[pullquote quote="“To the purists, (the Flyers) represented everything evil about the game. They were a disgrace.”" credit="author Frank Orr in the documentary, Broad Street Bullies"]
By Anthony L. Gargano
PHILADELPHIA _ Way down on the ice, the second game of the NHL’s Eastern Conference Finals series had reached an arc of resolution midway through the third period on a goal by a well-traveled Finnish Flyer by the name of Ville, and so the balding Bully in the balcony slapped the man next to him hard on the back, the way old teammates do. He grinned, this wide, expanding grin, revealing the whitest, cleanest front porcelain you’d ever seen – veneers, man! – and suggested that maybe he ought to call HBO back.
“Their story might be better than ours,” he boomed.
They cheered wildly, meanwhile, in the rest of the stands in the relatively new building, walking distance due south on Broad Street from the damned old one, the Spectrum, days now from being erased from the landscape. The fans here all wear orange, a menacing color as a backdrop, making the Wachovia Center look like a prison yard and furthering that delicious, villainous Flyer folklore still very much alive.
Throughout the balcony seating area, just about eye-level with the banners that drape from the rafters and commemorate the accomplishments of this franchise of North American antiheroes, you can always spot many of the old Bullies responsible for the Flyers’ only two Stanley Cups, the second one 35 years ago this spring. And way down on the ice, you’ll find their kin incredibly still playing, just one win away from the finals.
Entering this series between bottom seeders, the question arose as to the side of destiny. The Montreal Canadien coterie had pompously proclaimed with a wagging finger that all better hail the Habs after stupefying comeback series wins over mighty Ovechkin and Washington and mightier Crosby and Pittsburgh. What an enjoyable role reversal, they cooed, to play the last team in (the playoffs), a very much different path to the Cup than all of those other appearances, when they were just far superior to everyone else, and painted regal rouge.
The Canadiens have forever been the game’s archangel, Gainey’s Guardians, dating back to when Bob played with Guy and Yvan and Pete, and they ended the Flyers’ string of Stanley Cups in 1976, effectively slaying the Visigoths and ringing the bell for President Clarence, who might as well have curtsied before them.
Yes, the Canadiens always play the protagonist.
And yes, the Flyers always play the oppugnant.
[pullquote quote="“That’s the way it’s always been for the Orange and Black. Nothing’s changed. We’re the bad guys.”" credit="forward Simon Gagne, 2009-10 Flyers"]
Even now, years removed from the lawlessness of the Goon Age, the Bullies now gray and goosed, long retired before most of the players today were born, the Flyers represent the league’s bile child. In this series, with the evolution of the game having canned now most of the spilled blood, they are to no surprise grittier than the Canadiens, bigger, stronger, tougher in the corners and tougher in front of the net.
And a better hockey story.
A hockey story, quite possibly, for the ice ages.
The Philadelphia Flyers have reached the shadows of Lord Stanley the same spring in which an acclaimed HBO documentary Broad Street Bullies recounts the franchise’s controversial ascent from expansion team to one of the league’s elite. Like everyone else in this town, the current Flyers saw it. Coach Peter Laviolette made it a point to show his team, just one of his many little tools to instill togetherness during the NHL’s prohibitive second season.
Since the film first aired on May 4, coincidentally, the Flyers have gone 7-2, joined the ’75 Islanders and the ’42 Maple Leafs as the only teams to come back from a 3-0 series deficit against Boston, seen their goalie (Brian Boucher) go down with two sprained knees on the same play, seen their other goalie (Michael Leighton) come back from a badly-sprained ankle and pitch, oh, four shutouts (three in this series versus Montreal), seen their veteran forward (Simon Gagne) return miraculously early from a broken big right toe and score the game-winner in overtime in elimination Game 4 against the Bruins, seen their heart and soul player (Ian Lappierre) return from a brain injury and seen a casting call of different heroes.
This Flyers’ run has been a complete sneak attack, an improbable journey of life imitating art chronicling life.
The fact that they’re here now is not all that a shocker, since the Hockey News icked the Flyers to win the Cup in its preseason edition. But the line from there to here resembles the walk of a bar crawler after too many pints.
