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Annual Trip Sends Flyers Packing for Holidays

by Bill Fleischman / Philadelphia Flyers

Fortune and fame are major positives of being a professional athlete. Most sports fans would trade places with pro athletes faster than you can say “Jeff Carter shoots…he scores!”

One negative, however, is being away over the Christmas holidays. This year, it isn’t too bad for the Flyers. After spending Christmas at home with their families, the Flyers left the morning after Christmas for their game in Chicago that night. Then, it was on to Columbus and the West Coast, and finally Washington on January 6 before returning home on January 8.

Traditionally in Philadelphia, an ice show has been booked for the Wachovia Center or previously for the Spectrum the week between Christmas and New Year’s. When I was the Flyers beat writer for the Philadelphia Daily News in the 1970s, I remember the Flyers playing in Vancouver the night after Christmas. Our family opened presents on Christmas Day, then I headed for the Philadelphia International Airport to catch a flight to Vancouver. I couldn’t risk travel delays on December 26 for the game that night.

Some NBA teams have it much worse. If they are playing on Christmas Day, they have to travel on Christmas Eve. Regardless of how much money you are making, being separated from family and friends on those two days is emotionally draining.

Many current Flyers had family visit prior to the holidays.

“We have some family in town for a week,” said Glen Metropolit, whose children are 6, 4, and 2. “We have 11 of us in the house. It’s like `Home Alone’: you think you’re going to forget somebody when you’re leaving the house.”
Scottie Upshall and Glen Metropolit search for their room keys during a recent road trip. (Flyers Photos)

Goaltender Antero Niittymaki is one of four Finnish players wearing the Flyers' orange and black. He and his wife Miina are the parents of children ages 3 and 1. Niittymaki says the major Christmas celebration in Finland is on Christmas Eve.

“The 24th is when Santa Claus comes and all the gifts are given out,” he said. “The 25th is for eating and relaxing. The family gets used to us going on the road right after Christmas.”

The Niittymakis were having family from Finland visit before Christmas.

Wives and children are accustomed to the players traveling during the holidays.

“You get used to it,” said Kimmo Timonen, with children ages 9, 6 and 2. “It’s not the ideal situation, but it’s part of the job. I’d rather we have three days off at Christmas and play more games in January and February.” (The NHL does not play on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day).

Since Mike Knuble’s wife’s family is from Michigan, Megan and their two children were planning to accompany Mike to Chicago for the game on December 26. Then she and the children were heading to Michigan to spend some time while the Flyers are on the road.

“I’ve been gone a lot (during holidays), a lot in warm weather areas,” Mike said. “Every team I’ve been on has been in either Florida or California. I spent one New Year’s night in Buffalo.” Brrrrrr.

Coaches also enjoy the Christmas break. It’s a long grind from the start of training camp in September until this time of year.
It’s not the ideal situation, but it’s part of the job. I’d rather we have three days off at Christmas and play more games in January and February." - Kimmo Timonen

“We look forward to the two days off,” John Stevens said. “Summertime is important to a lot of the guys as family time. Once the season starts in September, there’s not a lot of free time.”

Stevens and his wife Stacy celebrated with their two sons, John and Nolan, before Christmas because the boys, 14 and 12, were playing in hockey tournaments in Toronto.

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As the Flyers head into the new year, they are a confident winning team. They are packing a 15-4-4 record in their last 21 games (10-0-2 on home ice). With seven goals in his last 11 games,  Carter is leading the NHL with 26 goals…26 goals before Christmas: very impressive.

The Carter-Scott Hartnell-Joffrey Lupul line is producing at an elite level. Mike Richards, Knuble and Simon Gagne also is a dangerous trio. Callups from the Phantoms such as Darroll Powe, Josh Gratton and Jonathon Kalinski have fit right in. (Funny line from general manager Paul Holmgren about Powe, a Princeton graduate. When I jokingly asked what a Princeton grad is doing playing for the Flyers, Holmgren smiled and said, “He’s raised the intelligence level of our team.”)

The Wachovia Center crowd is very much aware of the Flyers league-leading shorthanded efforts, so when Gagne and Carter start a rush you can hear and feel the fans reacting. Imagine how vulnerable opponents feel when the Flyers are shorthanded.
Simon Gagne about to board the team plane. (Flyers Photos)

When Martin Biron was sidelined with the flu, Niittymaki was superb (see his 47 saves in the Flyers 7-1 trouncing of Washington; Alex Ovechkin was an astounding 0-for-12 vs. Niittymaki. For some players, 12 shots on goal is two weeks worth of shots).

The Flyers defense corps has welcomed back Randy Jones following his hip surgery. Stevens says for the first time since he has coached the Flyers they have five defensemen who are effective on the power play: Jones,  Timonen, Braydon Coburn, Matt Carle and Luca Sbisa.

“It’s a nice luxury to have,” Stevens said.

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Offering an overview of why the Flyers are winning, the steady Timonen said, “We’re playing as a team very well. “We forecheck. Everybody’s coming back and we’re not giving up much. The first couple games of the season, we gave up too many odd-man rushes, and we were too hungry going the other way but not coming back."

Referring to the team’s disappointing 0-3-3 start, Knuble said, “We didn’t match the intensity that we needed to have. We thought it would just happen on its own if we just showed up. (We thought) last year would just carry over to this year. That obviously was not the case.

“We learned a good lesson right away. There was a sense of urgency, not panic. We knew it was there. It was just a matter of getting the roster settled down.”

Metropolit played last season for Boston. He says the Flyers were still adjusting as the season opened.

“There was a transition period,” he said. “They had such a great year last year. (This year) we got out of the gate kind of slow. It was pretty stressful the first five-six games. We had some new guys. I know for myself, it took me a little bit to get going.”

Stevens gently disputes any notion that the Flyers were horrible in their first six games.

“It’s not like we were getting blown out,” Stevens said. “We were close. We felt we were in every game. We were trying to outscore teams every night. We had to get back to playing the way we did last year where we were an explosive offensive team, but we took care of our own end first.”

As much as the players want to be with their families, from September into the late spring they are highly paid hockey players. A trip is an opportunity for bonding, for focusing on hockey and ultimately for the pursuit of the Stanley Cup.

Metropolit, for one, has settled in as a gritty Flyers center. “It’s a fun group of guys,” he said. “Winning makes everything fun.”

Please note that the views expressed in this column are not necessarily the views expressed by the Philadelphia Flyers Hockey Club.

Bill Fleischman is a veteran Philadelphia Daily News sportswriter. He was the Flyers' beat reporter for the Daily News in the 1970s, and continued to cover games in later years. A former president of the Professional Hockey Writers and the Philadelphia Sports Writers Associations, Fleischman is co-author of "Bernie, Bernie," the autobiography of Bernie Parent. Fleischman also is co-author of "The Unauthorized NASCAR Fan Guide." Since 1981, he has been an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware journalism program.

He is a graduate of Germantown High School and Gettysburg College.
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