After another disappointing loss to Boston on Thursday night, one in which the Flyers were shutout and displayed a less than passionate effort, and then another embarrassment on Saturday afternoon, it was hard not to feel a sense of apathy. Normally, one uninspired loss is something fans would brush off, but the collection of years of these types of events and the same, unaddressed problems, have led most to a place where this feels more like the new normal.
A number of us began to recall better times and players we’d enjoyed watching, which led me to wondering, exactly when was the last time the Flyers were truly “fun”? Although there have been other moments here and there, for me the answer was probably most appropriately, the 2009-2010 Flyers.
The 2009-10 Philadelphia Flyers
The season had begun with both familiar names and some new faces. A team loaded with past and future captains like Mike Richards, Chris Pronger, Danny Briere, Kimmo Timonen and Claude Giroux captured our hearts. Quirky, fun characters like Scott Hartnell and Dan Carcillo got fans going and, at times, made them laugh. This team had not only skill, but personality - in fact, so much so, that it occasionally drew the eye of the media, who liked to point out they might have been having a little too much fun off the ice.
Peter Laviolette, who was famous for wanting his team to play with “jam” (a reference to the requisite effort one must deploy to play in his system) still felt like a Philadelphia treasure. Vocal, fiery and full of fist pumping, Laviolette, was not only the embodiment of the fans desire to see hockey played like it mattered, but he was also a talented tactician and time out mastermind, that truly knew when he needed to push certain buttons to get results.
What, beyond these things, made this team fun and why were they able to accomplish what so many recent flyers teams were not? Let’s look back at a few high points….
Flyers add Chris Pronger
In the offseason the Flyers had acquired towering, all world defenseman Chris Pronger. The price was steep and the risk was great, but the rewards had the potential to be even greater. Pronger and Ryan Dingle were acquired from Anaheim for Joffrey Lupul, Luca Sbisa and 2 first round picks
Pronger, without question, was a leader and not just any leader, but the type that had won Stanley Cups in the past. This is what true veteran presence looks like; it snarls, it drives people to be better than they thought they could be and it educates them to understand how to overcome the moments they’ve overcome themselves. Chris Pronger was all of those things, but he was also crafty and still very, very, good.
Maybe Pronger could be overbearing in the eyes of some, but he’d seen the promise land and he commanded your respect. Pronger was the exciting addition that made us begin to wonder, could this be the year? The Flyers had just pushed all their cards to the center of the table for Pronger, a move you only execute if you believe it will eventually lead to a cup. The Flyers, and I’d wager most fans, believed that was a real possibility.
The Flyers didn’t ultimately reach their goal, however Pronger left many lasting memories. What we will all likely never forget are the moments Pronger spent stealing pucks from Chicago players after goals in the final. Was it juvenile or genius? Was he just getting under the oppositions skin or was he taking pressure off his young team by drawing the attention to himself? Was he just denying them their mementos out of spite? Does it matter? It was entertaining.
Pronger was equally entertaining in interviews, where he often liked to keep the media on their toes. Between his antics as a questionable purveyor of pucks and snarky, tongue in cheek interview, he became one of the bigger stories during the Flyers first Stanley Cup Final in some time. No one really knows where all of those pucks went, but the simple fact that the Flyers defenseman made the entirety of the hockey world focus on something other than the Flyers goaltenders or youth, likely helped keep the room just a bit looser.
Pronger ultimately finished 2009-10 with 55pts in 82 games and another 18pts in 23 games in the playoffs. When he was injured in 2011-2012, it began a chain reaction of events that would lead the Flyers to where they are today.
The shootout for the playoffs
The season wasn’t perfect. The Flyers had had stretches of inconsistency, but also moments of brilliance. On the last day of the season, the Flyers would end up facing the one team that could keep them out of the playoffs, The New York Rangers. This was a true “must win”. As if that wasn’t enough, they would end up needing a shootout, where the odds appeared to be against them.
