Rich Hofmann: Laviolette, all you expected and more

Posted: January 03, 2012

THE FINAL electronic undressing of Flyers coach Peter Laviolette occurred in the hallway outside the home manager's office in Citizens Bank Park. One HBO technician began removing some kind of transmitter gizmo from its designated hiding place, presumably on Laviolette's belt. Then another guy came for the microphone, tangled a little in his clothing, that had recorded the coach's every word - three letters, four letters, more letters.

Laviolette shared a laugh with them, then made sure to shake the hand of one of the camera guys lurking there outside of the rooms that Phillies manager Charlie Manuel and his coaches usually inhabit. Someone else from HBO came by; another laugh, another handshake.

Then it was over. And as Laviolette had said, minutes earlier, "Yeah, we're all ready to say goodbye to HBO."

The NHL Winter Classic had just ended, with the Flyers losing to the Rangers by a 3-2 score. It was a day when the spectacle was the thing, and everyone knew it - 46,967 people in the ballpark, orange dominating a place normally swathed in red, snow flurries falling lazily near the end of the second period and completing the picture. It was a day bigger than two points.

But it is even more than a day. It is several weeks of living with HBO embedded in their business as part of the buildup to the game, filming "24/7" and giving everyone a chance to see things and hear things and learn something about people that you might not have already known.

But here is the thing. As the Flyers embark now on the unofficial second half of their 2011-12 season, experiencing a lot of the same hopes and a lot of the same nagging concerns that a dozen Stanley Cup contenders are currently experiencing, this is what we learned about Laviolette:

That he is pretty much what we thought he would be all along.

That is: loud, funny, passionate, encouraging and critical. Also: exasperated, profane, animated, optimistic, disappointed, reflective and hypercompetitive - and sometimes all of those things in the space of about 5 minutes.

We didn't need HBO to understand that. The only surprise, if there has been one, is that he was able to make all of the video intrusions look as comfortable as he did.

"Having the cameras around, doing the shows for the last month, is very different from what is normal in the hockey world," Laviolette said. "Saying that, HBO did a tremendous job handling themselves with class and in terms of respect to our organization and what we needed to do. I think the product speak for itself."

It does and this coach does. All you need to know about the guy is that he started Sergei Bobrovsky yesterday in goal instead of Ilya Bryzgalov. That it didn't work - Bobrovsky let in a bad second goal against the Rangers, and it really seemed to turn the game on its head - is beside the point.

The very fact that this coach was willing to put aside the chance that he was hurting the pride of the newly signed goaltender with the humongous, big contract and go with the backup in the most-watched game of the regular season tells you more than a dozen between-periods speeches in the locker room might reveal.

After spinning the wheel of goaltending too many times in recent years - and especially too many times last spring - the Flyers changed their approach and spent big money on Bryzgalov, modifying their long-held notion that it was the team in front of the goalie that mattered the most. There still is no question that Bryzgalov is their guy and will be their guy when it matters. At the same time, he has been off-and-on so far, and his personality is, well, unique, and if it wasn't obvious at the beginning, it is quite plain now that this is going to be a process, and not necessarily a smooth process.

The easy move would have been to start Bryzgalov, despite his recent struggles (and apparent loss of confidence, if you listen to his bizarre-ish public comments). Big game, big contract - again, easy. For Laviolette to have gone the other way spoke to a lot of things: the importance of the points at stake, and a recognition that it really was a game and not just a television show, and the thought that this was going to be a process with Bryzgalov, and maybe also the idea that it cannot be all about one player to the exclusion of the other 19.

Laviolette might tell you all of those things or none of those things, and all in the space of 5 minutes. Or he might not, now that the microphone and the transmitter and the camera are gone.

On the one hand, you really don't need the words because you already knew that this guy is going to do what he thinks is the right thing, even if it isn't the easy thing.

On the other hand, you really do hope that, for the final episode on Thursday night, HBO had access to the meeting when all of this went down.

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