Ed Snider never played hockey as a kid, never watched the game until he was well into adulthood. But the next time someone calls Johnny Gaudreau "Johnny Hockey," the next time some Rangers fan raves about Mike Richter, the next time one Philadelphia fan chides another or a member of the media for not understanding the game – their game – they do so with an unwitting nod to the man who introduced hockey to the Delaware Valley 50 years ago and who lost his long battle against cancer on Monday.
Snider, 83, left a legacy that can not be summarized and will never be duplicated in this town, partly because the paternalistic era in which it was formed has long since been replaced by one of corporate owners, free agency and salary caps. In an era in which the players came and went with the frequency of luxury box clients, Snider maintained an unfeigned loyalty to anyone and everyone involved with the orange and black.
And they to him. When the entire Flyers team visited his Montecito, Calif., home back in December, for what turned out to be a final meeting with his latest extended family, "We talked a little bit about hockey," said the current team captain, Claude Giroux. "But more, we talked about life."
And what a life. The son of a grocery-store chain owner, he dabbled briefly in the record industry before buying into a small minority ownership of the Eagles in 1964. When he applied and was awarded a hockey franchise in 1966, it was met with great skepticism. Philly was the birthplace of the Big 5 and big-time college basketball, of Wilt Chamberlain for heaven's sake. Previous attempts to play professional hockey here had not gone well, the lives of those various franchises eventually expiring somewhere out in the suburbs. There were few rinks, no youth programs, zero interest. Joe Watson, one of the original Flyers, has often quipped that there were more people on the floats of the Flyers' welcoming parade in 1967 than there were people welcoming them.
Boy did that change. And fast. Seven seasons later the Flyers won the first of their two Stanley Cups, and their parades drew over 2 million people. No longer someone's limited partner, Snider emerged as a central figure in Philadelphia's sports landscape, first building a state-of-the-art arena called the Spectrum, and later, launching a sports-movie cable network, Prism.
He also built hockey rinks, donated quietly to over 70 hospitals and charities and in 2005, founded The Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation, which uses hockey to get inner-city kids serious about school and life.
It's a delicious paradox, that his first name exists on his charities, but not on the lips of his most loyal and devoted employees.
Indeed, he often contended he neither asked for, nor even preferred, that his employees call him "Mr. Snider." Bruce Springsteen once said the same thing about "The Boss." But over the years, each man reluctantly accepted it for what those who use it intend it to be: a show of respect, of appreciation, perhaps even with a twinge of fear — at least in Snider's case.
Because, let's face it: the man could growl. Whether he was charging towards the officials' room after a bogus elbowing penalty on John LeClair led to Toronto's series-deciding goal in the 1999 playoffs, or taking on a reporter for something written or asked, the demeanor always implied that something physical might occur next.
It never did. And over the years, you grew to understand that, and the growl became, well, almost endearing.
At least to me it was, and probably to any reporter who came from an upbringing where growling was also part of the deal. I loved sparring with Snider after something I wrote, especially as he would often concede your point in one breath, and trash you for it in the next.
Over the years we even developed a pattern. We would meet for a long interview, get along royally. I would write something, he would yell at me for parts or all of it, sometimes even call me some bad names. Then, after an acceptable cooling down period, we would meet again and do it all over.
But here's what I always wedged into those pieces, the currency that always bought me another audience with him: everything he did, he did because he wanted the Flyers, his team in a way it can never be yours or mine, to win.
To do this he traded players he loved personally, fired coaches and general managers who had once played their heart and soul for him and, despite his cold-war conservatism, eventually pursued and signed Eastern Bloc players.
It is a true sign of changing times that the most exciting player on the Flyers' horizon, who has all the makeup you seek in a future team captain, is 19-year-old Russian defenseman Ivan Provorov.
Tear down this wall, indeed.
It is also a true sign of Snider's love for this team that, even as he became painfully aware of how little time he had remaining on earth, he allowed his current general manager, Ron Hextall, to embark on a long-term reconstruction, hiring a first-time college coach to create a different "culture," easing young players into the lineup as he sought to shed the big, unproductive contracts that hung like anvils on the team's chances over the last few years.
Two of the remaining few such contracts were dealt away a few days after that visit to Snider in December. Luke Schenn's departure opened a permanent spot on the roster for Shayne Gostisbehere, the most exciting player since Claude Giroux.
Later, Nick Cousins, 22 and a former second-round pick, was inserted into the lineup as the Flyers dealt with the injury loss to Sean Couturier. He is now a valued piece to their playoff run. There is a healthy list of guys behind those players due in town over the next couple of seasons, the goal to create the kind of core that marked those two Cup teams of the '70s, and some of the Flyers' better later eras as well.
Snider won't be there physically for it, rolling into the dressing room to shake hands with his latest edition.
And that's sad.
But it's impossible to ever separate his name and legacy from what is still to come. Really, from any hockey played in these parts, whether it's two kids firing tennis balls into a makeshift net, a game at one of the many rinks around town he helped launch, or a big matinee bust-up with the Rangers complete with playoff implications.
He will be a part of all of it.
Mr. Snider to those who worked for him, who loved and respected him the most.
Ed to those of us who, for the last 50 years, so enjoyed the efforts that such devotion produced.