Let’s travel back for a moment.
Lofty expectations, buoyed by the offseason signing of elite defenseman Chris Pronger, died quickly. Mike Richards, the captain, who had drawn early comparisons to legendary Flyer Bobby Clarke, struggled out of the gate, especially finding his voice. Still young, and two years into literally a career contract, a staggering 12 years in length, worth an NHL fortune $69 million, Richards seemingly pressed to justify that he was a different sort of player than the big stars in the division, Ovechkin and Crosby. While he didn’t possess their golden stick, he had all-around skill-sets, and Flyer kind of will.
The room, meanwhile, didn’t know how to take the captain by resume, Pronger, a veteran who never did mince words, especially when it came to approaching the game, young man.
Dedication, he’d howl. Have to be dedicated to win in this league.
The other necessary ingredient, the goalie, was mechanical and stiff in net, and off the ice trying real not to screw up this second chance. A colorful figure, lover of fast cars, designer clothes and a Louis Vuitton manbag, that goalie was not Leighton or Boucher.
Feels like another life that Ray Emery, the man with the volatile past, banished literally to Siberia after taking Ottawa to a Cup final, even played for the Flyers. He never really had the chance for reform, suffering a bum hip that lingered, ultimately ending his season after just 29 games.
The Flyers were irrelevant by the holidays, buried in the standings, sinking as low as 14th place in the Eastern Conference, resulting in the dismissal of coach John Stevens.
“To be honest,” Pronger said, “there were times during the year where I wondered if we would give up. But we never did.”
Under Peter Laviolette, a serious sort who won it all smile-free in Carolina, the team enjoyed momentarily bounces before and after the Olympic break. The Flyers hovered around the edge of the conference playoff scene for the final two months of the season, but didn’t secure their No. 7 seed until the last shot of the season.
The Flyers and Rangers, the old Patrick Division rivals, played a home and home for a final playoff spot and went to a shootout on that season finale Sunday in Philadelphia. Boucher (as in Boo-shay), a journeyman goalie who enjoyed a brief Dominik Hasek moment 10 years ago for the Flyers during a run to the conference finals, denied Olli Jokinen to win the game.
And so the Flyers, without much fanfare, began the playoffs against aging Marty Brodeur and the crumbling Jersey empire. And the fact that the Flyers won the series in five seemed more result of a favorable matchup that played out in the regular season. Boucher played extremely well, blanking the Devils in the elimination game, but a pall came that game in the form of a wicked slap shot to the face.
Figures, Ian Laperriere would slide with reckless abandon at the end of a New Jersey power play. He’s a whatever for the team guy, the Montreal-born Lappy, which is why he’s 36 and still playing, and his face sort of falls together, resembling the inside of a pot pie. He’s a typical Flyer heart guy, who didn’t learn from blocking that Sabres power play shot with his mouth in November, costing him 70 stitches and seven teeth, five real, two fake. This time, he took a puck in the eye, and it busted his orbital bone.
“If it was just orbital bone, I would have played against Boston,” he said. “The brain contusion. I don’t really want to mess with that. I’d like to be around for my kids, you know?”
He said that almost apologetically, and Lappy’s loss appeared devastating, especially when coupled with that of valuable scorer Jeff Carter, who broke his right foot in Game 4 after taking a Pronger blast off the skate. Another core offensive player, Gagne, had already been out with that fractured toe, suffered too, while blocking a shot. And so the victory over the Devils lost major sizzle there and lost whatever it had left during the week’s wait between series.
So Game 4 of their conference semifinal series against the Bruins was the pride game for the Flyers, down 3-0, looking to protect their home from being the dateline for a sweep. They were in overtime, a sleepy one by NHL playoff overtime standards, because only the number of games of a Boston win seemed hanging in the balance. Laviolette told his players to forget about the macro view. Push away that sort of thought, and welcome the game. Just give him a shift and left the shifts mount up to a game, and Gagne rushed back to play. Because after all, it was only a matter of shifts that mount up to one game, and he found himself alone by the right post nearly 15 minutes into sudden death and deflected a Matt Carle shot past the dynamic Tuukka Rask.
