Holmgren is the Last Keeper of the Flyers' Culture
Ron Hextall bafflement at losing, without warning or explanation, a job he believed to be performing well makes these days that much more empty for him, even with the almost universal reviews that he left the Flyers in a better place than when he became their general manager. Chuck Fletcher, lauding Hextall’s work in a conference call with reporters Monday night after being named the replacement, walked into a dream scenario of talent, prospects, and cap room, with every chance to succeed and reasonably soon.
Hextall’s belief in the job he did, bolstered this week by supportive emails and calls from hockey persons–one of whom will bring him back into the business when he is ready and there is the right opening–both reassures and bewilders him at the same time. Where did he go wrong?
He needs time to reflect on how a succession of little things added up to big things, how perception can be reality, how communication is almost everything, how the games to be played within an organization extend beyond the one being played on ice below him. And it’s not just ironic, but terribly sad, that the guy who may have the best personal story of redemption with which to cheer Hextall in these dark days is the same one who let him go.
Paul Holmgren, who had given body and soul to the Flyers on right wing for eight seasons, found out on the car radio that he and his broken down shoulder had been traded by Coach-GM Bob McCammon to the North Stars. Brought back two years later by Bob Clarke as an assistant coach, Holmgren was promoted to the head job upon the firing of Mike Keenan, then, when Clarke was let go by Jay Snider, lost any base of support. At the decision of new GM Russ Farwell, Holmgren inevitably was fired a year-and-change later.
All tales never have been completely told about the palace intrigue in Hartford, where Holmgren landed as coach and then briefly as GM before being let go. Clarke returned to Philly and hired back Holmgren as Director of Pro Scouting, and then eventually promoted him to assistant general manager. After Clarke suddenly resigned early in the 2006-7 season, few interim titles ever have seemed more temporary than when Holmgren was told by Ed Snider, through Peter Luukko, that he was not a candidate for the job because he was “too much like Clarkie,” whatever that meant.
Only because Colin Campbell turned down the job was Holmgren given a short leash to pick through the ashes of what suddenly became the league’s worst team. In miserably-tenuous days for him, he nevertheless went to work, and his start towards the rebuild that season was so good that he won first Snider over, and then free agents Kimmo Timonen, Danny Briere and Scott Hartnell too. The Flyers went from 30th in the league to the semifinals in one year, then to within two wins of the Cup two years later.
Holmgren did it with cap room blessedly left to him by Clarke or opened by himself by the end of 2006-07. Also by taking risks, like trading for the rights of Timonen and Hartnell to get an early window to talk them into signing on with the league’s worst team. Snider dressed Holmgren down for throwing in an extra No. 1 to Anaheim when it was that or lose Chris Pronger. In tears, Holmgren traded the troubled Mike Richards and also Jeff Carter, suddenly, shockingly, changing the team’s base in favor of talent on the uptick–Sean Couturier, Jake Voracek, Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds.
There were clunker Holmgren deals like James van Riemsdyk-for-Luke Schenn and a poor signing like Vinnie Lecavalier, but whether building–like exchanging Richards and Carter while in their prime years for a younger haul–or going for it with Pronger, Holmgren never was afraid, including the day he kicked himself upstairs so as not to risk losing a potential front office star like Hextall to another organization. For better or worse–and once upon a time in Philadelphia there were “Fire Holmgren” chants like there were ”Fire Clarke” chants and “Keith Allen is Benedict Arnold” banners¬–going for it is in the organization’s, and Philadelphia’s, DNA.
The Flyers built the Stanley Cup winner by thinking young, true, but they actually blew three No. 1 picks in their early years. What put the team over the top was an incredibly gutsy trade by Allen of their second best asset–Bernie Parent–to get a so-far floundering Bruin No. 1 pick named Rick MacLeish. Allen then took the chance on bringing back Parent–who had walked out on his WHA team during the playoffs on advice of his agent when it ran out of money. And after the Flyers won in years seven and eight, they never stopped trying to do it again ASAP.
