In a city that never fails to call things as it sees them, especially when mediocrity threatens to permeate and contaminate, it's worth noting when someone stands above the crowd with a halo for a change. Perhaps when it comes to Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren, we should do a little more than that.
It's rare to stand up and applaud an executive. After all, they're not the ones who play the game. It wasn't Holmgren at the net swatting away one shot after another in the Flyers' epic march toward history in the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Boston Bruins. Nor was he the one seen wearing his heart on his sleeve, sweating, bleeding, exhausting himself in a quest to deliver Philadelphia its first Stanley Cup in 35 years.
But the Flyers don't get to this year's Stanley Cup Finals if not for Holmgren. They don't sniff at the postseason if it were not for him, either. And, truth be told, after countless summers of lamenting their talent, depth, goaltending, and even their vision, there are minimal concerns about the direction of this franchise for next season.
In essence, Philadelphia has no reason to complain for a change. Go figure!
"I certainly don't know if I would say that," the ultra-mild-mannered Holmgren joked Saturday afternoon. "I felt all year long like we had a good team and we could compete against anyone in our conference. But to have the turnaround that we did and play like we did in the playoffs, it was just . . . surreal."
What started with the firing of John Stevens early in the season translated into all the obvious reasons to applaud these Flyers.
There was Mike Richards firmly establishing himself as the leader of this franchise. There was Chris Pronger showing he's worth every penny paid to him, despite the wear on him near the end. There were Jeff Carter and Simon Gagne lifting themselves from injury; Danny Briere and Scott Hartnell, subpar or worse during the regular season, elevating their games when it counted most; and promising young forwards like James van Riemsdyk and Claude Giroux there to remind Flyers fans that, indeed, bright lights might shine in Philadelphia in the very near future.
Yet, above them all was Holmgren - the Clark Kent of the Flyers franchise. The man who still lives in the shadows of Bobby Clarke in the eyes of many. Even now, after a season that became one for the ages because of Holmgren's moves, he insists on deferring to anything and everything but himself. Including the arrival of coach Peter Laviolette.
"I think Peter's ability to push players to pressure the puck, etc., was key," Holmgren said. "It was the biggest difference of all for us when you really think about it. I think our practices got a little more serious. The conditioning our team picked up over time didn't happen overnight, but it picked up like after a month or so. Then we started noticing that we were pretty good. Especially when Carter and Gagne came back from injuries. And you see the results."
Everybody did. Which is why no heads are likely to roll this off-season, although things could change.
There is the issue of whether unrestricted free agent goalie Michael Leighton will be brought back. Brian Boucher is around, but how much is he wanted after the way Leighton played?
Of course, there's a potential need for another defensive pairing, considering the way Pronger and others were relied upon. The Flyers might be champions today if they didn't look spent at that position.
Whatever the case, Holmgren has provided the confidence necessary for Philadelphia to calm its collective nerves. The fans should know by now that things will probably be fine.
Holmgren appears to have the coach, the players, and - courtesy of the Blackhawks - the ingredients to get the job done.
"I'm sure the players play this game to win the Stanley Cup," Holmgren said. "The fact that they fell short, we hope the motivation is there for them to spend time this summer with their training and come back with the mind-set that we fell short and have some unfinished business.
"There are some tweaks here and there we can look at over the summer, but I still like our team. We have some key people, key components, to winning that are in place. Our frame of mind in training camp is going to be key."
This from a man whose frame of mind was the key.