A 21-year-old Craig Berube, 10 months out of a four-team, nomadic, existence in the Western Hockey League, had one chance to make a first impression on the NHL on the night of March 24, 1987. He wasn’t going to waste the opportunity.
Called up from Hershey because of an injury to Rick Tocchet, joining a Flyer team that had been alternating wins and losses since January while waiting to get healthy for what would be a run to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals, Berube fought three different Penguins in a wild, 26-penalty minute, Spectrum debut.
“Where do they get these guys?” asked an incredulous Paul Steigerwald, the Penguin announcer and a longtime witness to the South Broad Street parade of Jack McIlhargeys, Dave Browns, Ed Hospodars, Darryl Stanleys and eventually, Todd Fedoruks, Riley Cotes and Zac Rinaldos.
Much to the disdain of the NHL, the Flyers always have made room for one more of “these guys”, quintessential beat-down-the-doors-and-people’s-faces opportunists who, in the words of Keith Allen, gave his team “that certain element”. Presumed by their job description to be not the sharpest tools in the shed, many of these enforcers – McIlhargey, Brown as examples -- wound up on NHL benches or as valued members of front offices, affirmation of the brains they had that nobody could beat in.
Having been policemen not only on the ice, but also in the locker room, they understood not only what they had to do to get to the NHL but how to stay there. And players of far more talent followed the lead. Three teams, including the Flyers, appreciated what Berube, a 61-career goal scorer brought to a team enough to hire him twice during a 17 year career, remarkable for an undrafted tough guy far from still the league’s heavyweight champion by time he dropped the gloves for good in 2003.
Since leaving the ice, Berube has had 10 years of observing, listening, teaching, and motivating to sandpaper down his rough edges and become to Paul Holmgren and Ed Snider much more than just the closest guy available when the Flyers fired Peter Laviolette Monday, just three games into this season.
Holmgren had a summer to think about replacing Laviolette after the Flyers missed the playoffs last season. Trying to be fair after a truncated, injury-ravaged 48 games the GM declined, but he also held off from that decision comfortable with his Plan B should his team get off to a bad start.
"Well, they're different,” said Holmgren yesterday, asked what Berube could bring that, by the end, Laviolette could not. “Their approach to the game is probably a little bit different.
“It's difficult to explain. (Berube) is, if you get to know him, a no frills, no BS guy. I think it's ‘maybe I'll give you one chance, if you mess up again, you're probably not going to get another chance.'
“I think from an accountability standpoint, they might be a little bit different. Their ideas of the overall team concept when it comes to playing defense are probably different."
After a preseason, plus three games, of not being very good with the puck, the Flyers first are going to have to get better without it, according to their new coach.
“When you play good hockey without the puck, the game comes together and you do the right things to get the puck back and you keep the puck out of your net,” said Berube Monday, the only remotely revealing thing he said about his plans. “Right now, we need to stress that and do a better job of it.”
Laviolette succeeded a coach, John Stevens, who played a passive forecheck and the Flyers embraced their newfound freedom all the way to the Stanley Cup finals. But a shortage of structure showed itself the following year in three routs during a sweep by the Bruins, then again, after a wild series win over the Penguins in 2012. With the Flyers down 2-1 to the Devils, their Game 4 effort was incomprehensibly terrible on the way to losing in five.
Chris Pronger was the Flyers structure in the defensive zone, a shade tree for every teammate on the ice. Without him, the Flyers became more exposed to the heat. Laviolette had little chance to fix the problems a year ago when his defense essentially went on the DL, but while the Flyers lack of enthusiasm in the first three games of 2013 essentially doomed the coach, the lack of support – the D for each other, the forwards for the D -- also was glaring.
Few minded this much when the Flyers were outscoring the Penguins. But with the team suffering an almost team-wide crisis of offensive confidence in the early going of this season, the offensive coach had nothing to fall back upon.
It’s all about systems in today’s NHL of sealed-off slots and safe plays up the wall. So sure, defense is as good place as any for the new Flyers coach to start.
John Paddock, moving out of the front office, will add wisdom, Ian Laperriere some needed enthusiasm. And The Chief behind the Flyers bench will bring the knowledge of what makes NHL players -- skilled and otherwise -- tick with a polished version of the passion that a wild Craig Berube brought to the Spectrum for his Philadelphia debut.
It got him this far. We’ll see where it can take the underachieving Flyers.