“I just wanted to get back to be an extra guy,” Gagne said.
Back up in Boston, a town where the Flyers won their first Cup, Boucher felt both his knees give out after a collision with his teammate Ryan Parent early in the second period with his team up 1-0. Not now, he screamed through the pain, as he was being helped off the ice.
In came Leighton, who had played well for a seven-team castoff during the regular season, until, he too, went down with a severely-sprained ankle on March 16. Leighton had never played a postseason game before, and he can remember looking up at the scoreboard, and “thinking, ‘Oh, man, I can’t let our team down. I felt my knees knock a little bit. I figured at the point just get me a shot quick and I’ll be OK.”
Leighton took one point blank and made the save. The Flyers collapsed well in front of their goalie, especially the Core Four on defense – Pronger, Carle, Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn – and won it 4-0, as the crowd at the TD Garden booed their Bruins off the ice. See, that was the game to end this thing, already. A trip back down to rowdy Philadelphia was not good.
The Bruins tightened toward a Game 7, and all that 1979 talk, and everyone chimed in after the Flyers won Game 6, 2-1, behind this character Leighton. Some said it would be payback for the Red Sox overcoming that 3-0 deficit to the Yankees, that of course, Sports Boston, sold its soul, and the greatest comeback in the history of playoff series play had to have an evil companion in an orderly universe.
Wen Milan Lucic beat Leighton with a wrister to the glove side to give the Bruins a 3-0 lead in the first period of Game 7, the Boston turtleneck melted into a tank top, and Laviolette called for a timeout.
“But he wasn’t pissed,” Gagne said. “He was very calm. You know, most coaches wouldn’t call a timeout there. Most would want to keep it for the end of the game. He said listen, `It’s only a hockey game. Just go out and have fun. Just get me one before the end of the period. Just put some doubt in their minds.’”
“It was a chance to gather your thoughts and calm everything down, collect our thoughts, go out and play that last six minutes hard and hope to get a goal,” Pronger said.
And Laviolette softened further with his goalie, shellshocked for the first time in the postseason.
The coach new Leighton from Carolina, where he was the backup goalie.
Laviolette told him, “Just forget everything that’s happened. Right now, just think it’s zero-zero, and now we need you.”
Just give me one before the end of the period, the coach said his team. He held up one finger. Just one.
The Flyers answered his plea with a trickler past Rask. They added a power play goal early in the second, and then another, and suddenly the air left the arena.
“Here’s the mindset,” said former great Jeremy Roenick, who played for three of the final four teams – Chicago, San Jose and Philadelphia. “With each one you get, they’re going to pucker up. Their asses are gonna get tight. That’s how we talk in the locker room. When doubt enters their mind, you’ll have a chance. The Flyers put doubt in the Bruins’ minds, and you know the rest.”
You should really meet about now the unlikely hero of the antiheroes, a bearded journeyman who arrived back in Philadelphia last December shielding his eyes from the future. If he knew how bleak his prospects, he might finally relent and walk away, please, mercifully.
Michael Leighton does not rhyme with Michael Creighton.
Leighton rhymes with waitin’, which is really the point of his mostly minor league career. Hang in, hope, find a job, hope some more. He’s been all over the earth, beginning in his hometown of Petrolia, Ontario, and then to Windsor, Norfolk, Chicago, back to Norfolk, Rochester, Portland, Nashville, Philadelphia, Albany, Carolina, Russia, and back to Philadelphia.
Before the Flyers signed him from the salt mines, Leighton hadn’t played more than 19 games in the NHL since 2003-04, when he went 6-18-8 for the Blackhawks and they released him after the lockout.
“That was the low point,” he said.
And now he’s the darling of the playoffs, becoming only the 13th NHL goalie to record three shutouts in one series, the first since Toronto’s Ed Belfour and Tampa’s Nikolai Khabibulin did it in the first round of the 2004 playoffs.
Leighton didn’t allow a goal the first two games of this series, stopping all 58 shots he faced in the Flyers’ 6-0 and 3-0 win. But in Game 3, the Canadiens torched him for five goals on 38 shots. They weren’t all his fault, his defense failing him with several turnovers, including a couple unthinkables by the great Pronger, creating point blank opportunities.
