PHILADELPHIA – It’s shortly after 10:30 a.m. as the Philadelphia Flyers step out onto the ice of the Virtua Center Flyers Skate Zone, the team’s practice facility located about 20 minutes outside of the city in southern New Jersey, for a light Sunday skate.
At one end of the rink is a grizzled-looking man donning a black and orange windbreaker to go with a Flyers hat, taking a few shots on an empty net. He skates to the other side, heads to the face-off dot near the far boards and begins showing players who are less than half his age the trick to winning a draw.
That man is Bobby Clarke, an NHL Hall of Fame inductee in 1987 who scored 358 goals and 1,210 points in 1,144 games over 15 NHL seasons, all with Philadelphia and one of the best centers in league history. The former Flyers general manager is 67 years old now, but his technique on the ice doesn’t look it. He’s at the facility getting in shape for an upcoming alumni charity game, but more importantly, he’s stopping by to show the young guys the oft-overlooked skill of how to win faceoffs.
In a nutshell, that’s what the organization is all about. The family-like environment where “Once a Flyer, always a Flyer” trumps all has become as much of the team’s identity as their revered gritty, hard-working, blue-collared approach.
It’s also one of the club’s unique advantages when it comes to grooming its own on a roster that features 10 players who are 26 or younger. The alumni connection is ingrained in the team from the top down.
“There’s a lot of knowledge that they have that they can pass onto the younger players not only about the game, but about life,” said GM Ron Hextall, who also doubles as an alumni having spent 11 seasons wearing the orange-and-black. “It’s certainly a valuable tool for our organization.”
Hextall praises all of those who have suited up for the Flyers for coming in and carrying out a tradition set forth by the team’s late founder, Ed Snider. He says the impact the former players have on the current team is “invaluable.”
“It’s special,” Hextall said. “When you look at the Flyers organization, you obviously look at the Original Six and they all have an identity, but then you look at the Flyers and we’re not one of the Original Six but we have a clear identity. I think our players and alumni are proud of that identity.”
Travis Konecny has quickly seen the impact of having former players around on a daily basis, which is even more often amidst the Flyers’ 50th season celebration in which there will be five different ‘Heritage Nights’ where they honor different segments of their alumni, including goalies, captains, playoff heroes and yes, fighters, a throwback to the franchise’s Broad St. Bullies heyday. Among those set to be honored are Clarke, Eric Lindros, John LeClair, Bill Barber, Bernie Parent and Mark Howe.
The 19-year-old rookie has already been immersed in plenty of history lessons.
“There’s so many people involved in the organization that have been through a lot and know a lot more about hockey than we do so it’s good to be a sponge, and it’s good to always listen and just soak it up when you can,” Konecny said. “It’s always cool seeing the alumni around and meeting guys, coming in and out of the dressing room. They’re always on the jumbotron getting honored... it just shows that once you’re a Flyer, you’re never anything else.”
Similarly, head coach Dave Hakstol learned right away just how true that sentiment is. When he was hired two off-seasons ago, the former University of North Dakota head man wanted to throw himself into the Flyers culture in an effort to assimilate as quickly as possible.
Hakstol said his main priority when accepting the position was “to learn about the history and tradition” and then “earn the right to be a part of it.” Turns out, that wasn’t all that hard with all of the alumni in management and the litter of other former players who frequently stop by the facilities and live around the area.
“Maybe in some organizations you use the words ‘history’ and ‘tradition’ as taglines,” Hakstol said. “That’s not the case here. The tradition of this organization is heartfelt by everybody. The players that have come before and built this organization are dually and well-respected by the current players in this locker room.”
While Hakstol turned to the bevy of ex-players for guidance, the same goes for the current group of players. Forward Matt Read, who has spent all six of his NHL seasons with Philadelphia, often turns to former Flyers center Danny Briere for assistance when needed or, more often than not, just to talk about life.
Briere, too, spent six years in Philadelphia where he became a much-beloved figure for his playoff heroics. He has provided Read with a handful of inspirational talks when things haven’t gone his way on the ice.
“You respect those guys no matter what,” Read said. “When you have a guy that’s been through the grind… they know what’s going on in a locker room and they’ve witnessed it first hand.”
Like Read, goaltender Steve Mason finds comfort in having an ex-Flyers netminder managing the team. While one-on-one talks with Hextall aren’t always the easiest thing to come by—being an NHL GM is demanding work—Mason is grateful he has someone he can relate to watching over his shoulder, which isn’t the case for most goaltenders.
Among the league’s 31 general managers, only four of them played between the pipes during their careers.
“I think it’s nice to have a guy who understands what a goalie goes through,” Mason said. “When things aren’t going well and when they are going your way. It’s easy for people to jump to conclusions when they have never played the position when you’re watching from up above where everything looks easy. So when you have a guy that’s been in your shoes and knows what you’re going through, it’s reassuring.”
Likewise, when a 19- or 20-year-old sees someone like Parent or Barber walking through the hallways sharing stories of their Stanley Cup runs while motioning with a hand that prominently showcases their championship ring, it serves as second-hand inspiration.
It catches the eyes of someone like Konecny or Ivan Provorov or Shayne Gostisbehere, a trio of youngsters who want nothing more than to be a part of that next great team in Philadelphia. Jake Voracek, who is now in his sixth season with the Flyers after spending his first three in Columbus, also sees it that way.
“They’re around all the time. It’s amazing to see what kind of treatment they get 40 years after the Cup,” Voracek said. “It’s obviously well deserved. It’s special for us [to see that].”
Every organization has their relationship with the alumni, some more so than others, but for a team that doesn’t have the Original Six label, the Flyers have done just as well as any franchise in terms of developing its tradition and culture.
That commitment has become the team’s foundation, and along the way, has become one of it’s strongest development tools.
“That’s how the Flyers have always been, they’ve always been a big family,” said forward Wayne Simmonds. “That’s what you want to be in, an organization that treats you like family. That’s when you know you’re going to give your maximum effort. They treat you with the most respect so you’re definitely going to give them all you have. That’s how the Flyers have had their model and that’s how Mr. Snider wanted it and it’s going to continue to be that way.”