As the Flyers faithful know by now, the Flyers have not one but two gems in Jeff Carter and Mike Richards. Both rookies get rave reviews from Head Coach Ken Hitchcock and the media (how often do they agree?)
Most NHL teams would be thrilled to have one rookie the caliber of Carter and Richards. That the Flyers have two is a compliment to the organization and its scouts. Knowing the drafting history of Philadelphia's pro sports teams, Flyers fans are still in shock over how promising Carter and Richards are.
In Ed Moran's review of the successful first half of the Flyers season, the Daily News hockey scribe wrote, "The preseason talk about Richards and Carter was that they were going to be impact players this season. I don't think anyone expected them to be as good as they are, especially Richards. He's a kid in his first year playing with the poise and determination that some veterans never find."
Said Hitchcock: "They bring a lot of stability, even though they're young. They're very composed off the ice. They're very sincere teammates. They fit in. They don't have big egos."
Both players were chosen in the first round of the 2003 Entry Draft. Carter was chosen 11th overall, Richards 24th. Many American hockey fans still find it amazing that players in Canada often leave home when they are in their mid teens to join junior league teams.
While it isn't easy saying goodbye to mom and dad, the players know that to reach the NHL the separation is necessary.
"It was tough," Richards said, "but it was something I knew I needed to do if I was going to be a (pro) hockey player."
Richards' hometown is Kenora, in the scenic lake country of western Ontario. The first time I checked a map of Ontario, I told Richards that couldn't find Kenora. Turns out I wasn't looking in the right area. Kenora is north of Minnesota and east of Manitoba...sounds as if it could be a line from the old Steve Martin song "King Tut."
Richards played for the Kitchener Rangers. Kitchener is southwest of Toronto. The Kenora-to-Kitchener trip was a 20-hour drive for the Richards family. Carter left his hometown of London, Ont., also southwest of Toronto, to head north to Sault Ste. Marie.
Making the transition easier is the fact that players stay with families in the cities where they are playing. Many players form life-long bonds with these host families. John and Deb Campbell were Carter's hosts in Sault Ste. Marie, while Wendy and Dave Blum housed Richards.
Carter and Richards played against each other in the Ontario Hockey League. They also were teammates on Team Canada junior squads. It was while playing for Team Canada that they got to know each other. "We have similar personalities: we're both easy-going," Carter said. "We got along well right off the bat."
They did more bonding last season with the Phantoms, helping them win the Calder Cup.
Now, as Flyers rookies, they share a living quarters. Since Richards, 20, and Carter, 21, are young enough to be college students, the picture of a messy home flashes before our eyes. Would a visitor be repelled at the sight of their home? At first appearing offended by the remark, Richards then smiled and said, "It's pretty clean."
The two have similar backgrounds. Their parents are working people. Carter's father is a plant foreman. His mother is a purchasing secretary for a construction company. Richards' father worked in a paper mill in Kenora until it closed. His mother works in a grocery store. Richards has two brothers, Carter has a younger sister.
It took Carter longer to display his talents this season because he was recovering from mononucleosis. "I couldn't work out during the summer," he said. "I was getting nervous because it was getting close to training camp and I was lying on the couch and couldn't move."
Once he was up to speed, the 6-3, 200-pound Carter knew he belonged. "I know I can play at this level," he said. The positive attitude of the Flyers veterans has helped Carter and Richards adjust. "Everybody here has been great to me, helping Mike and me along," Carter said.
Carter has scored some memorable goals this season. One that comes to mind was the only goal in the Flyers victory at Boston. Skating in on goaltender Hannu Toivonen, Carter faked a wrist shot, then quickly switched to his backhand and scored.
On the ice, the 5-11, 195-pound Richards does a lot of things well. If a fight is necessary, he'll even drop the gloves. "Steve Spott, an assistant coach in Kitchener, told me, `Make sure you do something every night to benefit the team," Richards said. "It could be blocking shots, penalty killing, score a goal, play physical. He said it will be a good night, whether you score or not."
Carter didn't have a good night in a game against Vancouver at the Wachovia Center. In a scary accident, he took 52 stitches in his left ear when he was hit by a puck. After briefly returning to the game, he missed the next game. Typical of the remarkable toughness of hockey players, he has been in the lineup ever since.
When Richards isn't focusing on hockey, he has thought that a career as a forensic cop would be challenging. "I just find it interesting," he said. "It wouldn't be a boring job. I wouldn't want to sit in an office all day."
Kitchener nominated Richards for the OHL Scholastic Player of the Year award. He attended college for a semester while playing for Kitchener. "My parents always kept on me (about getting an education)," he said.
Both Richards and Carter are getting a quick education in the NHL. Thus far, both have earned A grades.
`Hitch' on the road
Ken Hitchcock isn't the type of NHL coach who spends all of his spare time on the road in his hotel room, watching game tapes. Hitchcock enjoys exploring the cities the Flyers visit.
During the Flyers recent stop in Washington, D.C., he and the Flyers were given a tour of the Pentagon. Later, he took a 90-minute walk around the city's historical area.
Responding to a question from sports writer Dick Jerardi (a renowned hockey guru) on "Daily News Live" on Comcast SportsNet, Hitchcock said, "I saw the World War II memorial for the first time. It's really impressive. I thought the Vietnam memorial was impressive, but the World War II memorial for me is just terrific."
In Nashville, Hitchcock stopped at the Country Music Hall of Fame and also toured the Battle of Franklin, Tenn. On another occasion, he walked into a country music songwriter's convention.
"When some of the writers arrived, people were whispering as if the president had walked in," Hitchcock recalled. "I had no idea who they were."
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 sports writer. 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.