ED SNIDER, Bob Clarke, Paul Holmgren; chairman, former general manager/icon, current general manager. They are very different people. What they share is a heritage. Their greatest desire is not only to win a Stanley Cup but to do it with a team that honors a franchise tradition that is now 4 decades old.
They don't say it like that, not exactly. But you hang around people for long enough and you get a sense of their core beliefs. Some of it is caricature but much of it is true. You get the idea that they wouldn't mind it at all if the Flyers' unofficial slogan were proclaimed to be, "No ass left unkicked."
In early December of last year, Peter Laviolette walked into this very unique sporting enterprise. When you think about it, there really are very few teams in any sport with an image that has been as recognizable over years and decades. Oakland Raiders. Pittsburgh Steelers. Los Angeles Lakers. But who else? Who else but the Flyers?
"People have always talked about Philadelphia like that," Laviolette was saying the other day, stopping for a few minutes in the reception area of the team's offices in Voorhees, N.J.
"Even when I wasn't here, for all of those years I was around, it was always 'the big, bad Flyers,' " he said, laughing. "I don't think that's such a bad thing. And then to have people come into your building and really fight for the ice, fight for the space - not literally fight, but just to compete at that level - it's a good thing."
Less than 6 months later, Laviolette has his team in the Stanley Cup finals against the Chicago Blackhawks. When he replaced John Stevens as coach, he brought with him a faster, more persistent forechecking style of play that fits this team and fits these times in the more wide-open NHL.
He is, in many ways, the perfect Flyers coach: outwardly passionate, sometimes loudly and outwardly; tactically aggressive, always.
"It's not like I feel like I have to have five fighters in the lineup," Laviolette said. And, in fact, his dislike of fighting with the Cup-winning roster he had in Carolina in 2006 actually made some news here when he was first hired, especially among some parts of the fan base.
"But if this organization has always wanted an aggressive style - if that's the image they have - I think the way we play feeds into that," he said. "We're an aggressive team. We want to finish every hit. We don't want to give up one inch of ice without it being contested, somehow, some way."
It is what they have always wanted here. For a lot of reasons, they haven't always been able to get the perfect match. You hire a man, not necessarily a system. You hire the ability to work with people. You hire stability sometimes, especially after turbulent times. You hire Roger Neilson after Wayne Cashman lasts only 61 games before flaming out. You hire Ken Hitchcock after the player revolt that cost Bill Barber. You hire John Stevens in the midst of a tailspin.
All of them were excellent in their own way, and the organization enjoyed it as each of them made their run to the conference finals, navigating their way through an NHL that was increasingly strangled by the way the rules were enforced and by the neutral-zone trapping style of play.
But with the rule changes following the lockout in 2004-05, they all saw a chance for a physical, forechecking style again. When Anaheim won the Cup in 2007 with a rowdy, rambunctious way of playing, nobody in the league was happier than Holmgren. And it was no surprise at all that he tried to hire Laviolette, his old USA Hockey compatriot, to coach the Phantoms last season, after Carolina fired him, or that he turned to Laviolette in December when he determined that the Flyers were still too inconsistent under Stevens.
Repeat: You hire the man and not a coaching style. But this man and this style were an exact fit.
"I think they did want to play this style," Laviolette said. "That's good in my case, because I couldn't pretend to do anything else. I can't be something that I'm not. I couldn't go into an interview and say anything else. Even if you could do it, and you went into the interview and said you were going to be a one-man [forechecking], passive, countering team, and you got the job, then what? I couldn't even pretend to sell that, but what if you did and what if you got the job? Then what? You'd be full of mistakes. You wouldn't have an idea what you're doing.
"I totally believe in what we're doing, so it's easy for me to sell to Paul or to the players."
He had two playoff teams with the Islanders after the franchise had suffered a long drought. He won the Cup in Carolina. Before the rules changes, after the rules changes - even going so far back as his days coaching in Providence in the AHL, when he once won 71 out of 94 games in a season - Laviolette said he has always played the same way.
He is the first one to say, "I invented nothing." He also is very quick to acknowledge that players win, not systems. But he has a core belief - and it probably isn't hitting so much as it is attacking by skating hard. The hits at the end are just a natural consequence of the attacking and the skating.
But it just fits with the Flyers' organizational image; Snider beams when he talks about "physical play with discipline - that's what Peter brought." The whole package fits, the legendary timeouts and the blunt postgame assessments and the physical definition of their style of play most of all.
"You change things, sure, to fit a situation or an opponent," Laviolette said. "But you don't change your philosophy.
"If you're aggressive, it leads to an aggressive mindset. I think it's aggressive to constantly go after a win when you're already leading. It affects your power play, your penalty kill, how you practice. It just leads to a mindset."
It took some time. The Flyers' players weren't used to what Laviolette wanted and weren't used to the skating demands - so the coach skated them hard in practice until they got it. It happened around Christmastime, after about 10 games. And while the Olympics and injuries derailed them for a while, and almost knocked them out of the playoffs before they began, the promise was plain in January and February.
Still, no one saw this. No one predicted back in December that this coach would so quickly prove to be such a perfect match for a team, for a time, and for the historic identity of a franchise.
"I guess I'm lucky," Laviolette said, "because this is the only way I know." *
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