From facing seats on a chartered jet from Montreal to Philadelphia, John LeClair, Gilbert Dionne and Eric Desjardins stared mostly at each other, as if trying to read their futures in each other’s faces.
“It was intense,” recalls Desjardins of the February 9, 1995 day they became Flyers. “We were all pretty nervous and John said, ‘Hey guys, it’s going to be all right.”
“We got there and lost the first game (3-0 to Florida). The next day in the Montreal paper they said, ‘this is why Desjardins is going down.’”
Apparently, that writer didn’t mean to say that Eric Desjardins would go down in Flyers history as one of the very best defensemen the Flyers ever have had. Desjardins did regardless, goes into their Hall of Fame Thursday night in the most elite of company, take it from the organization’s ultimate company man.
“After Mark Howe, between either Eric Desjardins and Jimmy Watson would be awfully close,” said Bob Clarke, who played with these guys, traded for these guys. “Kimmo Timonen would be close, too, Desjardins as the better defensive guy, Kimmo the better offensive guy, but Desjardins was a defensive defenseman who could also score, just didn’t try to rush the offense, similar to Mark that way.
“Eric was extremely smart as far as seeing the ice, who to give it to. Not forcing anything, he always knew who was open and wouldn’t try to score until he felt the team needed a goal. He was one of the most complete team players that have come through this organization. Everything was about helping the team to win. And you could count on one hand the amount of poor outings he would have in a year.”
He got off the plane that February day to suffer his one and only of 1995. Montreal-born, raised and drafted by the Canadiens (38th overall, 1987) the “hockey English only” Desjardins says he spoke upon arrival at age 26 was of little help at South Jersey supermarkets in his early months here. No translation, however, was needed for the booing as Desjardins went minus-one in his Flyers debut for 3-7-1 team that was five seasons removed from its last playoff spot, playing before a home crowd 748 short of capacity.
Humble guy is this inductee, and hardly because he had a humble beginning in Philadelphia. It didn’t last long.
Two days later at the Meadowlands, Eric Lindros chased down a Desjardins rebound and wheeled the puck to LeClair, whose goal staked the Flyers to a first period lead in a 3-1 victory, the Flyers’ first at New Jersey in five years.
“They looked like the Legion of Doom out there,” said Flyers center Jim Montgomery about the new line of Lindros, LeClair and Mikael Renberg. Desjardins was plus three that afternoon for a team what would go 25-9-3 the rest of that strike-shortened season and make the Eastern Conference finals.
Besides the Game 82 shootout that put the Flyers into the playoffs over the Rangers in 2010 and the record-breaking win in Boston -- No. 29 on the way to 35 straight unbeaten -- during 1979-80 -- there wasn’t a more significant regular season win in Flyers history than that one at Meadowlands. And after Keith Allen’s trades for Howe, Bernie Parent and Rick MacLeish, there wasn’t a better deal in the 48 years since the franchise’s berth than the one in which Clarke sent one star, Mark Recchi, to Montreal, for what turned out to be two.
LeClair became a three-time 50-goal scorer. Desjardins a consummate presence on the Flyer defense for 11 seasons.
“A great lateral skater and one of those guys that could load up minutes, too, on the power play, killing penalties, and getting his body and stick in front of people one-on-one,” said Lindros. “Everything he did was at 90 per cent or better.”
And 100 per cent of it was for the team.
“There are guys that can rush the puck and stuff like that, but they give up things at the other end,” said LeClair. “Combine his offensive ability with how (little) he gave up on the back end, there are not too many like him.
“As good as Big E was, Rico was the backbone of why we had so much success. He was the constant guy. He had a stick that was unbelievable, in the right place all the time. “
So, was his heart, why Desjardins could speak softly yet still as effectively as he maneuvered that stick. One of the quietest guys in the room, he still was the obvious choice to captain the 2000 run to the Eastern Conference final through the absence of the injured Lindros and cancer-stricken coach Roger Neilson.
“A pro,” recalls Rick Tocchet. “If you asked him, he would give an honest opinion.”
