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Greenberg: How Ed Snider shaped the game of hockey

by Jay Greenberg / Philadelphia Flyers

The Flyers became big only because the big picture was Snider’s specialty.

Bob Clarke recalls the owner walking into the devastated locker room in Buffalo after a playoff spot slipped away on a 45-foot goal with four seconds remaining in the final game of 1972 and telling the Flyers that the future remained bright. “We thought we had died and he probably needed the playoff gates,” said Clarke. “But he said, ‘This is not going to set us back from being good.”

The steam coming out of the Chairman’s ears after losses never clouded his vision.

For all the ridicule he suffered – and consternation he felt -- when Clarke went through six coaches from 1997 to 2003, his team only had six GMs in 48 seasons, only one of which (Bud Poile) was fired.

“Ed always said he doesn’t get involved in signing players and that’s absolutely true,” said Ron Ryan, the Flyers’ COO from 1998 to 2006. “He never said to me, ‘No, you can’t do that’ or even, ‘You shouldn’t do that,’ but he made sure you thought about whether it was absolutely the right thing to do and in that way I think he helped everybody.”

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Recalls Phil Weinberg, Comcast Spectacor’s Executive Vice President and General Counsel: “You’re trying to figure out all this stuff around the problem and somewhere along the way, invariably you lose touch with the big question you were trying to solve.

“Ed had this uncanny ability to pull things back to that question, cut through all the unimportant encumbrances and really focus on what is at stake. I mean, I’ve never seen anybody like him.”

And that was true no matter in how many directions a busy man was pulled. “He could dive in from 100,000 feet and still ask the right questions,” says Dave Scott, Comcast Spectacor President and CEO.

There were times Snider asked the right ones of the wrong persons -- as he was sometimes reminded by GM Keith Allen during those mid-game calls of outrage, mostly at referee decisions.

When you signed up to be one of Snider’s trusted lieutenants, the job description included a lightning rod. Bulldogs let go of legs faster than Snider let up on something about the building or the game presentation that bothered him, “But for such a dominant man he was not a bully,” insists Clarke.

Says Ryan, “When you really faced a serious problem, and we did face serious problems, he was the greatest ally you could have. He would be at your side working through it. “That’s what I admired about him the most. When things got tough, he was the greatest.”

The Flyers track record, of course, gave Snider cachet in league boardrooms. But it isn’t only his success and longevity opening ears to his wisdom.

“When you’re investing in a business, you want partners who act like it’s their own business, treat every penny as if it is their own, and make every decision with integrity,” said Brian Roberts, Comcast Chairman and CEO. “Ed was exactly that type of partner and leader.”

“When we became partners in 1996, we were primarily a cable company that was expanding into content,” Roberts continued. “Ed’s passion was amazing. When the Flyers lost, it really hurt him. So, every time I was on the road with him during the playoffs, and we lost, my first instinct was, well, maybe we should give [the players] a little privacy, let them have their moment and blow off some steam.”

“Ed said, ‘Nonsense, let’s go to the locker room.’ That’s a great lesson that there’s no separation; we’re all in this together,” commented Roberts.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman says that rarely did two weeks go by without him calling Snider for counsel. “He was a brain I loved to pick,” said Bettman. “He had a passion that was fueled with an incredible intelligence and a diligence.

“He was somebody who understood people and how to work with them. Since the creation of the Competition Committee (studying on-ice issues) he was the only owner on it, coming from the fact that he was practical and extraordinarily knowledgeable.

“And, at least during my tenure, he always put the league first. (During the 2004-05 lockout) he understood that no matter what (high salaries) the Flyers could have continued to deal with, he needed to be in a strong NHL. Nobody hated revenue sharing more than Ed did, but he went along with it.

“He was an entrepreneur, a capitalist and he believed in a lot of conservative causes. But his values were about putting people first.”

Snider saw the forest through the trees. In one of his favorite stories, he convinced Keith Allen to bend when the Hartford Whalers insisted on one more prospect than the GM wanted to give up to obtain Mark Howe.

“He’d force you to ask yourself why you hadn’t thought of something,” said Clarke. “He’d ask a bunch of tough questions but if you were convinced he would back you, even if he thought you might be wrong.”

Trust might have been the sharpest of Snider’s instincts.

“He hired good people and gave them the resources to do their jobs,” says Shawn Tilger, the current Flyer COO. “And he was one of the most, if not the most loyal person, I’ve ever met.

“When you say somebody ‘gets it,’ he was the epitome of getting it.”

And yeah, somebody was going to get it when Snider saw something he doesn’t like. But rarely were his most trusted lieutenants afraid to approach.

“We got anything the team ever wanted,” said Clarke. “Every team stays at the best hotels now, but at one point there was a difference in the way we traveled and the way most teams did.

“He always said he wouldn’t put his team on a flight he wouldn’t go on himself. Players would get Christmas presents from the teams; Myrna (Snider’s late first wife) made sure the wives got presents too. It was family.”

Even in the tightest of those, there are fights. “During the year (2006-07) we were really bad, soon after another loss I get the call from Ed,” said Peter Luukko, the President and COO of the Flyers and Comcast Spectacor from 2006 through 2013.

“He says, ‘Our power play is terrible, the worst I’ve seen in all my years.’ He goes on and on with what’s wrong and I said, ‘Bleep Ed, God couldn’t coach our power play. We suck!’

“All of a sudden he stops and says, ‘We care.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah,’ and he said, ‘You know what, until we get better, maybe we won’t talk the night after a game. We’ll talk the next day.’

“He recognized that we both were blowing off steam. He was demanding, but with you. When he was upset, it always was with the situation, not with you.

“I’ve always said he was like the favorite coach you ever had.”

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