FOR ALL OF the years and all of the jobs he has had with the Flyers - assistant and head coach, assistant and interim and plain-old general manager, and a couple of titles in between - Paul Holmgren has always been understated and plain-spoken at the same time. He is the kind of guy who has never led people wrong.
Through decades of success and failure and fun and tumult , all the coaches, all the Lindroses, all of it, Holmgren has been a great organizational barometer. If you could find him - he was always scouting, somewhere - you could ask him something and he would tell you if he could and not tell you if he couldn't. But even in his silence, he would never leave you with the wrong impression - and if that doesn't sound like much, well, you have never been a newspaper reporter in the middle of a fast-moving story.
When he says something, Holmgren tends to mean it. Which is why you couldn't help but sit up and read over the words a second time on the morning of March 17, the morning after the day before, when the Flyers had been beaten 7-1 by the Pittsburgh Penguins on national television.
"It wasn't calculated - it just came out," Holmgren said yesterday. "I don't think I'm a calculating guy when it comes to that. More and more, I just blurt out what comes to my mind, much more than I used to."
What he said after that game - No. 73 out of 82 - was that, "This time of year, you don't have intensity in your game, emotion in your game, you're not going to win games." And then Holmgren said, seemingly more ominously, when asked who was responsible, "I think this time of the year it relies on the coaches." Then, he added, it "comes down to the players, too . . . It's up to each individual to prepare and play his best. Right now, we're not getting that."
Holmgren says now that it was not intended to be ominous, that nobody was being put on notice or anything like that. But he has the big title now, and he does have that plain-spoken reputation.
"That game was tough to swallow," Holmgren said. "I remember, I met with all the coaches the next day and said, 'We've got some work to do here. We've got to get this thing figured out.' I met with a couple of players that day, too. And I'm sure the coaches met with the team that day. I think, right now, we have to give the players and coaches credit. I certainly do. From that day on, they won some big games in difficult places.
"I think John is a good coach, a good, young coach. I've said that for a long time - and he's a good friend of mine. We've been through a lot in the last 7 or 8 years. I respect Terry Murray, I respect Jack McIlhargey, I think they all work hard at their jobs.
"I don't know," he said. "Who knows why it all came together the way it did? But something clicked. I don't know. I can't explain it."
Holmgren has never been much for self-promotion. (Neither was his old boss, either; Bob Clarke used to say, uniformly, "Talk to the players," on the nights when his team won a playoff series.) But that moment turned the season. As the Flyers make this unexpected run into May, a season after finishing last in the National Hockey League, this really is Holmgren's run, too. He retooled it in one offseason, and he stuck with it when there was every reason to wonder, and he prodded it a little bit along the way.
Because there was another time Holmgren spoke, too. He doesn't remember exactly when it was - maybe late December - but the essence of the talk was three words that are now emblazoned on a T-shirt that the club has made up for the players.
Why not us?
"What prompted it was, we were in one of those win one/lose one phases," Holmgren said. "I can't remember where we were in the standings, but we had beaten Ottawa a couple of times and Pittsburgh a few times, a lot of the division leaders at that time. It was more or less focused on how things were pretty even - and the standings at the end of the year showed not a lot of difference.
"I can't remember how it went but I blurted out, 'Why not us?' I'd been saying since the summer that we wanted to be playing meaningful games in March. Coming off of last year, I thought that was a good goal to have. And I told them that day that I'd changed my mind. I said, 'Why not us?' I thought we could really be in the hunt."
But how? After Clarke resigned and coach Ken Hitchcock was fired, Holmgren took over as interim general manager. The team plummeted and he had no job security, but Holmgren did have two things, as he is the first to tell you: "some good young players and [salary] cap space."
The young players - Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, R.J. Umberger - were young and struggling (and not entirely healthy). But Holmgren - remember, his old job was running the development side of the organization - was determined to stick with them. Still, it was hard. He admits to having to remind club chairman Ed Snider about how young the young players were.
"There was the uncertainty of my job - I didn't know," Holmgren said. "I can remember talking to Mr. Snider one time and we were getting beat on a regular basis and I remember saying to him, 'We're going to get lumped up even more.' He kind of looked at me but he understood. I think I followed up by saying, 'We've got some young kids who are going to turn the corner.' I think he had a belief, like I did, that they would."
Then, Holmgren said, "We felt we needed to stabilize certain areas of our team. Goaltending certainly was an issue."
Impending free agent Martin Biron was acquired from Buffalo - with teammate Danny Briere to follow later on. Scottie Upshall and Ryan Parent came in the Peter Forsberg rental to Nashville. The right to negotiate with free agents Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell came later from Nashville with trade ammunition acquired earlier in the Forsberg deal. Braydon Coburn was stolen from Atlanta. There is more, but you get the point.
This was some fast, neat, creative maneuvering - although, again, Holmgren will be the first one to tell you that club president Peter Luukko was the one who worked the financial gymnastics that made all of the contracts fit under the cap.
We can all only wonder what would have happened if Holmgren had succeeded with his original plan - that is, to re-sign Forsberg and his bum feet.
"We tried to sign him," he said. "We tried for a long time. We offered him a 3-year deal, but he just felt like, because of his uncertainty with his foot and all of the problems he had, that he couldn't commit.
"Things would be a lot different. We wouldn't have been able to afford Danny Briere. Obviously, having that window to negotiate with Kimmo and Scottie Hartnell, that might have closed, too. I don't know . . . It would have been different. Different."
Guessing how the thing might have evolved from there, for Paul Holmgren and the Flyers, is both anyone's guess and a waste of time. The record is what it is. *
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