In the shootout, it didn’t matter that the Flyers had 3 great lines, leadership or the ability to flip a switch and dominate a game. What did matter, was goaltending, which was the perceived weakness of the Flyers and there was no way to avoid a critical test in that area. The Flyers had used 5 different goaltenders in 2009-10, with only Brian Boucher playing over 30 games, so a shootout for all the marbles was not really “ideal”.
In the end, a baby-faced Claude Giroux beat Henrik Lundqvist with a gutsy, methodical, one on one shot and Brian Boucher shut the door on Olli Jokinen to put the Flyers into the playoffs in the most dramatic of ways. Watch the footage below. Listen to the crowd. Watch the celebration and look at the faces on the players, Ed Snider and the fans. This was genuine excitement and passion. This is just a little of what’s missing today.
I’d be naive if I said every middle of the year game could harness this level of built up drama, but remembering the way we felt about this team and seeing players like Danny Briere (who was absolutely always clutch) storming down the ice, reminds me of how much we miss players who delivered in so many big moments and the expectation that Philadelphia Flyers hockey was winning hockey.
The comeback in Boston
As of the 2010 playoffs only two teams in the history of the NHL found themselves up to the task of coming back from a three games to zero deficit in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, with the last one being the 1975 New York Islanders. To say it wasn’t typical, would be an understatement of the highest magnitude. It was probably statistically more likely to see a Cowboys fan at Veterans Stadium. prior to its “retirement”.
The Flyers had dropped the first 3 games of the series, with the worst beating occurring on home ice. They’d challenged Boston at home in game 1, losing 5-4 in OT and again in game 2, as they lost 3-2, but during game 3, a game the Flyers lost 4-1, one hit changed the complexion of the series. On a slow outlet pass to the center of the ice, Flyers captain Mike Richards, caught David Krejci with a clean, hard, shoulder to shoulder hit. The puck would ultimately end up in the back of the Flyers net, damaging the Flyers game 3 chances, but it would be Krejci’s wrist that suffered the worst damage.
With Krejci out for the remainder of the series and Simon Gagne returning from injury (though clearly not 100%), the Flyers felt like a team that had a chance to at least salvage their pride. It was a poor time for Brian Boucher to have a game of rough goals against, but that’s exactly what happened. Trailing 1-0 and then later giving up a game tying goal with under a minute left in the 3rd period, the Flyers had every reason to pack it in and just let the season slip away. Instead, late in the first overtime, Simon Gagne redirected a Matt Carle pass and the arena exploded. The Flyers found a way to win, 5-4 in OT. It was, at least for one day, a series again.
In game 5, the Flyers thoroughly shocked the Bruins at home, beating them 4-0 on their own ice and now, a group that was largely written off, started to make us all believers. Gagne’s return seemed to spark the Flyers, as he potted 2 more goals and added another dimension to a lineup that had been missing Jeff Carter, as well. The Flyers went on to win game 6 on the strength of a Danny Briere powerplay goal and suddenly…this comeback, could be real.
Game 7 brought out every Flyers fan who’d ever dreamed of seeing the team hoist the cup again. Stores sold out of t-shirts, people learned how to pronounce Ville Leino’s name, friends gathered with others to watch the game and the, then, Wachovia Center, in Philadelphia filled up to watch the game. The game wasn’t even in Philadelphia, fans didn’t care. Everyone was on board.
After falling down 3-0 in the series, the Flyers would give up three early goals to Boston in game 7. Peter Laviolette, as he was apt to do, called one of his patented time outs. It wasn’t long after that the Flyers stormed back with an ugly goal from James van Riemsdyk, a great finish from Scott Hartnell and yet another clutch Danny Briere playoff goal, tying the game at 3. With less than 6 minutes left in the third period, Simon Gagne, lifted a puck into the top corner of the net and launched all of Philadelphia into the air, simultaneously, with it.
