If the NHL had an award for most unsung supporting actor, the Flyers would have many worthy nominees. This season has featured the maturation of Claude Giroux, the discovery of Michael Leighton, and the unreal grit of Ian Laperriere. Did I mention Paul Holmgren’s acquisition of Ville Leino, the wonderful play of Matt Carle, and the re-emergence of Braydon Coburn? There are others that are contributing in a healthy way to this magical ride somewhat under the radar of Coach Peter Laviolette, Mike RiChards, and Chris Pronger.
While all of the above are worthy nominees, none of them would win the award.
The man who would has a last name that is very well known in Philadelphia sports. There is the legendary Merrill Reese, WIP’S own Ike Reese, and my colleague at CBS-3 TV, Beasley Reece.
Unless you spend a great deal of your passion getting Flyered up, you might still have no idea of the man I am talking about. That is why they invented the word ‘unsung’.
He is not a player, though he was and to boot was born in the same town, Brantford, Ontario, as Wayne Gretzky and WIP’s own Keith Jones. He was selected two picks in front of baseball’s Tom Glavine in the fourth round of the 1984 NHL draft. You probably have never seen him on TV, but you sure have seen his labor bear fruit.
His name is Jeff Reese.
Jeff Reese, no relation to Merrill, Ike, or Beasley, but very related to the success of the Orange Clutch, is the Flyers’ goaltending coach. He was with Tampa Bay for eight seasons, and when Paul Holmgren hired him for the 2009-10 season, no one could have imagined what lay ahead.
Most assistant coaches in sports have to be psychologists in addition to their mastery of x’s and o’s, but when your responsibilities involve goalies, quarterbacks, or pitchers, you almost have to be Dr. Phil.
The brilliant athletes that play these positions live at times on the tightrope between confidence and calamity. They get most of the credit, and most of the blame, most of the time. A goaltender can look like Patrick Roy one night, and Siegfried and Roy the next. Of course, some are more emotionally stable than others, but you get the point.
Jeff, meet Ray Emery. Exiled from the NHL to Russia, if goaltenders were train tracks, Emery would be the third rail. Reese had to help Emery technically, harness his mood swings, and massage his confidence at one time. He had to do this not in Nashville or Dallas, but in the hockey hotbed we call Philadelphia.
Most would agree that Emery was playing well when healthy, and that Reese was a large part of this equation. Jeff got the Dr. Jekyll out of Ray, while helping to Hyde the dark side. How much was Ray, and how much was Jeff? I have no idea, but I know that it takes two to tango.
When Emery went down, in stepped Brian Boucher, who did a creditable job as well. But then Boosh got hurt, and the Flyers were in a bind. Hello, Michael Leighton.
Sometimes all a player needs is a chance, and sometimes that chance will confirm that player as a journeyman. On rare occasions, a diamond in the rough will gleam before our very eyes. The skills have to be there, and it is up to the coach to know what to keep, and what to discard or change. As Leighton’s game began to take shape, one could not help notice the sharp improvement in his technical skills. Square to the shooter, a different net position, and supreme confidence.
Then, of course, after going 16-5, Leighton went down as well. The Flyers were in trouble, and needed a jolt of confidence in the net to help them reach the quest for Lord Stanley’s holy grail. Boosh came up big when he had to, especially in that memorable shootout victory over the Rangers, and into the playoffs they went.
There is a saying that in the playoffs a team’s best player must be its goaltender. Notice goaltender, not goaltenders. What Brian Boucher did against New Jersey was fantastic. When he went down in game 5 at Boston, and Michael Leighton came back to the bench that very night, who knew what was to come. Remember, this was an elimination game, and Leighton had zero playoff experience. Jeff Reese had to have him ready mentally and physically and immediately at that. Who knew he would enter the 100 meter sprint midway and finish like Usain Bolt?
We all know how Leighton has played. Can he be a Conn Smythe winner playing half of the playoffs? Maybe, maybe not. Chris Pronger has been magnificent, Mike RiChards has led with majesty, and the finals have yet to take place.
Of one thing, I am positive. The Flyers have had the strangest goaltending situation of any team I can remember in my lifetime playing for a cup. One thing, however, is a constant.