Saturday, May 06, 2006

There's always next year.

This past year I moved across the country, from the heart of Philadelphia Flyers nation (the city of Philadelphia and it's surrounding PA/NJ suburbs) to the sunny west coast of California. While this journey has been nothing short of amazing, with the change in time zones it has been nearly impossible for me to sit and watch a complete Flyers game. As someone who had spent 23 years living and breathing Philadelphia hockey, this year has been quite a shock to me. Throughout the season I tried to stay on top of all their acquisitions and standings but it's never quite the same as actually getting to watch the team perform night in and night out. So when the playoffs started, I was finally excited for the hockey season. With only 16 teams and only half of them playing each night the ability to see a Flyers game had arrived. Of course, what I found when I was finally able to see the team had me stunned.

When the lockout finally ended, the NHL decided new rules were in order to help open up the game, to help make the game more accessible and entertaining to the average fan. These rules included eliminating the two line pass, shrinking the size of the goaltenders pads, expanding the defensive zones/shrinking the neutral zone and adding a crazy trapezoid behind the goal. All of these rule changes meant that teams were going to have to move away from the bruising, slowed down, neutral zone trap game that had flourished in the 90's. No longer were teams going to be able to score one goal and then play dump and chase for the rest of the game effectively choking the other team to submission. Teams would have to sign younger, faster, and stronger skaters if they had any intention of competing in this league.

At the end of the lockout, the Flyers seemed in good shape; they had a core of young, talented and hard working forwards who could carry the team for the next 5 years. Once they added Peter Forsberg, Flyers fans around the country rejoiced. It seemed the Stanley Cup was within our grasp, for the first time since 1997, and a game hadn't even been played yet. In the previous playoffs, the Flyers were defeated in the Eastern Conference Finals by a much younger and faster Tampa Bay Lightning team. So when word got out that general manager Bob Clarke was looking to make changes to his defensive corps, it was not a big surprise. What was the solution from the brilliant mind of Bob Clarke?

Denis Gauthier, Mike Rathje and Derian Hatcher. Or as I like to call them slow, slower and rigor mortis.

The Flyers first round opponent for the 2006 playoffs was the Buffalo Sabres, a much younger and faster team, and suddenly Flyers fans were having deja vu. It's not possible they would make the same mistake twice in a row. Bob Clarke must know something, right? Apparently not. This is the new NHL and Bob Clarke didn't get the message. This is not to say the Flyers were completely man-handled during the series, in fact it took the Sabres six games to finally eliminate them, but had the Flyers focused on developing a younger, faster team they may have had a chance to go all the way.

There is a Flyers tradition, dating all the way back to December 11, 1969. Before important games during the season or playoffs, the Flyers play Kate Smiths' rendition of "God Bless America". Amazingly the Flyers are 69-18-3 when this is played. As a lifelong Flyers fan, who for the first time is away from his family and friends, it would have been nice to hear it played on national TV, as the Flyers prepared to take the ice in the Stanley Cup finals. I guess there is always next year.

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