Over the weekend of the NHL All-Star Game in Ottawa this year, the Flyers organized a dinner for the participating players and their families, mostly because that is the kind of thing the Flyers do, and have always done. And sitting there, club president Peter Luukko experienced two revelations.
One was personal. "I'm looking around and I'm thinking, 'I've worked here long enough that when I started, I was as old as some of the players,' " the 52-year-old executive said. " 'Now I'm older than some of the players' parents.' " The other revelation came when he was talking with Matt Read, one of the half-dozen rookies who have played a lot this season for a team now in the midst — really, the mid-dunk — of its Stanley Cup-playoff baptism.
General Manager Paul Holmgren had cornered the market on brass, and balls, during the summer, by trading away established stars Mike Richards and Jeff Carter and remaking his roster into a younger, faster and deeper group. It began as a great unknown and, 10 months later, that group has captured the imagination of a sporting city. It is all so new — young players' first response to prosperity in a playoff series in which they won the first three games against the Pittsburgh Penguins, and to the kind of brawl-filled spectacle that they experienced in Game 3, and to the abject ass-kicking they endured in Game 4 — that the fans here have taken residence on the ground floor with this bunch, simultaneously excited and fixated.
At a time when the Eagles and Phillies find themselves both fueled by and saddled by the greatest of expectations, the Flyers come across as rambunctious and carefree. Sharing a season and an arena with the Sixers, a team that has proved to be a belch in the breeze, the Flyers offer an image of a group that has a chance to achieve prominence and permanence.
And people here have latched onto them, very quickly, to a degree that's remarkable, even for a Flyers fan base that tends to fall in love at the drop of a, well, glove. Trying to explain why, Luukko went back to Matt Read, and that dinner in Ottawa.
He said: "We're talking that night and he's saying things like, 'I just can't believe I'm here.' And we're talking some more and he's saying things like, 'I can't believe it's my first game, and I'm going into the boards with [gigantic Boston defenseman Zdeno] Chara.' And, you know, that's how all of our young guys seem to speak. However you want to describe it, that attitude comes across. Our fans hear it. They get it."
Brayden Schenn said he was being recognized on the streets of the Delaware Valley "within weeks, probably." Jakub Voracek said it might have been quicker than that for him, but that was probably because he was hanging out at night with people-magnet Scott Hartnell.
The Flyers say they don't do any polling on the popularity of their players, as the Eagles do, but Luukko says that between Twitter and Facebook, there are plenty of electronic indications of just how attractive this new group is to the local populace. There are also more anecdotal measures. Seasoned observers of such things have unanimously determined that while the crowds at the team's practice facility in Voorhees, N.J., are not necessarily any bigger than in previous seasons, they are clearly younger and more female.
As for television ratings, which remain the most reliable measure of popularity, the Flyers have grown significantly. According to Comcast SportsNet, the Flyers games averaged a 3.3 household rating on CSN and a 2.2 rating on the Comcast Network during the 2011-12 season, a 38 percent and a 10 percent increase, respectively, over the 2010-11 season. The Flyers' pre-game show is up 60 percent, while the post-game show is up 17 percent.
Those numbers have gotten only bigger during the playoffs. According to the NHL, the brawl-filled Game 3 against the Penguins drew a 12.3 rating in the Philadelphia market. Just for comparison's sake, Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final between the Flyers and Blackhawks in 2010 drew a 13.2 locally. "You can really feel it growing," said Schenn, who came here from Los Angeles as part of the Richards trade. "It almost feels like everywhere you go, someone has something to say to you. It's fun to be a part of. It tells you just how passionate the fans are here.
"There were a lot of new faces coming in this year," he continued. "They got used to a new team pretty quick. They were welcoming to all of us. It was awesome ... I don't exactly know what last year was like, from experience. But I've talked to guys. When you bring in a leader like [Jaromir] Jagr, when you have players like Hartnell and [Kimmo] Timonen and [Claude] Giroux leading the way, you feed off of those guys and you read off of those guys and they've helped everybody from Day 1."
Two years ago, the Flyers made an unexpected run to the Cup Final. Last year, they were the best team in hockey until January, after which they died the most excruciating of deaths. (The coroner's determination: suicide by suffocation.) Many fans determined that the problem was leadership — especially Richards, the team captain, who had a terrible relationship with the media and a reputation (along with others) for putting a little too much life into his nightlife. By the end of last season, it was impossible to write a nice word about Richards in the newspaper without being buried beneath an avalanche of negative email. Believe me, I know. Not since Eric Lindros had such a sizable portion of the fan based turned against a team captain.
When the trades of Carter and Richards came down, the widespread reaction really was, "Great. Who'd we get?" Such was the level of frustration among a fan base that has always placed a premium on publicly demonstrated effort. Holmgren has said all along that these were hockey decisions, not personality decisions, and the results suggest that the general manager and his people got a lot more talent in return for Richards and Carter than most of us realized.
But the change-in-personality aspect of the transformation is undeniable. Reporters sensed it from the beginning of the season. "I think some of it is overstated," Luukko said. "I think a lot of this has been unfair to Mike. I think there were times he could have made himself more available, but he was a very good player for us and he worked extremely hard. He still is the hardworking Mike Richards with his new team [in Los Angeles]. I think it's unfair.
"Paul has always said that the decisions he made were to do the best for the Flyers and the best for the long-term. That's first and foremost. When you talk about personality, every team has a different personality. People want to see that as an issue, but this really was only about the general manager being bold and improving the club. But the byproduct is that this is a fun group. They are clearly having fun. That much is true."
Voracek was talking the other day after practice in Voorhees. He came here from Columbus as part of the Carter deal, and was working out in Montreal during the offseason when Holmgren called. "It's a great organization," he said. "It was a great change for me, to be part of a team like this. I'm very happy ... I knew that the Flyers, every year, wanted to get on top. They always have a good team. They're always going to be reaching for it. I knew it was going to be a lot of new guys. You can tell, it's worked out pretty well. I've loved it. I can't complain. It's been a lot of new guys, but I think we've fit right in."
Of course, winning is the answer to all sporting problems — and winning after pushing the reset button might be the greatest fan experience of all. The Phillies and Eagles can't do it, can't push the reset button, because they feel they have so much invested in their current incarnations — and the Sixers don't seem to know how to do it.
But the Flyers have done it and the fans have embraced it. In the life cycle of sports, there is nothing like the experience of your team winning a championship, but right behind it is the feeling of initial success. n