Before Flyer fans rise to an occasion Tuesday with an ovation on Danny Briere’s retirement night, let’s examine what made him so clutch.
Of course, it was his innate anticipation so uncanny that, as a free agent in 2007, he knew the Flyers were the best fit for him among his dizzying number of options. With his fast hands, he proved to be the best veteran free agent forward they ever signed.
Common sense and keen self-preservation instincts were requirements for a five-foot-nine, 174-pound mighty mite to slip in and out of the danger zones. In the playoffs, when space is hard earned, he scored 37 goals and 72 points in 68 games as a Flyer, averaging 1.05 points per game, much higher than his .078 mark during regular seasons. In the franchise’s accomplished history, only Claude Giroux, Eric Lindros and Ken Linseman have averaged better than a point per playoff game. And Briere’s post-season average as a Flyer beat the career marks of Brett Hull, Steve Yzerman, Jaromir Jagr and all but 22 players in NHL history.
Briere wasn’t shy about using it to make the opponents think twice. He never totaled under 69 penalty minutes in any of his full seasons in Buffalo and Philadelphia. But his disregard for life and limb was dwarfed by his utter fearlessness of failure.
“I wanted to be the guy that was either going to make the play or be in position to finish that play,” he said. “And if I didn’t do it, it just meant that I’m one opportunity closer to the next time, when I would. If I missed one, that meant my chances went up.
“I grew up watching playoff hockey. I dreamed of making the play to win the playoff game, to score a goal in overtime. I lived for those moments. They drove me.
“The other thing is, I’m a big fan of the game. On our off days, I loved to watch other teams play to study their goaltender and defensemen, see where I could take advantage of certain things.
“During the regular season, when it’s a different team every other night, you are readjusting. For some, that makes it easier to score but for me, it was harder. When you play the same team over and over again, you are able to find the crack in the armor. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I got better as a series went on.”
In Buffalo, where Briere blossomed after struggling as a No. 1 pick in Phoenix, he studied the Flyers and their goaltender Robert Esche. He went on to beat them with an overtime goal during the 2006 first round, but went on to join them when he became a free agent a year later.
“I was hoping the Flyers would be one of the teams calling on that [July 1] but I didn’t know,” he said.
“Montreal and the Flyers were my two top choices. My heart wanted to go to Montreal because it was my childhood team. At 9 a.m., the Canadiens sent somebody to the office of my agent [Pat Brisson] in California, where I spent that day, with jerseys, books, and all kinds of stuff, very impressive.
“Everything was happening so fast, teams were calling one after the other, but I had been hoping that the Flyers would call.”
They did a little later in that day with the best monetary offer Briere received. But each bid Briere received was higher than he expected so he was not going to allow money to be the determining factor. And the fact that the Flyers were coming off a perfect storm of a 54-point season did not deter Briere for a second.
“The people of Quebec were angry with me and reminded me of that after I signed with the Flyers, but I knew [the record] was going to change,” he said.
“They would be adding me to a center ice of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. At the trading deadline they had gotten [Braydon] Coburn and [Scottie] Upshall. My good friend Marty Biron was here and then later in the day that I agreed, they got Jason Smith and Joffrey Lupul.
“I believed in Paul Holmgren and where the Flyers were going.”
That was all the way to the Eastern Conference final in his first season. Briere was an instant success with 72 points in 79 games and then adding another 16 in 17 playoff contests. But injury (he played in only 29 games in 2008-9), indecision about playing him on the wing or at center, and experimentation with various linemates kept Briere from full blossom until the 2009-10 finals drive, when he led the NHL with 30 points in 23 playoff games.
Playing between Ville Leino and Scott Hartnell, Briere scored the tying goal against Boston that got the Flyers even after they had trailed 3-0 in games and 3-0 on the scoreboard in Game 7. That line stayed on fire through the finals.
The Flyers got big bang from him for their big bucks, including both on the ice and as one the greatest off-ice ambassadors in Flyers history. If it weren’t for the Philadelphia hockey writers’ desire to move around the yearly Yanick Dupree Class Guy Award, Briere would have received it for all six years he was a Flyer.
“[He's] one of the nicest men you will ever meet,” said Holmgren. “He showed up and worked hard every day, never said a bad thing about any of his teammates, cared about the organization, and went wherever we asked him to go.
“He was a good dad [to three boys], great with the fans, just a great guy. He met every expectation.”
In signing Timonen, Hartnell, and Briere within a three-day period, Holmgren hit the jackpot, and all three players acknowledge they did, too.
Holmgren, now the team president, is taking an eager Briere under his wing to introduce him to many aspects of the business side of the operation. Perhaps, there will be a position some day in the organization. Considering the stress Briere remembers feeling on July 1, 2007, this has been happiest of ever afters.
“I had to decide between the team I wanted to go to -- the Flyers -- or the team I grew up cheering for -- Montreal. I went back to the hotel that night and lay in bed completely wiped out, like I had worked out for 10 straight hours.
“All I knew about the Flyers then was what I saw from the outside. And it was the best decision I ever made. What’s really cool is that I was one of the few players to get to choose his team, and I ended up playing for one of the best owners in sports, Ed Snider, and one of the best organizations.
“The fans of Philadelphia have a bad reputation and, honestly, I don’t see it. Even in tough times, they always had our backs. A few times they were unhappy and would let us know, but every season they were back and my interaction with them was just amazing.
“Right from the beginning I felt at home. I call this home now. Philadelphia means everything to me.”