MINNEAPOLIS - Flyers president Paul Holmgren joined the prestigious list of Lester Patrick Trophy winners last night at the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame ceremony.
The ceremony, led by ESPN's Steve Levy, honored 2014 Hall of Fame inductees Karyn Bye Dietz, Brian Rafalski, Jeff Sauer and Lou Vairo, and Lester Patrick Award winners Holmgren and Bill Daly. Nearly 500 people watched as NHL commissioner Gary Bettman paid tribute to the efforts of Holmgren and Daly and presented the trophies.
"Paul Holmgren has served the Philadelphia Flyers at virtually every level . . . and they probably even forgave him in Philadelphia for a brief stint with the Hartford Whalers," Bettman said with a smirk. "He has devoted lots of time, attention and energy towards the growth of youth hockey in the Philadelphia area. I am extraordinarily pleased that the committee chose to honor his efforts on hockey's behalf."
The Lestert Patrick is awarded annually to NHL players, coaches and executives for outstanding service to hockey in the United States. It began in 1966 as a tribute to New York Rangers player and coach Lester Patrick for his contributions to the game, including the addition of the blue line, jersey numbers and the first playoff system in American sports.
Daly, the NHL deputy commissioner, and Holmgren were honored for the increase in American-born players in the NHL and emerging youth hockey programs nationwide during their tenure with the league.
"I was shocked when Gary told me, I'm still not 100 percent sure about myself and about it, but it's a huge honor," Holmgren said. "I'm really humbled by going through this whole process. I look at the past winners - there's obviously a lot of people I know and have idolized from afar. It's surreal."
Past winners include Gordie Howe, Ed Snider, Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky. Daly, an 18-year executive, was honored to join the list alongside Holmgren.
"I've always admired Paul," he said. "I grew up a New York Rangers fan and he played for the archrival Philadelphia Flyers, but you could tell there was always a lot of respect when Paul was on the ice. He does everything in a very quiet and classy way and certainly has the respect of the people who work with him, not only with the Flyers but with other clubs."
For Holmgren, the ceremony was also a chance to return to his home state of Minnesota.
"I grew up not too far from here, I got to play hockey outdoors for most of my young life," he said. "My favorite sport wasn't even hockey, it was baseball, but I always seemed to get steered toward hockey. It was like falling into a strong current - I just kind of went. That was a long time ago and to be a part of it for as long as I have, I guess I'm blessed."
Holmgren played one season at the University of Minnesota and was drafted 108th overall in 1975 by the Flyers. Before making his NHL debut, he played six games for the Johnstown Jets and nearly landed a role alongside former teammate Dave Hanson in the 1977 movie "Slap Shot.''
"I got called up right before they started filming and it kind of makes me mad," Holmgren said. "I could have been a movie star. I could have been the next Clint Eastwood."
Holmgren played nine seasons with the Flyers and was the first American-born player to record a hat trick in a Stanley Cup finals game. He was a physical player, leading the franchise in penalty minutes with 1,600 until Rick Tocchet broke the record in the 1991-92 season. Holmgren also had the skills to post 138 career goals for the Flyers.
After ending his playing career in two injury-plagued seasons with the Minnesota North Stars, Holmgren returned to Philadelphia as an assistant coach under Mike Keenan and replaced him in 1988, becoming the first former Flyer to coach the team.
In the ensuing 26 years, Holmgren worked his way from head coach to assistant general manager to general manager to his current position as club president. Along with Snider, he has promoted hockey through the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation.
"It's a scholarship program for young kids in perhaps not the greatest environment. We get them playing hockey and it goes from there," Holmgren said. "I don't know what our numbers our with youth kids playing the game, not only boys but girls, but they've done a great job. And now the NHL is 25 percent American-born players, and it's a number that's going to continue to grow because more kids are getting the opportunity to play."