Everyone remembers where they were the night this goal was scored. You remember where you were watching and who you were with. You remember if you had to miss the game (which I suspect was not the case for many) and if you’re like me, you remember re-watching the game at least a few times, as if the Flyers had won the cup. This was only the 2nd round, but with a 4-3 win in game 7, this team inspired us all to believe.
The Flyers had had a relatively formidable penalty kill throughout the year, one that, at times, had players like Mike Richards, Claude Giroux, Simon Gagne and yes, Ian Laperriere on it. This was a skilled PK unit and one that wasn’t short on effort or intelligence when it came to breaking up opposition chances.
Now facing Montreal, with Laperriere having already laid his face on the line for the club in round 1, the Flyers were attempting to force their way all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. Montreal was no pushover. They had knocked off a Capitals juggernaut that looked destined for a date with someone in the Cup Final, as well as, the defending champion, Pittsburgh Penguins. The Flyers would need another spark to help close things out and they would get it, on the penalty kill, from Mike Richards, in a moment Philly fans would affectionately nickname “The Shift”.
The Canadiens played with the same powerplay setup the Flyers, and many other teams, still employ today and that system was broken…by effort. Watch the series of plays Richards makes a few times and you’ll see, this is simply the desire of a player to kill a penalty and the willingness to give absolutely everything he has to that end. The Flyers not only don’t allow Montreal to set up, but they actually back Montreal off with effort and speed, which is something the Flyers, as a team, have not done consistently on the penalty kill for many years.
We can malign the penalty kill coach for his system or question the team and wonder if they have the right personnel, but it’s been a long time since we’ve seen desire and push back like this on the penalty kill, regardless. “The Shift” is often forgotten when thinking back to this season, overshadowed by the herculean comeback in Boston that preceded it, but it is a stark reminder that in an age of numbers and algorithms (which do matter) extra effort and the desire to win, still matter too.
Where are we now?
These moments and the way fans were drawn to them were a part of what it was to be a Philadelphia Flyers fan. Every year there was the expectation, perhaps even the obligation, to win or to lose by throwing your best punch. In 2009-10, we had fun and we embraced a collection of characters, clutch performers and leaders that were exciting, even when flawed. Maybe other seasons since have had moments, like the year Bryzgalov decided to declare his love of the solar system on HBO, but 2009-10 was different.
The Flyers lost the cup that year to Chicago at home, in one of the more heartbreaking ways a team has ever lost a cup, but the season was ultimately remembered as an amazing, adrenaline pumping ride that fueled all of us with emotion and belief that we would one day soon, see the cup in Philadelphia. In the years since, we’ve spent many moments watching our teams falter, almost always starting slow and never managing to give us truly meaningful playoff hockey. We’ve seen coaching changes and “the process”, which led us to where we are today…still hoping.
However, these days feel different, even to a long-term fan like myself, who has seen many ups and downs. These days, according to many fans, feel empty. I’ve seen apathy set in and a type of long-term discontent, among the very same people with whom I’d sat at tables and viewed games or discussed the team with, with vigor. I’ve seen people who used to prioritized games, prioritize chores, social media or turning off their TVs in disgust, instead. Today, it feels as if what made the Flyers fun needs to be remembered…not just by the fans, but by the organization.
It isn’t necessarily all about winning. It isn’t even about fans who just want to see the Flyers of old. It’s about the expectation that, in lieu of a sales pitch and a somewhat disingenuous attempt to pull the wool over the fans eyes, the Flyers will always push to win.
You asked for patience and the fans, by and large, gave it to you. The organization has recovered and corrected many areas that needed corrected. The pipeline is full, the financials are healthy and the cap space is comfortably squirreled away for a rainy day, but the inexhaustible passion and fire of the fans has been leaned on for too long. It’s time to bring back fun. It’s time to bring back tactics, expectation, effort and accountability. It’s time to end this stagnant attempt to explain away things that need changed and change them for the better.
This city and its fans will never entirely abandon the Flyers. We’re all part of a relationship that neither side, truly, wants to dissolve, but the current version of this organization has relied on the fans unwavering support, much too long. It’s time to pay them back.