Better With Popcorn

Familiarity Makes Hextall the Right Choice for GM

Not long ago, I stood in the Wells Fargo Center elevator and observed a conversation with Frank the operator, Paul Holmgren and Bob Clarke. 

Clarke and Holmgren cursed at each other. They laughed. Frank laughed too. The three of them have been with the Flyers for a long time. Many people have been with the Flyers a long time. 

There’s a reason for that. Stability and success bring the old guys back and make the new ones desire such longevity in the organization. 

On Wednesday, Ron Hextall became the team’s seventh general manager. It’s a move that came without surprise. The former Conn Smythe winner rejoined the club last summer after seven years in Los Angeles. He remained a viable candidate around the league for a GM spot. The Flyers needed get him now, or lose out for the foreseeable future.

The job wore Holmgren down to the point where he was ready to get out. As early as January, he approached Flyers Chairman Ed Snider about the baton-pass. The season went on, it ended and here we are. 

Hextall’s slate is not entirely blank. He will have Holmgren in the building, just as the now-former GM had Clarke around. The vision will be Hextall’s to create. He’s seen a Stanley Cup winner built before – he brings some knowledge of what it takes.

Holmgren’s tenure carried a heavy cloud among some fans who believed Snider simply dictated. In some cases, this may have been true. Most of the time, Holmgren called the shots. Hextall will own similar autonomy.

There’s a portion of the Philadelphia fan base that is absolutely sick with the idea of bringing back former Flyers. The days of knuckle-dragging Broad Street Bullies loom in their minds and they wonder when anyone or anything will hit the refresh button. 

This is not your grandfather’s franchise. It’s something much different. Still, many former players and coaches will always run rampant on the staff. 

The reason why is far more pragmatic than political allegiances or conspiracy theories. Essentially, the man you know is better than the one you don’t. 

If I wanted to start another hockey site – I don’t, I think? – I would simply go to those who I know can handle the responsibilities. Other applicants could have similar credentials and in the long run might be the next big thing in sports journalism. There’s no way to know that. The business who promotes from within and builds loyalty is the one worthy of allegiance. 

In 2008, current assistant coach John Paddock’s return to the organization prompted team historian Bruce "Scoop" Cooper to discover 57 former employees who came back to Philadelphia in their careers.

Since then, more have followed the path. 

“It’s the stability of the organization,” Cooper said. “If you look at the teams year-in, year-out, there are very few down stretches.

“Look at some of the teams who have had bad ownership over the years. Now, look at the Flyers. I saw members of that 1974 team today. They’re still here.”

It’s simple for the cynic to write off this move. Hell, it’s easy for the cynical Flyers fan to write off anything the organization does. There are those too, who buy season tickets and own framed photos of Clarke’s gap-toothed grin. Some of them even dislike the direction of retreads in the Wells Fargo Center. 

The people disgruntled will not likely find hope in the near future. However, with eight missed postseasons since 1967, what more do they want?

It’s the endless pursuit of the Stanley Cup, a devilish obsession. The irony, of course, is the Band-Aid’s on the back end and in net often come from a front office that perfectly embodies its fan base. 

Ultimate success is demanded in Philadelphia from the hockey team because consistent success has been the standard long enough. That’s a shared feeling throughout the organization’s curtain. 

Advanced metrics might enter the equation to satisfy some through Hextall’s implementations. Whatever is introduced will only feed the monkey, the desire to win now – so they walk together forever. 

“I think it’s important they hired Hexy,” Cooper said. “If they hadn’t, Vancouver or Washington probably would have. The fans love him and he’s paid his dues.

“The Flyers will bring people in from the outside, but they do value loyalty of the people who have been here before.”

Big-splashes in free agency and outrageous trade offers won’t likely stop any time soon. That’s the cost of going for it every year. One of these years, it just might happen. 

If it does, a former Flyer will likely orchestrate such triumph. If not, the masses will growl and grumble at first-round playoff exits – a truly awful burden. 

Hextall’s first orders of business will be to fill the second goaltender spot and improve the team’s even-strength offense. He’ll also need to develop a plan for the long-term future of the defense. He’ll likely be hamstrung by financial issues, a reoccurring theme. 

He’ll get his fair share of criticism. It’s hard to imagine any of it will hurt more than the Flyers tattoo “on his ass” of which Holmgren referred during Wednesday’s press conference. 

Loyalty and long-term success might not have put Hextall in front of the inked needle. It definitely brought him back to the organization that drafted him as an 18-year-old and watched him grow into a life of hockey. He’s far from the only one who followed that path, with good reason.

Once a Flyer, always a Flyer. 

There’s a reason for that.

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Mark Trible
Sports Editor @FauquierNow; Columnist @TheSFJournal
Twitter: @mtrible; @TCLFlyers

Comments

iScoop's picture

Excellent piece Mark. Thoughtfully written and right on point. Good job.