Saturday April 16th, 2016

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — When the Philadelphia Flyers visited their beloved owner for the last time before he died, they tried—and failed—to spot Oprah’s mansion next door. “There’s no looking through the hedges there,” forward Wayne Simmonds said. “There’s probably, like, five square miles of bush.” Not that visiting Ed Snider’s pristine property offered some lesser prize. The pool, wine cellar, tennis courts, and yawning views of mountains and the Pacific Ocean all spoke for themselves. “Everyone was in shock and awe,” forward Brayden Schenn said, though no one carried more enthusiasm than the host.

It was New Years’ Eve in Montecito, Calif., not far from where the Flyers had flown into Santa Barbara and practiced at Ice in Paradise, the rink complex that Snider helped finance. They arrived in sixth place in the Metropolitan Division, five points behind a playoff spot with three losses in their past four games. But that afternoon was not about hockey.

Flyers owner Ed Snider dies at 83

Over the next several hours, before bussing back to the team hotel and finishing their three-game road trip the next night in Los Angeles, the Flyers took a long tour around the grounds, snapping pictures at wealth even NHL players couldn’t imagine. For lunch, they ate chicken salad and sandwiches on the sun-drenched patio. Some hit the courts with tennis rackets. Others lingered by the pool. Oprah was never sighted.

At some point, though, most everyone found time to chat with Snider, the man who founded the Flyers five decades ago and still flew a large, orange flag emblazed with their logo in his driveway. Snider’s enthusiasm and willingness to hold court kept the mood light, but the players also understood the long-term gravity of this moment, given his ongoing two-year battle with cancer.  “Guys don’t take that lightly,” said goaltender Steve Mason.

When Snider died this Monday at 83, five decades after he brought professional hockey into Philadelphia, the outpouring of grief was swift. “The soul and the spirit of the Flyers,” Commissioner Gary Bettman called him in a statement, adding that the death “tears a hole in the heart of the Flyers and the city of Philadelphia.” A public celebration of his life at Wells Fargo Center was scheduled for next Thursday, after Games 3 and 4 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.

Moments of silence were also held around the league including here at Verizon Center, where the Flyers dropped their series opener against the Washington Capitals. They did so wearing jerseys with patches stitched onto the shoulders, a circle surrounding Snider’s initials, EMS.

Opener of Flyers-Capitals proves a physical series is ahead

Snider lived long enough to see the Flyers clinch their berth into the Stanley Cup Playoffs by beating Pittsburgh at home last Saturday. Before the 3-1 victory, their 40th of head coach Dave Hakstol’s first season, singer Lauren Hart dialed Snider on FaceTime and held up her phone while singing, “God Bless America.” Afterward, captain Claude Giroux recorded a celebratory video message to send him.

“With every game during the push to make the playoffs this spring we hoped he would survive to see the Flyers win just one more game,” Snider’s children said in a statement. “He gave the last ounce of his indomitable energy and strength to live through this hockey season, but now the Flyers must win without him.”

Whether they do matters less than the memories. Mason recalls taking a call from Snider when Columbus traded him to the Flyers in April 2013. “An oh-my-god moment,” Mason said. When Simmonds lived in downtown Philadelphia, he often ran into Snider at dinner. “He’d always come over and say hi,” Simmonds recalled. Forward Nick Schultz laughed at Snider’s celebrity golf tournament last year, when actor Alan Thicke was “roasting himself and Ed a little bit, just about how old they were, marrying younger women, things like that.” Anyone around the organization during Snider’s healthier days remembers him entering the locker room after big wins, offering handshakes in congratulations.

“Mr. Snider had that way of making everybody feel important,” Mason said. “He took great pride in this organization, everything that he created around the Flyers and the city of Philadelphia. He was definitely somebody that, when he was around at the arena, guys were definitely on their best behavior.”

Flyers’ Radko Gudas revels in role as NHL’s villain

The night after they saw Snider, the Flyers closed the road trip in Los Angeles with their third straight loss. Upon returning home, though, something clicked. They ripped off four consecutive wins over the next two weeks, including an impressive 4-0 shutout against the Islanders at Wells Fargo Center. The timing was not lost on Philadelphia’s players.

“I don't know if it’s coincidence or whatever, but we didn’t have a win on that trip and then after that we got headed in the right direction,” defenseman Nick Schultz says. Adds Mason: “Whether that had anything to do with it, I don't know. But it was definitely the start of a turning point in the season.”

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And now they are here, swapping blows with the Presidents’ Trophy winners in a 2-0 loss Thursday night that dealt then a 1-0 series deficit. So if these Flyers are indeed to advance without their late owner, a task made even tougher with center Sean Couturier sidelined by an apparent shoulder injury, they believe it’s time to draw upon the spirit they saw at lunch.

“If we play with as much passion as Mr. Snider had,” Simmonds said, “we’ll win the Stanley Cup.”

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