Dave Scott will "never forget that day’’ in 2013 when he first met Ed Snider. The late Flyers founder and chairman, who also headed up Comcast Spectacor, the entertainment branch of Comcast’s empire, had lost his right-hand man, Peter Luukko, just as the business side of the Comcast-Spectacor partnership was exploding.
Scott was the choice of Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts to replace him.
"First thing Ed said to me: `I’m going to stay on hockey. You can have everything else,’ ’’ Scott said. "And that’s where he was in life.’’
Six years later it is where Scott, as he approaches his 66th birthday, finds himself as well. The harsh reality of another hockey season gone unexpectedly bad has reaffirmed a decision he made quietly at the start of last summer: find his own right-hand person, someone who can run everything else for him while he spends more time with the Flyers.
Valerie Camillo, a former executive with the Washington Nationals and the NBA, was recently named as president of business operations for the Flyers and Wells Fargo Center. All key revenue functions, marketing initiatives, analytics, technology, and business optimization – things that took Scott’s eye off things like the Flyers' team makeup and performance – now stream through her.
Which allows Scott to fixate on hockey. The first indication of that came in late November, when the Flyers chairman, alarmed both by his team’s poor performance and by explanations from general manager Ron Hextall that he felt, "were not crisp,’’ endorsed his firing.
Hextall was a former Flyers star, lured from the Los Angeles Kings to revive a franchise that seemed to have no grand plan. Lauded for his drafts and for deftly maneuvering the franchise out of some salary-cap stagnation, Hextall fell out of favor via an obstinacy that Scott had come to conclude was at the root of glaring fault lines on the current team: goaltending; secondary scoring; coaching.
"I think when you go through that much change in a very short period of time, you either rise to the occasion and get through it or you don’t,’’ he said. "I’m the kind of guy who rolls up his sleeves. You think it through. You make the tough decisions.’’
So out with the old. In with the new. After an interviewing process that Scott said "reinforced my own thinking that I was seeing this right,’’ Chuck Fletcher was hired as the new GM. Fletcher had built the Minnesota Wild into a contender not only through drafts but high-stakes free-agent signings and risky trades. Some worked out, some were disasters, but there was little reluctance to jettison a prospect or two if he thought it could push the team forward on the ice.
That contrasted with Hextall’s approach.
"I still think it was absolutely the right thing to do,’’ Scott said. "I didn’t want to lose two seasons. If we didn’t make a change early, if we waited until the end, then it would make next season that much tougher.
"I had good closure with Ron. We got together probably three weeks after and had breakfast. It was good. He’s a smart guy. I think he will land on his feet. You’ve got to learn from all these situations. I gave him my two cents, what I saw. … He was so committed. At one point I said, listen to yourself. There’s more than one way to skin a cat. Because there is.’’
Hextall believed there was no quick fix to the Flyers' flop this season. According to interim coach Scott Gordon, he was right, but by only a month. Gordon didn’t believe Carter Hart was quite ready at the time Scott made the GM change. Slightly less than a month later, amid his own promotion from coaching Lehigh Valley to coaching the Flyers, he endorsed the move.
By then, any belief that the playoffs were a realistic possibility seemed even more far-fetched. No one at the top has publicly proclaimed it, but everything they’re doing these days appears to be a concession to the team’s position in the standings and its long odds.
Fletcher was in Calgary on Thursday, Scott said, scouting a playoff-caliber team that is considered a trade-deadline buyer. Under Gordon, Oskar Lindblom has assumed a more important role, Nolan Patrick has found his scoring touch, Travis Konecny has regained some footing. And Hart is expected to make his 13th start Monday night, when the Flyers host Winnipeg.
"Carter Hart’s been amazing,’’ Scott said. "I’m not sure we would have seen him under the other front office. He’s the real deal. For 20 years old he’s strong, mentally strong. It’s more than we could have ever hoped for to get a guy like that.
"And I think he’s been inspirational. I think he’s inspired the whole team. I think it’s contagious.’’
The Flyers entered their bye week with four wins over five games, including the last three against playoff hopeful teams. Hart has been the biggest reason for each of those victories, twice allowing his team to rally from two-goal deficits with outstanding late-game play.
And yet the math remains the same. The Flyers would have to play better over their last 34 games than any NHL team played their first 34 games this season to even have a shot. Meanwhile Fletcher has increased cap space slightly in jettisoning Jordan Weal. The trade deadline, Scott said, may substantially increase it more if Fletcher can deal players he deems expendable.
Wayne Simmonds, who will be an unrestricted free agent after this season, has been mentioned often in hockey-centric publications and broadcasts.
"I’m so thrilled with what Chuck’s doing,’’ Scott said. "He’s everything I hoped for. He’s bright, methodical too. He’s a planner. He’s looking for that opportunity. Between now and the end of February, if there’s an opportunity, we’re in a position to capitalize on it all the way through to the draft and into next season.
"What I think I like is real recognition that we’re missing a couple of pieces. Whether you look at your goaltending, or your defense ...’’
… Or your experience. Thanks to Hextall’s patience, there is likely to be a steady stream of talent headed to the team over the next few years. But you’ve heard that too before, as the core group that was supposed to stabilize that influx moves toward or even past its prime.
His attention focused on the hockey team more than ever, Scott vows the Flyers will be much more aggressive in the free-agent market this summer than they have been recently. One big reason is that, by next season, more than $260 million will have been spent to improve the fan experience at the Wells Fargo Center.
He’s not about to sabotage that by playing it safe with a team that has already disappointed both him and those fans.