THE DAY last summer that Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren brought Ron Hextall back from Los Angeles to be his assistant, he knew two things - that he was making the Flyers better, and that he was hiring the guy who would be his replacement. The move was one part self-confident and one part selfless. To me, that will always be Holmgren.
He knew what he was doing that day, and the implications. The thing that Holmgren did not know was the timetable. But within 5 months, he was already talking to Hextall about a succession plan. Within 6 months, he brought the idea to Flyers chairman Ed Snider. Yesterday, it was made official. Holmgren is now the club president and Hextall is now the general manager with full say over personnel moves.
"It was sort of a sideways step with Ron coming back to the Flyers," Holmgren said. "I'd like to think our friendship had something to do with him coming back. He's been a Flyer. He knew what it was all about . . .
"I was hoping that it could end like this, at some point. Back in July, when Hexy decided to come back, I don't know if I envisioned this happening this quickly. But he's good. That kind of pushed me ahead in my thinking and what I wanted to do."
Earlier, at the podium, Holmgren joked that Hextall had a Flyers logo tattooed "on his ass." If that is the case, Holmgren's tattoo is not too far removed. He has been a player, assistant coach, head coach, scout, assistant general manager, general manger, and now president. It is a resume in full, printed very much in orange and black.
This move represents that heritage. This move is about the Flyers more than it is about Holmgren. To me, the classic moment was when Hextall kept asking him if he was OK with this and Holmgren finally told him, "Will you shut up already?" That is Holmgren, right there.
Holmgren has a genuine interest in the business side of hockey and has sat in on some business-side meetings over the years. He says he wants to learn more, and maybe find a way to better marry the hockey side to the business side. Then again, because he is who he is, he offers the self-effacing punctuation, "Maybe I'm full of crap."
The point is, he is the one leaving a job that he still liked for a new, uncertain challenge - and doing it because he made the calculation and decided it was the best thing for the Flyers. He did not say it exactly like this, but the team meant more to Holmgren than his own situation. He could not in good conscience allow Hextall to leave Philadelphia for a general manager's job somewhere else.
"To me, he's ready now," Holmgren said. "He's ready. He's more than ready. He's been ready for a few years. He put his time in. He's earned the opportunity and I think he's going to be a star, I really do."
This might not be a popular opinion, but Hextall will have a hard time matching Holmgren's success - except for the Cup part, a very big part. Asked to describe his tenure, Holmgren said, "We didn't win. At the end of the day, that's what it's all about. We had one kick at it in 2010 but we didn't win. So, unfulfilled. Fulfilling personally, but in terms of doing what you're supposed to do, we didn't win."
He ran the draft for years as Bob Clarke's assistant, the draft and the Phantoms, and turned them during those years into a model for how those aspects of an NHL team should operate. He took over as general manager, took over a terrible team after Clarke retired, and turned it around instantly. They got to overtime of Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals, and then he felt like he had to rebuild it again, trading away Mike Richards and Jeff Carter and getting younger pieces in return.
The Ilya Bryzgalov thing was a mess, yes - and an expensive mess. There are long-term contracts that are too long, and that is also true. But, under Holmgren, the Flyers continued to win games and be a factor. They have the goaltender (Steve Mason) in place and are captained by Claude Giroux, one of the stars of the league. They have many good pieces on the roster. What they have not had is good fortune. The early end of Chris Pronger's career because of concussion problems is the bad luck that Holmgren could not overcome.
Remember the trade: Joffrey Lupul, Luca Sbisa, two first-round picks and a conditional third-rounder for Pronger.
"We talk about it - we were talking about it yesterday," Holmgren said. "Not the 'what if,' but we gave up a lot to get Chris. I asked Ron, because he was in LA when we made that trade, I said, 'What did you think of that trade? Did you think it was steep?' He said, 'Yeah, but it was the only way you were going to get him.' Then we talked about, wouldn't it have been nice to have him this year. You try not to dwell on those things, but every once in a while, they come up."
When Clarke left, he admitted to hating the contracts part of the job and dealing with agents. Holmgren said that isn't the case with him. He said, "There are a lot of challenging parts of the job but I never got to the point where I went home and said, 'I hate this job.' I loved my job."
But he is giving it up anyway because it was the best thing for the Flyers, which is too much to put in a tattoo.
On Twitter: @theidlerich