Flyers' culture needs to start anew

Posted: October 09, 2013

Ed Snider's eyes flashed that familiar glare of defiance and disbelief Monday morning. He was incredulous that someone would dare suggest his precious hockey franchise might need a fresh perspective on how to win a championship.

There hasn't been a Stanley Cup parade in this city since 1975, and here was one more news conference to announce that the Flyers had fired another head coach, one more name from the past reintroduced in the present, one more sign that the organization is simply spinning its wheels.

So Peter Laviolette is out as head coach. Craig Berube - an assistant under Laviolette, an enforcer who was a Flyer for seven of his 17 seasons as an NHL player, a man as steeped in the team's traditions and philosophies as anyone - is in.

And if the previous 38 years weren't proof that the Flyers needed to throw open the windows and let a cleansing breeze blow through the Wells Fargo Center, Snider's flushed face and rising anger perhaps were. He made it clear that nothing's likely to change anytime soon.

"We don't need a fresh perspective," he said.

Rest assured, those words earned instantaneous enshrinement in the Philadelphia Sports Sound Bite Hall of Infamy, on a plaque between Ricky Watters' "For who? For what?" and Allen Iverson's "We're talkin' 'bout practice."

To Snider, the Flyers' chairman, the notion that his franchise has been doing something wrong all this time was just too wild to contemplate, and he was left citing the Flyers' long list of what-ifs and should-have-beens as justification for the promises that people here have heard again and again.

"We've been in the Stanley Cup Finals a lot of times, and we've been in the playoffs a lot of times, and the culture is to win," Snider said. "Thirty teams are trying to win the Cup, and we're doing our damnedest to do it."

It was the truest thing Snider said, but he still couldn't see, even within his own words, the contradiction that cuts to the core of the organization's problem. The Flyers aren't special because they try to win every year. Every team tries to win every year. But not every team regards a season without a playoff appearance - or even a three-game losing streak - as a reason for upheaval.

The Flyers' lack of patience, their unwillingness to consider a longer view or embrace an innovation before it's already become old hat, their reliance on the tired cliché of "Flyers hockey" - together, those factors have created a vicious cycle that has kept them from achieving their ultimate goal.

The foundations of their franchise, as Berube said, are "character, hard work, competitiveness" - intangibles that are meaningless without the necessary talent or tactics. They pat themselves on the back, as Snider did Monday, for doing whatever it takes, for acting immediately in the name of chasing championships. Still, they apparently never stop to wonder whether that very approach contributes to their failure to win another Cup.

"Many teams are criticized for not having an identity," Flyers president Peter Luukko said. "Right, wrong, or indifferent, we have an identity."

Sometimes, though, an identity can be a franchise's worst enemy. Consider the Chicago Blackhawks. They went through a dormant decade, missing the postseason nine times in 10 years and falling into irrelevancy.

But in an interview with me earlier this year, Blackhawks president John McDonough and general manager Stan Bowman acknowledged that the hidden benefit of all that losing was that it allowed the franchise to restart with a clean slate. There was no tradition to uphold anymore. The Blackhawks weren't beholden to their own history. They could remake themselves however they chose, and all they've done since is win two of the last four Stanley Cups.

"So should we try to come in last?" Flyers GM Paul Holmgren asked.

No, but a new approach is overdue and has been for a while. The Flyers point out that they've often hired coaches with no ties to the organization - Mike Keenan, Roger Neilson, Laviolette and others. They offer these examples as evidence that they value diversity of opinion, and as Holmgren said Monday, "Who's to say Craig Berube's ideas aren't fresh enough to lead us to the promised land?"

But based on Snider's description of the process behind Laviolette's firing, none of those coaches has had the necessary power to take the Flyers in a different direction.

The decision to fire Laviolette, according to Snider, was Holmgren's and Holmgren's alone, and there's no reason to think what happened Monday was unlike what's been happening for years.

"If I tell the GM he can't do what he wants to do, obviously I have no confidence in the general manager," Snider said. "Approving is usually a rubber stamp."

When people speak of the Flyers' insular culture, that's what they're talking about. They're talking about the people at the top: Snider, Luukko, and the team's two general managers since 1994 - Bob Clarke and Holmgren, both of whom as players and later as executives have embodied the organization's ethos.

They're talking about the image of Craig Berube sitting on that dais Monday, another old Flyer who's supposed to make everything different for this franchise, when everything feels exactly the same.


msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski

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