails. Though this is his first full season as Flyers coach, Stevens' anchor doesn't run a fathom deep.
"I haven't really done anything at the NHL level," he said. "I love to coach, love to work for this organization, love the tradition that is here. I want nothing more than to come in here and prove we can be a good team again. I'm excited to get going and work with this group. I have a lot to prove."
The eyes of club chairman Ed Snider are focused on Stevens.
"Nobody is proud where we ended up last year," Stevens said. "At the same time, we didn't run from our problems and hide. We showed up for work every day. You can't snap your fingers and fix what is wrong. It takes time. You take some lumps to get there."
The organization's goal in 2007-08 is to recapture the essence of the Flyers: a competitive team that doesn't go quietly off the ice. If preseason means anything, this team will go down fighting. Literally.
It's not about winning the Stanley Cup this year; it's about winning back respect.
"We should want to be a team that a year from now, if you're talking about the Flyers, people would say, 'You guys are tough to play against,' " Derian Hatcher said. "That's what we need to become. And by no means are we even near that yet."
Tonight in distant Alberta, the search begins.