Flyers' brain trust is now at peace
PHILADELPHIA -- Forty-four years ago, Ed Snider waged a personal campaign to bring an NHL expansion team to Philadelphia.
He received a patch of land from city officials to build a hockey rink in the parking lot of Veterans Stadium and somehow persuaded the league to put a team in that new rink.
Did the Flyers' chairman and founding father imagine he would still be running this hockey club more than four decades later?
"You know, I never really thought about it," Snider, chuckling, told ESPN.com in an interview this week. "But when I look back, I realize now I'm the longest-serving governor in the National Hockey League. It's pretty amazing."
What started out as an ugly-duckling expansion team turned into one of the most stable and recognizable franchises in the NHL, something that matters a lot to Snider.
"I'm proud of the fact that the Flyers, having been an expansion team, are really considered to be one of the top franchises in the National Hockey League, for a variety of reasons," Snider said. "And I'm proud that we've never changed our colors, we've never changed our logo. We've got a nice tradition. We've got a tremendous alumni organization. I'm very proud of all that, to be honest with you."
Philadelphia's run to the Stanley Cup finals this spring just happens to have coincided with an HBO documentary on the '70s-era team, which won its two NHL titles in 1974 and 1975 while intimidating the opposition with a rock 'em, sock 'em lineup.
"They did a great job over that," Snider said of the documentary. "They worked on it for over a year. We have pretty good archives. We had it pretty down pat. But they found things I never even knew existed. It was pretty amazing."
The symmetry between the popularity of the documentary and the Flyers' magical run this season cannot be ignored. It premiered and was run over and over again in the same month the Flyers erased a 3-0 series deficit en route to an Eastern Conference semifinals win against Boston, only the third team in NHL history to do so.
The Flyers squads glorified in the documentary, Philadelphia's only Cup champions, have a special place in Snider's heart. But so does this year's team.
"You know, regardless of what happens in this series, I'm as proud of this team as I am of our Stanley Cup teams," Snider said. "These guys just don't know the word 'quit.'"
And they reached the Cup finals as the seventh seed in the East.
"It's a thrill, it's an unexpected thrill, quite honestly," Snider said.
A thrill it was not four years ago, when Snider replaced favorite son and then GM Bobby Clarke eight games into the 2006-07 season after the club struggled, a very tough decision for the Flyers chairman. It was viewed by some as a firing, but Snider quickly corrected us on that.
"Let's get one thing straight: I did not fire Bobby Clarke. He resigned," Snider said. "People assumed that I fired him, but I didn't."
Paul Holmgren was elevated from assistant GM to interim GM, and Snider reached out to NHL senior vice president Colin Campbell and offered him the GM job. Campbell almost took it.
"It was close," Campbell, the NHL's director of hockey operations, told ESPN.com on Thursday. "I was on my way to the airport in Toronto, headed for Philadelphia. But I had a change of heart. I couldn't commit to that lifestyle change at that point in my life. I was working for a good boss and had a good job. But Paul's done a good job. Good things happen to good people."
With a firestorm on the home front after the story leaked, Snider released a statement on Nov. 2, 2006:
"Colin Campbell and I have been friends for a very long time and we both have worked closely together on the NHL's competition committee.
"When Bob Clarke announced his resignation on October 22, I contacted Colin and we had a discussion about the general manager position. Colin recently contacted me to inform me that he appreciated our conversation, but at this time he did not want to be a candidate for the position.
"Paul Holmgren will continue to be the interim general manager. There will be no other statements concerning this issue."
The night the story of Snider's having offered Campbell the job broke, we were the first to contact Holmgren for his reaction. It was the first he had heard of it. He asked whether he could call back, which he did, before giving his comment.
"I know the process that Mr. Snider and the organization are going through," Holmgren told us that night. "I don't think it is awkward; it is part of process he feels he needs to go through, and I am fine with that."
When asked now about the tenuous grasp he had on the GM job in his first season, Holmgren's sentiments haven't changed. Although the interim tag was removed on Nov. 11, 2006, Snider had committed publicly to Holmgren only until the end of that season. No problem, Holmgren said. They needed time to get to know each other (Holmgren said that when he was assistant GM, he never spoke to Snider because all lines of communication ran through Clarke).
"Mr. Snider didn't really know me, and I didn't really know Mr. Snider," Holmgren told ESPN.com. "So the interim thing was fine. We got to know each other."
That's also how Snider looks back on it.
"Paul Holmgren was interim GM because I wanted to make sure -- because it came as a surprise to me when Bobby resigned -- I wanted to make sure that we were in good hands," Snider said. "Paul quickly established the fact that he knew exactly what he was doing. And that's great because he had been an assistant GM under Bob for a long time, he was a player for us, he was a head scout for us, he was coach for us, so continuing the tradition and the philosophy of the organization was very, very important to me."
Holmgren's boldest move came almost a year ago when he nabbed Chris Pronger in a blockbuster deal from the Anaheim Ducks. It came at a huge cost: two first-round picks, a third-round pick, forward Joffrey Lupul and young defenseman Luca Sbisa.
"It was a lot we gave up for Chris Pronger," Holmgren said. "But we felt that, at the time, the impact player that Chris was and is and has been for our team this year, we believe it was worth it. And, you know, we'll know more down the road here. But he's a game-changing type player. That's what we were looking for, and he's brought that for us."
Simply put, Pronger has been the best player in this Cup finals through three games. If the Flyers win the Cup, Pronger likely will win the Conn Smythe Trophy as NHL playoff MVP.
If Pronger was Holmgren's boldest move, Ville Leino was the shrewdest. The Detroit Red Wings had a cap crunch with players returning from injury, so Holmgren seized the opportunity on Feb. 6, acquiring Leino for defenseman Ole-Kristian Tollefsen and a fifth-round draft pick in the 2011 NHL draft.
Leino has been dynamite in these playoffs, putting up 15 points (6-9) in 16 playoff games. He's under contract for next season at only $825,000 for the season.
"Our scouting staff at the time [of the trade] really thought that Ville could bring an offensive mindset if he got the opportunity to play with like-minded players," Holmgren said. "You know, we thought if he got a chance to play with Danny Briere or Jeff Carter or Mike Richards -- guys that have offensive instincts like Ville -- he could help us."
Holmgren's most inspired move was replacing John Stevens with Peter Laviolette as coach on Dec. 4. The Flyers were 11th in the East that day, and Laviolette was doing TV work in Canada when Holmgren called.
"I got the opportunity to work with Paul in USA Hockey a few times," Laviolette said. "We had a couple of conversations. I'm fortunate. I was out of work for a year. I mean, more than anything, I'm grateful to Paul and grateful for the opportunity because there's not a lot of jobs, there's only 30 of them. There are so many coaches out there. When you're out, you wonder if you'll ever get back in. When you do get back in, you certainly are appreciative of the opportunity.
"I get to come to work for an organization that is a world-class organization. It's great ownership, tremendous ownership, and tremendous management. We have players that have proven they can be successful. For all of that, I'm grateful."
The coach is grateful, the GM is vindicated and the chairman is proud. The Flyers' brain trust is at peace.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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