The ovations E received throughout the weekend - at the practice rink, before Saturday's game, between periods yesterday - achieved something many deemed impossible as recently as last year. Some thought he would never be welcomed back. Some thought he would never be welcomed back as long as Clarke or Ed Snider were involved. Well, he's back. Welcomed back, in fact, as Clarke made perfectly clear with his "part of the Flyers family" remark.
Who could imagine such a scene, the two of them happily standing aside an NHL Network reporter after Saturday's feel-good, as if an anvil had been lifted from each? We gained respect for both men, no?
And Bernie . . . It's one thing to say a 66-year-old legend is going to man the nets again. It's another to see it. Tell me his smiles, his joy, his oft-stated appreciation of us didn't choke you up? He kept calling it magical, but didn't he make it feel that way to you, too?
"My highlight," beamed Snider, "was Bernie."
The attendance for that alumni game - which gained a split with the Rangers for the weekend - was still talked about yesterday in incredulous terms.
"I was just telling someone that I feel like Juan Antonio Samaranch," said NHL chief operating officer John Collins, who kick-started the Classic 5 years ago. "Greatest games ever: He said that every time. But this whole weekend was fantastic. The Flyers' organization raised the Winter Classic bar to another level. From the 45,000 people for an alumni game to this game . . . "
Collins shook his head and smiled. There was a lot of that over the week. The spirit of collegiality between the Phillies and Flyers organizations was not feigned. Owned and operated locally, they perhaps represent the continued uniqueness of the city's sports personality. Peter Luukko, the Flyers' chief operating officer who lobbied the league for this, is a hockey guy from Worcester, Mass., who played in Friday's pickup game and whose son is a genuine pro prospect. Born and bred here, Phillies president Dave Montgomery harkened back to the days of the EHL Philadelphia Ramblers in his remarks.
"There's definitely a partnership there," Collins said. "In Boston it was definitely Fenway competing with the Bruins as to who was going to be in front for this or for that. The Phillies organization was great. Just gracious. You had two organizations that were owner operated. Sometimes when it's like that and the owner is involved you have that feeling like, 'Oh, you're making me work on my holiday.' But these two organizations really understood how good this could be for the region and the fans and they wanted it to be something that stood out."
It did. Right down to the bitter end, when Danny Briere skated in on the first-ever Winter Classic penalty shot. The Flyers had every opportunity to make this a perfect weekend, starting with their first lead against the Rangers this year to that final, unsuccessful penalty shot. This is not a perfect place, even if for most of the weekend it felt that way.
But Brayden Schenn, struggling with injuries and maybe a little confidence, scored a goal that in that setting could be more than a goal. Schenn is one of a slew of young bodies who will need to take a big bite by March if this team is to advance. In that regard, Sergei Bobrovsky's shaky third period is disturbing, particularly given how his rookie season ended. This was his chance to put the Flyers on his back, to spark something, maybe. Right now we have two goalies who gain and lose confidence too easily. Not a good postseason recipe.
But we are far from the postseason. And even though Braydon Coburn called yesterday's Classic "huge," it was not. The stage was huge. As the Flyers proved two seasons ago, this game was two points in a season with many ebbs and flows remaining, many more defining moments than this one.
The defining moment of this weekend was you, us, the city itself. With New York as our guest, with a national audience watching, we provided a weekend of heartfelt gestures and heartfelt moments.
That it ended in heartache?
Well, it is Philadelphia.
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