The fact that the Flyers president also cannot see himself as a Lester Patrick Award winner has nothing to do with the cornea transplant he probably will undergo to finally rectify a problem caused by a skate blade at the bottom of an American Hockey League brawl in 1976. But assuredly he has witnessed the glorious growth of hockey in the United States that has run parallel to his own career.
“Who can imagine anything like this?” he said about the award, which appropriately will be presented Thursday night in Minneapolis, the twin city to St. Paul, where he grew up. “I look at how prestigious this is by the people who have been honored before me.
“It’s a who’s who in hockey.”
FLYERS RECIPIENTS OF THE
LESTER PATRICK TROPHY
1979-80: Bobby Clarke
1979-80: Fred Shero
1979-80: Ed Snider
1987-88: Keith Allen
2014-15: Paul Holmgren
One doesn’t have to be born in the USA to have been honored by the NHL for “Service to hockey in the United States.” In fact, the selections for an annual award first presented in 1966 grew to 17 players before in 1995 the committee could find worthy an American —Joe Mullen, now a Flyers’ assistant coach — who had made it in the NHL. But while Holmgren emerged during his peak playing years as one of the first premier U.S.-bred NHL players, he also has been chosen for this award for off-ice accomplishments that advanced the cause.
For three-plus years the coach of the Flyers and for nine seasons their general manager, Holmgren was an assistant coach for Team USA when the best American players beat Canada’s best in the watershed 1996 World Cup; an assistant coach of the 1998 Nagano US Olympic Team; and the assistant GM of the 2006 Torino Olympic squad. Since 2009, he has served on the US Men’s National Team Advisory Group. Safe to say, there is a lot more advising that needs to be done these days about the selection of our teams. Almost 25 per cent of current NHL players were born in the US
“When I first came into the NHL, you could count the American players on one hand,” he said.
Well, maybe on three, but on the American roster for the first Canada Cup (the forerunner of World Cups) in 1976, there barely was a forward who could play on the top two lines of a good NHL team. Thirty-eight years later, the US team for the Sochi Olympics was considered a failure for not getting past Canada in the semifinals.
“Based on the number of kids playing youth hockey in the US compared to other countries, it’s going to continue to grow, a great thing,” said Holmgren.
But the census count, while certainly a big factor, didn’t necessarily make this inevitable. NHL expansion and grass roots movements like the ones funded by the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation, have grown the sport beyond just the fervent enclaves of Minnesota and New England that stocked the 1980 Lake Placid miracle.
Holmgren played on a 1974 American team that participated in the forerunner of the World Junior Tournament (“Got beat by Sweden 11-1 and I thought we had a pretty good team,” he laughed), turned pro four years before Lake Placid, and was injured in an exhibition game and unable to play in the 1981 Canada Cup. By the time the next Canada Cup came around in 1984, a bad shoulder was about to force him from the game, so as a player, the timing never was with him to participate in the big American breakthroughs.
Those setbacks were typical, too, of a far-less-than-charmed that Holmgren has overcome to forge a career worth honoring. One night after debuting with the Flyers with a memorable brushing of Phil Esposito to his back side — “There’s the Stanley Cup,” proclaimed coach Fred Shero — Holmgren showed up for a team meeting at a Boston hotel with an eye suddenly so swollen from a week-old minor-league incident that he had to be rushed to Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary to save his sight. During emergency surgery, Holmgren suffered a reaction to the anesthetic that twice forced the operating room personnel to re-start his heart.
The door slammed on the Grim Reaper that time, but he has returned to the Holmgren family repeatedly. When Paul was 15, he came home from school to see the priest’s car in front of the house. His brother, Dave, 23, had passed from complications from diabetes that had left him blind the final four years of his life. Paul lost another brother, Mark, to diabetes and a sister, Janice, to cancer and was the only one of four siblings to make it to age 50.
“When I was 49, I was scared to death,” he said. “Really, every headache I feared might be a tumor.”
Turning 59 on Tuesday, he has spent a lifetime skating out from under clouds that included the mid-season folding of his first pro team, the WHA Minnesota Fighting Saints; the eye injury; his forced retirement at age 29 with a ravaged shoulder. The Flyers, who took a month to call after drafting him in the sixth round in 1976, once traded Holmgren without informing him and fired him as a coach two years after he had directed them to a semifinal, but Holmgren kept returning to the organization and working his way back up, both to head coach to succeed Mike Keenan in 1988, then general manager after Bob Clarke resigned early in the 2006 season.
Inheriting the worst team in Flyers history, Holmgren signed and traded them back to the semifinals the very next season and to the finals two years after that. Other than Snider and Clarke, who brought back his friend to the organization twice — as an assistant on the bench (1985) and the front office (1996) — there has not been a more constant presence in the organization.
“Mr. Snider and Clarkie have given me opportunities,” said Holmgren. And since he says the biggest thrill of his career remains playing in his first NHL game, you know that everything that has followed has been beyond his dreams. After the Fighting Saints, who had not paid their players for a month, folded, Holmgren assumed the Flyers, who had ventured a rare draft pick on an American without knowledge he had signed a WHA deal, had no interest. He was going to go back to the University of Minnesota to play baseball when Keith Allen offered a contract..
“I had no confidence,” said Holmgren. “Whenever I passed the puck, I thought I should have shot it, when I shot it, I thought I should have passed it,”
But he was big, powerful and so earnest that almost from Day One, Clarke became more than just a teammate.
“He went out of his way for every new guy,” said Paul, but with Holmgren, and later Dave Poulin, the bond was instant and deeper. In Holmgren’s case, it grew because of his diabetic family background.
“We talked about the disease and Clarkie was a big help to Mark,” said Holmgren. “Knowing what I know from how my brothers suffered, the fact that Bob was able to play at the level he did was a miracle.”
Paul was a minor one himself, considering how he developed a scoring touch in the absence of depth perception. Reading exercises strengthened his vision, although the reported 20-30 he achieved was a lie. “They never changed the chart, so I memorized it,” he said.
Still, with experience and sheer will he gradually became a lot more than just the toughest Flyer of the post-Dave Schultz era. Holmgren scored 30 goals and added 10 in the playoffs on the 1979-80 Stanley Cup finals team and played in the All Star Game in 1981 before the strength in his shoulder gradually gave out.
“He was all beat-up and gave the Flyers what he had,” said Clarke. When Coach-GM Bob McCammon didn't think that was much any more, he traded Holmgren back home to Minnesota just before a Spectrum game against those North Stars. Not wanting to upset the team, McCammon decided to make the announcement — to Holmgren, too — after the game, but upset he wasn’t dressing, Paul left the Spectrum and got the news on the car radio.
But with just that Hartford interruption, Holmgren has been with his best friends — the Flyers — for going on 40 years. They were there for him when his temper got him suspended (seven games) for hitting referee Andy von Hellemond and (five) for cracking Carol Vandals over the helmet with a stick. And they will be there for him Thursday when that same —and at the same time different — guy receives the honor of his lifetime.
“I don’t think I’m aggressive by nature,” said Holmgren. “Most people who know me say I am a calm, quiet guy but if you are competitive, stuff sometimes happens. I have been known to do stupid things playing pickup basketball too.”
Clearly, the NHL long ago forgave Holmgren his trespasses. He has come as far as has American ice hockey, a journey that largely they have taken in the same lifetime.