“He was an open book. There was no gimmick, no hidden agendas, with Eric Desjardins.”
The honest man was taught an honest game by Jacques Laperriere, who despite never bettering 40 points, won a Norris Trophy and six Stanley Cups in 12 seasons with the Canadiens, then, though 16 years in Montreal as an assistant coach, never steered wrong any kid.
“I was lucky I had him there,” recalls Desjardins. “He taught me things that young defensemen don’t learn until they get to the NHL.
“That’s how I became really sound defensively, without which I couldn’t have survived. I was not a guy to excel physically or with the big shot. I tried to be consistent, always work at everything.”
Twice, Desjardins was an end-of-season NHL second team All-Star and seven times a Barry Ashbee Trophy winner as the Flyers best defenseman, He was the defensive anchor of one Philadelphia finals team and two more that reached the semifinals. An additional Flyers team got that far without him, leaving not a member of that 2004 team that went down 2-1 in Game Seven of the semifinals to eventual champion Tampa Bay believing Desjardins wouldn’t have keyed the Flyers to their third Stanley Cup, if not for an incorrectly-set arm that re-broke just as he was about to return for the playoffs.
The Flyers had their share of early playoff flops, too, in the Desjardins years, and, of course, when that happens a team’s best players never can do enough for some fans. “I never felt they didn’t appreciate me, really felt that they were fair,” Desjardins remembers, but he forgets, or ignores, hearing from them while he struggled through the 2001-02 season with a shoulder in need of surgery.
He only twice made the top five in Norris Trophy balloting by the writers, leaving Ron Hextall not even certain Desjardins got his due inside the league.
“I don’t think you knew how good he was until you played with him,” said Hextall.
“He had all the intangibles, the unselfishness, playing in all situations, always thinking of the team before himself and rarely making a mistake.
“I mean how many defensemen rarely make a mistake? The more you saw him, the more you liked him. He had some traits similar with Howe that way.”
Desjardins did not have a four-point night for the Flyers, never broke 15 goals or 55 assists. His only NHL hat trick was in Game Two of the 1993 finals for the Stanley Cup winning Canadiens, a game and series remembered more for the Kings’ Marty McSorley getting caught with an illegal stick in the final minutes.
Although Desjardins buried a Game 1 overtime winner under the crossbar behind Mike Richter, starting the Flyers to a 1995 sweep of the defending champion Rangers, the contest for which he most appropriately should be recalled was Game 5 against the Penguins in 2000. His shot went in off LeClair to tie the game in the third period along the way to 73 shifts and 56:08 of ice time before Keith Primeau won it in the fifth overtime.
Nobody scored on Desjardins that night, like a lot of nights. More efficient than flashy, more enduring that dominating, his near-perfect sense on the ice extended to the locker room and the press conference.
“He had a terrific feel, knew when the team was in trouble or when it was really going good,” said Clarke. “I think he should have gone into coaching.”
Instead, Desjardins retired in 2006 to go back to Montreal, to a business a partner largely runs, to his kids, to the woods to hunt, and to the recreation league to play three nights a week. “Right now I don’t feel like I miss (professional hockey) enough to want to go back,” he says.
The love showered upon him in becoming the 23rd member of the Flyers Hall of Fame Thursday night won’t likely change his mind. Desjardins’ nickname, Rico, inspired by the rap song Rico Suave, was a compliment to his good looks, but he didn’t spend time admiring himself in the mirror.
“I’m not the kind of guy that would read a lot of papers or listen to a radio show or stuff like that,” he said. “For me what was important was that my teammates and the coaching staff and the organization appreciated me.
“That was my only concern really. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate the Philadelphia fans. They were good fans. But I wasn’t waiting for a big article in the paper about me, or a big ovation from the fans to feel good about myself.
He did for a better reason and with as much dignity as any player in franchise history. Chris Therien, Desjardins’ partner for most of his Philadelphia years, will tell you how much better a player he became because of his friend Rico’s company, but off the ice, he also was studied in the pursuit of becoming a better person.
“Desjardins is the kind of guy we all should be,” said Clarke. “Terrific man.”