And led by Pronger, the Flyers paid back their goalie in Game 4. The Canadiens had only eight shots in the first two periods, including just one in the second. Sans a Montreal flurry late in the game, Leighton breezed to his third shutout, something even Hall of Famer Bernie Parent never accomplished.
Back during back to back Flyers championship, an orange bumper sticker made the rounds in Philadelphia, “ONLY THE LORD SAVES MORE THAN BERNIE.”
“Know when I knew he got it?” remarked the Parent in his thick French accent. “When I heard him during the Bruins series answer a question about his style. He said, `When I was a kid, I used to depend on my reflexes. Now I depend on understanding the game.’ People see him square to the shot. That doesn’t happen by luck. That’s by knowing the game. Watch him. You won’t see him swimming all over the place.”
The goalie guru, Jeff Reese, the Flyers’ assistant coach, said it’s not uncommon for goalies to develop in their late 20s, citing Tim Thomas and that he needed tweak his style just bit. Because Leighton is big, he moved him back into the net, where he could then flow more easily side to side, and gain better position.
“A lot of goalies say they go out there and try not to think too much where I actually do,” he said. “I consider myself a thinker. At least when I’m on the ice.”
Game night at the Wachovia Center feels like a reunion for the Flyers alumni, or perhaps just another night of work, especially for the ex-Flyer goons. Former Flyer tough guy, post-Bullies era, Paul Holmgren, is the GM, and legendary fighter Dave Brown, works as the personnel director. Craig Berube – who gave both a run in penalty minutes – is an assistant to Peter Laviolette.
Chairman Ed Snider’s cherished Cup guys, the guys from the documentary with the hacked-up faces, wander about in different capacities.
There’s Bob Clarke, a former two-time President and GM of the club.
And there’s his former linemate, Billy Barber, also a former Flyer coach.
And there’s Bob Kelly, Gary Dornhoeffer, and Parent, a lovable character who lives on a boat at the Jersey Shore.
The specter of the past has always been alive with this team, just like their reputation.
“I’ve been here for 10 years now and it’s the same thing every year,” Simon Gagne said. “We’re the bad guys. We’re a dirty team. Teams are scared to come into our building. That’s way it is. OK, we’ll take that reputation and bring it to reality and hope teams are more scared coming into our building.”
“Honestly, I don’t think we’re that dirty,” he said.
“The amount of skill with both teams often gets overlooked,” Clarke said. “Too often because of what went on with us — the Bullies’ stuff — the talent that has been there for the Flyers for years after, up until today, never gets the credit it deserved. When people think Flyers, they think of big and tough and mean and a team that is going to abuse you.”
The game plays so vastly different, is Clarke’s point.
“But,” says analyst and former Flyer Bill Clement, “the core values of the team has been kept alive. From that standpoint, the organization has never changed. You can’t fight as much as you used to – but Pronger is nasty. Mike Richards will finish you. That’s ingrained in all of them”
The physicality, yes, yes, marks the similarity, especially in the corner, a reason why the Flyers lead this conference finals series with the Canadiens.
Pronger could have played for the Bullies, Clarke is told.
“Might have been the best,” he smiled. “I always thought Mark Howe was the best defenseman in the history of this team. Until now. (Pronger) can do everything out there — and he’s mean.”
Prior to Game 1, the Flyers passed out T-shirts with the motto: Relentless in the pursuit of history.
The critics whined, there they go again. Everything with this team has to do with beating someone up.
“We’re going to oppose our will,” said sniper Danny Briere. “We’re going to crash and bang and we’re down the other team and create chances. That’s how we play.”
On the big screen during Game 2, the infamous pregame playoff brawl between the Flyers and Canadiens played to a thunderous applause.
The crowd then began to mock the Canadien chant of “Ole” – and way up in the balcony, a Montreal player who had been scratched from the game shook his head.
“True assholes,” he said. “Just like their team.”
Somewhere in that balcony, a Bully grinned with pride.