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Holmgren proud of trail he blazed for U.S. hockey players

Flyers president Paul Holmgren is getting the Lester Patrick Award from U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame for contributions to the sport.

Flyers president Paul Holmgren. (Steven M. Falk/Staff Photographer)
Flyers president Paul Holmgren. (Steven M. Falk/Staff Photographer)Read more

THE LITTLE BROTHER wouldn't go away. Mark Holmgren would sneak off to join his friends on the baseball diamond, on the football field, would try to skate his way from the small house in East St. Paul, Minn., to the outdoor rink two blocks away.

There, little brother would be, almost always, a step behind. Welcome or not.

Almost always, he was not.

"We were real competitive with each other," Paul Holmgren, the Flyers president, said this week. "It wasn't the same brother relationship that a lot of people have. I would follow him everywhere, and he really didn't like that.

"I used to joke that if I was getting beat up, he would stop by and help the guy."

Mark Holmgren will not be there tonight when Paul Holmgren is honored for his contributions to U.S. hockey with the prestigious Lester Patrick Award during U.S. Hockey's Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Minneapolis. Diabetes, which also took the life of an older brother, Dave, ended Mark's life in 2004 at age 49. But Mark's two grown sons will be there with their families, joining a contingent of Holmgrens that includes Paul's wife Doreen and their four children, three grandchildren and, as he said, "a fourth on the way."

They will celebrate an incredible career that Holmgren said just kind of happened, the offshoot of that early competitiveness with a brother 15 months older. Holmgren's hockey career began when his baseball dream ended in default, his fastball not quite fast enough, his line drives not quite powerful enough. By then, Holmgren had grown larger than his brother and their relationship had grown, too, forged through a calendar year of high school sports participation.

"It was good in that regard," Holmgren said. "I wanted to be like him. I wanted to go where he went."

Holmgren went further. First to the University of Minnesota to play for Herb Brooks, and then, at age 19, to the fledgling World Hockey Association to play for the Minnesota Fighting Saints. He was a local prodigy by then, and he was there to sell tickets, but, as the season wore on, Holmgren found himself amid a locker room of grizzled veterans voting to temporarily play for free in hopes of extending their careers just a few more months or years.

"I remember sitting in that room and thinking, 'Well if the team folds, I'll just go back to college and play baseball,' " he said. "I was already a pro in hockey, so I couldn't play hockey, and my first love was baseball anyway. So I thought, 'I'll just go back and play baseball.' "

He didn't, of course. The Fighting Saints did fold in February 1976, but the Flyers - who held his NHL rights - quickly signed him and sent him to Richmond for seasoning. Holmgren made his NHL debut at the end of that season, then spent the next eight seasons playing a very, um, Canadian brand of hockey.

He hit hard and fought hard and eventually amassed more penalty minutes than any of the Broad Street Bullies had, a Flyers record that stood until Rick Tocchet came along. He also became the first American-born player to score a hat trick in a Stanley Cup finals.

American players were an anomaly back then, a point Holmgren made recently when he was asked to speak to Boston College's hockey team.

"I was one of the first guys," he said. "I'm very proud of that."

Then, players trickled through college programs (or not) and into the league from American hockey hotbeds in Wisconsin, Michigan and Massachusetts. In front of him recently were players from places such as Phoenix and Los Angeles, playing for a nationally ranked program that used to loop round Route 128 surrounding Boston to compile its roster.

"There's just so many options now," said Holmgren, who turned 59 on Tuesday. "Look at the college rankings . . . Robert Morris is 20th. How many people know where that is? How long do you think it's going to take Penn State to be a power in hockey? Not very long.

"The percentage of Americans in the NHL grows every year. All you have to do is to go to an NHL draft and listen to where the players are coming from. And I'm not talking about late-round picks, either. This coming draft, there's two that are going to be picked in the top five who are American-born players. At least two."

Another way to measure the impact of Holmgren and other early Americans is through tonight's ceremony. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly is a co-winner with Holmgren for the award. From New Jersey, Daly is credited with the tweaks that emerged after the 2004-05 lockout that stabilized franchises in nontraditional markets and made the game quicker and more exciting, e.g., no trap.

Inductee Lou Vairo, a former assistant coach with the New Jersey Devils and a longtime U.S. international coach, hails from Brooklyn, N.Y. Inductee Brian Rafalski, from Dearborn, Mich., was on three Stanley Cup champions during a career that began more than a decade after Holmgren's ended.

"It still is sort of sinking in," Holmgren said. "When [NHL commissioner] Gary Bettman told me last August that I was up for this award, I was shocked. It's very humbling. And I'm obviously very honored to be a part of this."

On Twitter: @samdonnellon