The news about Ron Hextall being fired on the morning of November 26, 2018 was a shock to everyone — most around Flyers fandom were expecting head coach Dave Hakstol to be the first casualty of the slow start. But, alas, it was in fact the General Manager that received his pink slip first. Last week the Flyers announced that Paul Holmgren was going to retire and take on an advisory role. Why am I putting both of these sentences in the same paragraph? Well, as the headline suggests, they are connected.
In the days between Ron Hextall’s dismissal and the catastrophe that was the firing of Dave Hakstol, there was a lot of information flying around. Quenneville was in. Quenneville was out. The players couldn’t eat pizza. Alumni weren’t allowed to use the locker room. Holmgren is retiring. Hextall was mean. Something something bias for action. There was more information leaked in those few weeks than there had been in years. No one knew which way was up, what was true, what was actual information, or what was really, truly happening within the organization.
While all of this was happening, a reliable source told me that Holmgren was planning to retire. I filed that away for later and didn’t act on it because HELLO THE WORLD WAS ON FIRE. Now, the pieces all fit together to form a complete picture that we didn’t have access to in the moment.
Paul Holmgren knew 2018-19 was going to be his last season as one of the major decision makers within the Philadelphia Flyers organization. He knew that he had a limited amount of time to set the front office up for the type of future both he and the late Ed Snider envisioned. So, if the events of late 2018 seemed rushed, it’s because they were. The team was off to another slow start, Hextall was refusing to make changes, and Holmgren was running out of time.
Let’s look at some quotes from both Holmgren and Hextall.
Hexy, in his time as general manager, has put this organization in a good spot, with the young players that are in place right now, with our farm system, our prospect cupboard is full, there’s some cap space, which is always a good thing. Having said that, I just felt, in the best interest of the organization, it was time to ... look for a new voice with a different mindset that can push the team to the next level. — Paul Holmgren
Ultimately, I got to the point, obviously talking with Dave and talking with Brian Roberts, I thought it was necessary to push our team forward, to have a different mindset in that chair. — Paul Holmgren
The difference between Ron and I, and we had a lot of debate ... I was an aggressive guy, Ron was more of a deep-thought-out [guy]. I think both approaches had good qualities, both approaches probably had bad qualities when you drill right down to it. But we’re here today to do what’s right in my mind, and in Dave’s mind, what’s right for the organization. — Paul Holmgren
The only thing Homer said is that yours and my vision aren’t the same. — Ron Hextall
Homer and I have known each other a long time. Yeah, philosophically, obviously there was a difference, he stated it the other day. I think we were both after the same thing, I guess maybe we’d both think we’d get there a different way. I don’t really know all of the philosophical differences. — Ron Hextall
Do you wonder about the timing of this — did something happen in the last week or so that brought everything to a head? No. — Ron Hextall
Do you wonder why now as opposed to next summer or last summer? Yeah, I do. — Ron Hextall
At the time, it seemed like both sides were being purposefully evasive. Vision, philosophy, mindset — all words someone would use to avoid answering a question directly. With the information we have now, we can look at these quotes with new eyes and realize, oh, they were telling the truth.
One of the main things Ed Snider prided himself on was running the Flyers like a family. Once you’re in, you’re in for life, sometimes to much chagrin from the fans. It’s one of the reasons Ron Hextall becoming GM of the Flyers was widely predicted while he was with the Los Angeles Kings; of course he was going to come home. Philadelphia was a place players and executives wanted to come. Between being consistently competitive and having a welcoming environment, why wouldn’t you want to be here? Fans loved being Flyers fans. Sometimes it was the Broad Street Bullies mentality that appealed to the masses, other times it was the confidence that the team was going to consistently make big moves to improve the team now, and for some it was the accessibility to the players themselves — Trial On The Isle has always been a fan-centric event that was unique to the Flyers.
Many of these things changed in the Hextall era, for better or for worse. Hextall wasn’t going to make a knee-jerk trade or free agent signing to make the team better today at the expense of the team two years from now. It was whispered in the stands during practices and training camp that players weren’t allowed to give fans sticks or pucks anymore, or interact with kids on the other side of the glass during drills. The format of Trial On The Isle changed, to one that was much less interactive. The on ice product was mediocre, and the tough team of the Bullies era was truly a thing of the past. At his own admission, Hextall didn’t allow alumni to use the Flyers locker room and limited guests to immediate family members. Again, not all of these changes were bad! Many were necessary for the long-term health of the franchise. But it was a diversion from everything that the team was built upon.
One of the requests Mr. Snider left for Paul Holmgren was to watch over the Flyers, make sure they remained the team he built and was so proud of — not just in an official capacity for the on ice product, but also overseeing the culture and environment. He felt he needed to make a change to leave the team in the hands of someone who Gets It, and that was not Ron Hextall. This never had anything to do with Dave Hakstol (though it should have), Holmgren and Hextall were truthful when they told us this. This had everything to do with rescuing the franchise from continuing down the path of losing itself.
With the benefit of hindsight, it was chaos, but it was all to right the ship and fulfill Mr. Snider’s wishes before he left. And it had to be quick.
- “look for a new voice with a different mindset that can push the team to the next level”
- “ thought it was necessary to push our team forward, to have a different mindset in that chair.”
- “we’re here today to do what’s right in my mind, and in Dave’s mind, what’s right for the organization”
It’s all right there. Hextall wouldn’t have seen it coming because there wasn’t anything in his performance that warranted a dismissal. It was all about culture.
Did it work? It’s too early to tell. But what we do know is that Holmgren felt comfortable enough with new GM Chuck Fletcher to make the move, even if he is staying on in an advisory capacity. We’ve already seen a flurry of activity around the team, which feels like a return to the norm. I think we can even point to the fact that this team has not one, not two, but three former NHL head coaches behind the bench leading into the 2019-20 season as another sign of a turnaround and a return to Flyers Hockey. Former Flyer Nick Schultz was hired as a player development coach, a return to the once-a-Flyer-always-a-Flyer mindset. The culture is creeping back to one we are more familiar with — hopefully not at the expense of the on-ice product, but only time will tell.