This was Oct. 1, 2013, less than a week before the Flyers fired Peter Laviolette, 3 1/2 years before Laviolette pumped his fist as he stood behind the Nashville Predators' bench Monday night, celebrating his third trip to the Stanley Cup Finals.
One lockout-truncated regular season without the playoffs, one lousy preseason, and everyone could see what was coming: The Flyers, with Ed Snider still in charge, with his infamous impatience set aflame, would be changing coaches soon enough. So there was Bret Hedican, a defenseman on Laviolette's 2006 Cup-winning Carolina Hurricanes team, defending his former coach during a lengthy phone call, cutting to the core of the problem that plagued the Flyers for too long.
"So many professional teams today expect results every year, and every team wants to win the Stanley Cup, but sometimes a team has to take a step back," Hedican said then. "Maybe there were some things that need to be corrected, but maybe it's not six months, maybe it's not 12 months. Maybe you need to put the things in place for them to grow so the roots get strong and you can win the Stanley Cup. Philadelphia has gone through a lot of changes in a short amount of time."
Hedican now seems a visionary, a doctor who had diagnosed the Flyers' fundamental ailment long before anyone in the organization itself did. The chase for that third Stanley Cup had come to so consume the Flyers that it had become counterproductive. They kept trying to recapture the past through those who had played or coached through it, kept trying to retool instead of rebuilding.
Only recently, under general manager Ron Hextall, has there been a hint of understanding from the Flyers that it's possible to have the right coach at the wrong time. If nothing else, Hextall is giving Dave Hakstol the opportunity to grow into the job, to survive the slog of these last two seasons and reach the tunnel's light with Ivan Provorov and that precious No. 2 overall pick in this year's draft. It's the opportunity that Snider, Peter Luukko, and Paul Holmgren didn't afford Laviolette when they replaced him with a familiar old Flyer, Craig Berube.
"For me to sit here and say, 'He's doing a terrible job,' I have a hard time believing that," Hedican said then. "I'd rather ask, 'What's going on in the locker room? Who are the leaders in that room, and are they doing the job?' I know what Peter can do. He reads people. He understands personalities. He understands strengths and weaknesses."
He has reaffirmed those strengths with the Predators, who have romped to a 12-4 record this postseason against three perennial Western Conference powers: the Chicago Blackhawks, the St. Louis Blues, and the Anaheim Ducks. These are the kinds of results that Laviolette has routinely produced. After that remarkable run to the 2010 Finals, he guided the Flyers to an 106-point season in 2010-11 and an 103-point season - with a revamped roster, without Chris Pronger, with the spacey Ilya Bryzgalov as the team's No. 1 goaltender - in 2011-12.
The following season was just 48 games long, and the Flyers went 23-22-3, for 49 points, missing the playoffs for the first time in five years. That single failure was enough for Laviolette's career-dissipation clock here to begin ticking. Yet in each of the four seasons since he left, the Flyers' average point total through 48 games has been 49.5. So perhaps his coaching wasn't their primary flaw, just as neither Berube's nor Hakstol's coaching has been.
It's easy to say that a coach should adjust to the talent he's given. But that argument presumes that virtually any collection of players can be shaped into a championship contender, that the quick and dirty solution of firing the coach is always the way to go. With certain exceptions - for instance, Barry Trotz, Lavolette's predecessor in Nashville, who spent 15 seasons with the Predators - that course of action is common throughout the NHL, and often it's necessary. Again, though, there are exceptions, and Hextall appears willing to learn whether Hakstol can become one. One wonders how different things might have been for the Flyers if had they adopted a similar approach with Laviolette, if they hadn't bet so heavily on Bryzgalov and spent so wastefully on a fading star in Vinny Lecavalier, if they had trusted that they already had an elite coach in place and took care to construct a team to fit his high-tempo, jam-fueled style.
"It's like the way you write," Hedican said. "You've got a certain template you like to go with, and all of a sudden, someone's saying, 'I'm taking away this pencil. I'm going to poke this needle in your finger, and that's how you're going to make your story come out.' That's pretty drastic, but he knows the template he's won with, and he knows this template will work, if it's applied and the players buy into it and you have the right core. . . . His name's engraved on the Stanley Cup for a reason."
Over his three seasons in Nashville, Laviolette has been fortunate to coach a team that suits his methods. The Predators are swift and skilled up front, and to a group of defensemen who already could push the puck, they upgraded when they traded Shea Weber to Montreal for P.K. Subban, for a player who fills the same role that Pronger once did for the Flyers and is perfect for Laviolette's system.
"If you were to get rid of a guy like Peter," Hedican said, "you've just set your organization back and not moved it forward. In fact, you might never get somebody who could replace him."
It's been nearly four years. The Flyers haven't yet. They have a head coach who still has something to prove. In the Stanley Cup Finals, once again, there's a coach who doesn't, and never did.