Paul Holmgren is a grizzled sort, but the Flyers general manager's eyes filled with tears last night as he described visiting with John Stevens earlier in the day at the Skate Zone in Voorhees.
"It was a hard walk for me today to walk to John's office. A hard walk," Holmgren said. "It might have been the hardest thing I've ever had to do."
What he did was fire Stevens, the gentlemanly coach whom detractors thought wasn't emotional enough - or tough enough - with his team. The Flyers, picked by the Hockey News to win the Stanley Cup in the preseason, are 13-11-1 and have lost six of their last seven. They have not scored in the last eight periods and have suffered back-to-back shutouts for the first time since 2003.
At the Wachovia Center last night, Holmgren introduced Peter Laviolette, who led Carolina to the Stanley Cup title in 2006, as his new coach. Laviolette was given a three-year contract, and terms were not disclosed.
But the firing of his good friend, Stevens, 43, had left Holmgren emotionally spent. They had been together for about 15 years, including time with the AHL Phantoms.
At one point in the news conference, Holmgren was so upset about recounting the firing that he apologized for forgetting a reporter's question. "It was tough. The things we've been through together, John and I, made it very difficult," Holmgren said.
Holmgren said "I think I probably caught him off-guard a bit," when asked about Stevens' reaction. "The first words out of his mouth were, 'OK, I understand.' Typical of John. As I said the other day, he's a man of integrity. He has lots of class. He's a good coach He has all the qualities in a man that are outstanding."
In a couple weeks, Holmgren said, he will sit down with Stevens and discuss giving him another position in the organization.
In three-plus seasons as the Flyers' coach, Stevens compiled a 120-109-34 record after replacing Ken Hitchcock on Oct. 22, 2006. Holmgren became GM that day, too, when Bobby Clarke resigned.
The Flyers began this season 12-5-1 before losing six of their last seven games. Their offense, which led the league with an average of 3.6 goals a game a few weeks ago, has been listless lately.
"In watching the team over the past few weeks, I felt a new voice was needed to get us out of this and in the direction we expect," Holmgren said.
Laviolette, 45, is known as more of a disciplinarian than Stevens.
Still, the firing caught a lot of players off guard. The Flyers have been decimated by injuries and are without three of their top 12 forwards: Simon Gagne, Blair Betts and Darroll Powe.
"It all happened so fast. I'm in a state of shock, to tell you the truth," captain Mike Richards said last night. "It's overwhelming to me."
Richards came up through the ranks with Stevens, who coached the AHL Phantoms for six years and led them to the Calder Cup in 2005.
"I'm disappointed. Johnny's a guy who gave me the opportunity to make me what I am," Richards said. "When a team isn't having success, unfortunately it's the coach [who is blamed], although that's not what should happen."
Stevens replaced the fired Ken Hitchcock early in the 2006-07 campaign, and the Flyers finished with an NHL-low 56 points that season.
But the Flyers made a stunning 39-point improvement in 2007-08, finishing with 95 points and reaching the Eastern Conference finals. Stevens was named The Hockey News' coach of the year. That summer, the Flyers awarded Stevens with a two-year extension that runs until the end of the 2010-11.
Last season, the Flyers finished with 99 points but played uninspired hockey toward the end of the season and were eliminated by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the playoffs.
With the addition of elite defenseman Chris Pronger in the off-season, the Flyers thought they had acquired the missing piece, the player who would make them legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.
But the team began last night 10th in the Eastern Conference.
"It's always a shock when you see your coach get fired," said Gagne, who is recovering from abdominal and hernia surgery but could return to action in a little less than three weeks. "When I left today, I was still believing Johnny would be coaching tomorrow.
"It's hard to change 20 guys and easier to change the coach. You don't like to see it, but most of the time, they get the heat. I just feel bad for Johnny. He's a great coach and a great person."
In a statement, Ed Snider, the Comcast-Spectacor chairman, said Stevens "will always be a member of the Flyers family. He was drafted by the Flyers and literally grew up within our organization."
Snider said it was Holmgren's decision.
"I make a policy never to overrule my general manager, because once I do, it means I've lost confidence in him," Snider said.
At yesterday's practice, a few hours before Stevens got the news that he was being dismissed, veteran forward Danny Briere was among the many players who said it's them, not Stevens, who were responsible for the tailspin.
"He's bringing new ideas. I know he's trying to find the right line combinations," said Briere, whose team will face visiting Washington tonight. "Everybody knows he's taking a lot of heat right now and he's not deflecting anything. I think as a leader, he's doing a tremendous job."
In the past, the Flyers have led revolts against their coach.
That's didn't happen with Stevens.
The firing was "definitely not something" the team wanted, Briere said.