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Emotionally Speaking

by Bill Fleischman / Philadelphia Flyers
Hockey is a game of reaction and instinct.

Players now are often too careful because they're not sure how much contact is allowed. Defensemen sometimes stand helplessly instead of clearing opponents from the crease.

When the Flyers hosted Columbus, R.J. Umberger was drilled by a Blue Jackets player into the Columbus bench. There was no retaliation. Back in the day, a teammate would've gone after the Jackets player, letting him know such behavior, especially in the Wachovia Center, is not acceptable with the Flyers.

Give Mike Knuble credit. After a Pittsburgh player caught linemate Simon Gagne with his head down, Knuble immediately confronted the offending player.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not encouraging "Broad Street Bullies" brawls. But players should be allowed to stand up for teammates without worrying about misconducts and instigation penalties.

All this said, David Poile and Bill Clement tell me I'm full of ice chips. Of course, Poile's Nashville Predators are one of the best teams in the NHL. And from Clement's perch as studio host for the Versus network's NHL telecasts, he sees a lot of good games.

"Outside of one or two games, our games have been unbelievably exciting," said Poile, Nashville's general manager since its inception nine years ago. "Maybe it's the style we play, maybe it's our conference.

"Last year, it was give and take as to the penalties. Nobody knew (what would be called). I think every category of penalty is down. The coaches have quit complaining. The games I've watched have been the best hockey that's ever been.

"We have a really good record, yet we've given up the most goals of any team in the third period. Teams can come back now. With the clutching and grabbing, when you were ahead at the end of the second period, the game was over."

Clement agrees with Poile.

"I think there's more emotion now than there has been," said Clement, a former Flyers player and TV analyst. "Power plays are way down, so the players have adjusted to the new rules. They're playing with clearer heads as opposed to worrying about what was coming next.

"The game has opened up, so there is more free skating. The one thing that creates emotion in a building is end-to-end action. Teams have much better home records than in the past. I think it's because emotion is back in the game.

"The way the game was played before, it was painting by numbers: just don't be out of position. Now players have to think the game. There's more room to navigate (on the ice)."

OK, they are entitled to their opinion, as I am.

Moving on to another gripe: the unbalanced schedule. Eight games against each division rival is excessive. It's great to build rivalries, but six games against each rival should be the limit. That way, fans in each conference will see the top teams and players from the other conference.

With the current schedule, for example, fans in the Western Conference will only see the talented young Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington's Alex Ovechkin once every three years. Wouldn't it nice for Flyers fans to see Teemu Selanne and Anaheim and other top Western Conference teams once per season? I was listening to a Devils-Los Angeles Kings broadcast recently and realized I hardly recognized any of the Kings.

Over the past 20 years, Poile said five different types of schedules have been used.

"Everything works for the Eastern Conference and nothing works for the Western Conference," Poile said. "I've been a general manager in both conferences, so I think I can speak to (the issue). (Previously, he was GM of the Washington Capitals).

"The fans in our market would like to see every team play once (per season). That's what I would favor. But I also like the divisional rivalries that we've created in Nashville."

At last month's NHL general managers meeting, the GMs were unable to agree on a new schedule that would make most teams happy. Toronto's John Ferguson Jr. said, "There has been enough sentiment expressed that there may be some reason to change. Everyone is looking at their own situation and trying to provide for their own market and fans. There wasn't any unanimity; there was barely a consensus."

Shootouts are another pet peeve. I know fans love them, but I can't watch them. It just seems like an artificial way to end games.

Knuble a Philly guy

When John Stevens was named the Flyers head coach eight games into the season, the sense I had was that the Flyers would respond to Stevens' coaching. The question was: did the Flyers have enough talent to win under Stevens? Also, I wondered if they had enough players with character. That horrific 9-1 loss in Buffalo before the coaching change made me wonder about the character issue.

Fortunately for everyone involved with the team, the Flyers are playing better. Winning road games in Montreal and on Long Island, coupled with playing competitively against Nashville, are good signs. Young offensive-minded defensemen Alexandre Picard, Jussi Timonen and Lars Jonsson appear to be settling in as solid NHL players.

Mike Knuble is one player whose character I never questioned. Knuble's defense of Simon Gagne showed that he's the kind of player you want on your team. Knuble also was contributing scoring. I liked what Knuble told Philadelphia Daily News columnist Rich Hofmann after Knuble signed a two-year contract extension.

"Whatever's happened this year, nobody on our team is writing this year off," he said. "We can still do a lot of good things. I love playing in this city. I love that the fans care. I love that they boo when we're doing poorly and I love how they treat us when we're doing well.

"I would never want to go to a city where it didn't matter. I love playing in a town where it matters. In any sport, it matters here.

"We'll return. This is a proud franchise. We'll be great again, whether it's this season or next."

In just his second season with the Flyers, Knuble understands what sports mean in Philly. Fans here love winning, but they'll support teams if they see that the players are trying and management is working on improving the team.

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.
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