SCOTT HARTNELL, shortly after practice yesterday, described the mood in the Flyers' locker room as "morbid."

"This losing stuff isn't fun," Hartnell was saying. "Coming to the rink [yesterday], it's almost a morbid place. It's not fun.

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"It's got to change, now."

Hartnell didn't know then - at noon yesterday - the plans that were set in motion earlier when general manager Paul Holmgren phoned Comcast-Spectacor chairman Ed Snider in Montecito, Calif., to discuss firing loyal coach John Stevens.

Morbidly, change was on the way. Peter Laviolette will be the Flyers' new coach.

Holmgren decided after Thursday's 3-0 loss to Vancouver, the Flyers' second consecutive scoreless game and sixth loss in seven games, that he had seen enough. It took him a restless night to pull the trigger.

"I made up my mind [yesterday morning] that I wanted to make a coaching change," Holmgren said. "I believed we needed a new voice at this time."

By 2:45 p.m., Holmgren was making his way down the long hallway at the Flyers Skate Zone in Voorhees, N.J., to John Stevens' office - to break the news.

"That was a hard walk for me," Holmgren said. "It might be the hardest thing I've ever had to do. That was tough. The things we've been through together, John and I, made it very difficult."

Stevens was the second-longest tenured coach in the Eastern Conference. He was 57 games away from passing Mike Keenan for second place in Flyers history for regular-season games coached.

Holmgren acknowledged that he "probably" caught Stevens off guard with the decision.

Asking for privacy, Stevens declined to be interviewed by the Daily News last night.

"The first words out of his mouth were 'OK, I understand,' " Holmgren said. "It was typical of John. He's a man of integrity. He's got lots of class. He's a good coach, I believe. He just has qualities in a man that are outstanding."

Holmgren would be willing to offer Stevens another job in the organization whenever Stevens is ready to return to work.

In that short period between 10 a.m. and 2:45 p.m., Holmgren made the decision to send the Flyers on a wild roller coaster. He said he "knew in his heart" that making a coaching change was the right choice.

By 8 p.m., Laviolette was ready to be introduced as the Flyers' 17th head coach. Laviolette, 45, coached the Carolina Hurricanes to a Stanley Cup championship in 2006.

This time, there would be no in-house change. No interim coach in Craig Berube.

"It's a different voice," Holmgren explained. "I didn't like the direction the hockey team was heading in and it gives us a new voice. This gives us an opportunity to catch ourselves [in the standings].

"Laviolette's] more of an offensive coach. His teams play a real aggressive, pursue-the-puck type of game. I think that's going to suit us real well."

The Flyers are Laviolette's third NHL team. He also coached the New York Islanders to playoff berths in 2002 and '03.

After Holmgren's call to Snider, Holmgren phoned Laviolette as he was about to board a flight to his home near Tampa. Laviolette, in Toronto on Thursday night for his work as a TSN television analyst, had already checked his bags through customs at Toronto's airport.

He had to sit through the 2 1/2-hour flight back to Tampa before he could reboard a plane destined for Philadelphia. Tonight, he will make his Flyers coaching debut against Washington at the Wachovia Center.

"If I could pick a team to go to, it would be the Flyers," Laviolette said. "And I'm not just saying that because I'm here. I'm really excited to be here in Philadelphia. The Flyers are a great organization. They have a lot of players that other teams would probably want a piece of. They are a good hockey team."

Laviolette was fired in Carolina on Dec. 3, 2008, a little more than 2 years after he brought a Stanley Cup to an untraditional hockey market. Holmgren interviewed him two summers ago for the Phantoms' head-coaching position; Laviolette ultimately declined.

Holmgren was also the assistant general manager to the United States' Olympic team in Torino in 2006 when Laviolette was the team's head coach.

"I wasn't ready to pull away [from the NHL] yet," Laviolette said. "I wanted to coach again in the NHL. The phone wasn't ringing much. I was worried that when I said no to the Flyers that I would miss out on another team that was struggling.

"The time that I had in Carolina, you experience the highest of highs and then you experience the lowest of lows. When you end up not having the success you want and you get fired, you take what you put into trying to make a team successful when you couldn't and you take all of that with you."

With his team sitting at 13-11-1 more than a quarter of the way through the season, Holmgren went through an internal gut check and reviewed all of his decisions.

"We're all under the gun," Holmgren acknowledged. "I certainly recognize that my neck is on the line here. I asked myself, 'Did we overrate our team?' or, 'Do we have the right mix?' "

The decision ultimately came down to the coach. Under Stevens, the Flyers frequently lacked the fire that it takes to win games.

"It's not easy. It's not nice," Holmgren said. "Sometimes you've got to get down and make tough decisions.

"I still believe we have a good team. I guess we'll find out."

Slap shots

Assistant coach Jack McIlhargey, who handled the Flyers' defense, was also relieved of his duties. He will be replaced by Kevin McCarthy, who was a longtime assistant coach with Peter Laviolette in Carolina.

For more news and analysis, read Frank Seravalli's blog, Frequent Flyers, at http://go.philly.com/frequentflyers.