They reluctantly put an outstanding prospect, Peter Forsberg into hockey’s biggest deal ever for its presumed next great star, Eric Lindros, and then as Lindros has gratefully noted, took runs at every big name that became available; failing some times (Chris Chelios, Ray Bourque) succeeding others (Darryl Sittler, Forsberg, Jaromir Jagr).
In offering his seat to Hextall in 2014 to become team president, Holmgren read the tealeaves. Snider, four decades waiting for Cup Three, concluded that the Flyers had been chasing their tails. But Holmgren also understood that it was time to leave the fields fallow for a few years, get the cap under control, and start dealing for some draft choices instead of using them as trade currency.
“We can’t keep doing this,” Holmgren said in 2011. And a week later came the Carter trade that brought back young Jake Voracek and a No. 1 pick-Sean Couturier. Hextall, who grew up in the Kings organization that had successfully waited for the right time to trade for Richards, and then Carter, was given free reign to take it slow and sure.
But having said last spring, at the conclusion of a fifth straight Flyer year of not getting out of the first round, that it was “time to push,” push came to shove Hextall out the door. When in a remarkably detailed and gracious post-firing talk with reporters Friday, Hextall defended what he did– and didn’t do–over the summer, it was interesting that he said the Flyers were not yet at the level of Tampa Bay and Nashville, not quite time in his mind to go for it.
So his story changed a little. But it’s never about what they say, always about that they do, and by no means was Hextall sitting on his hands. He brought back James van Riemsdyk, made a max offer for John Tavares, took a run at Paul Stastny, in fact, tried so much that Hextall is now understandably incredulous at the perception he was cautious to a fault.
But there was a confrontation over the summer that caused communication with Holmgren, once Hextall’s biggest supporter, to die. And Hextall’s intractability, perceived and real, joined festering sores like the treatment of scouts and alums and alleged tensions with other segments of the brand to build a case for tyrannical rule and dysfunction. Largely unapologetic about “running a tight ship” and “looking for that one per cent” edge in the player’s diets and other things, Hextall lost sight of a bigger picture beyond the one of getting the Flyers back into true contention. In other words, he lost touch with Holmgren.
In a lot of little ways that added up, Hextall, an ultimate Flyer on the ice like Holmgren, failed to heed the organizational culture, losing the support of the ultimate survivor of that culture –Holmgren. The team that always had worn its heart on its sleeve had done things to misplace it. Too many people in important positions were unhappy and Holmgren became their go-to guy, whose job was to investigate their complaints.
Everybody at the Wells Fargo Center respects Holmgren, starting with Dave Scott, a boss who didn’t grow up in Philadelphia or with hockey. While certainly approachable, he believes both in a chain of command and in his team president’s judgment. Scott wants Holmgren to be the face of the franchise. It’s more than that. With Snider gone, Paul also has become its conscience.
This time he wants a GM with a track record of assembling a trusted team of advisors, of not sweating the small stuff, of going for it at the appropriate time, just like Fletcher did in Minnesota with long-term commitments to Ryan Suter and Zach Parise. In a killer division led by three Cups in six years by Chicago, by a now dominant team in Nashville, there was no long playoff run by the Wild under Fletcher to pump up instant support for his hiring in a restless Flyer fan base. But the hockey world thinks a lot of him and he is in the best of positions to succeed.
Despite all the things the Flyers have done to Holmgren, all the times they left him twisting in the wind, it killed the ultimate Flyer to have to fire another franchise icon whom he had championed–Hextall. But he did, just like he let go two previous coaches, Peter Laviolette and John Stevens, of which he was fond because he just didn’t see things getting better by staying patient with either.
Be assured that Holmgren, fearlessly as always, did what he thought was best for the franchise, not himself. With Snider gone and Clarke only an occasional visitor, Holmgren is the Flyers' heart. Hextall didn’t realize that in so many ways he was cutting it out.