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Homer's Odyssey

by Bill Fleischman / Philadelphia Flyers
Paul Holmgren donned a Flyers sweater for eight seasons (1975-84).
From his days as a tough Flyers player, Paul Holmgren has never been about him. It’s always about the Flyers.

When the Flyers surprised many observers by advancing to last season’s Stanley Cup finals, you didn’t see Holmgren strutting around as some NHL general managers I’ve known would do. These other GMs would almost burst with “see what I’ve accomplished” expressions. During the 2010 finals, Holmgren’s attitude was the same as coach Peter Laviolette’s: we’ve come this far, let’s win the Cup.

After the Flyers announced earlier this week that Holmgren has received a three-year contract extension, it was business as usual for the formidable guy known as “Homer.” When you’re a successful NHL GM, you’re always busy working on possible trades, internal issues, keeping an eye on the farm teams and junior players and dealing with the media.

Pausing from a lengthy business agenda on a recent morning, Holmgren looked back on the dark days when he took over as Flyers GM from Bob Clarke, his friend and former teammate.

“We had a lot of really good pieces in place,” Holmgren said. “I didn’t think the future was as dim as others painted it. Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and R.J. Umberger were all in their second years.”
Paul Holmgren took over the GM's role after his friend and former teammate Bob Clarke stepped down in 2006.

Referring to the Flyers perch atop the Eastern Conference standings, Holmgren said, “We’re happy where we are, but it’s a long year and a tough league. Our goal is to get into the playoffs. Last year, we snuck in (and showed) anything can happen.”

Through the draft and trades, Holmgren has built a deep, talented team: the Flyers can score and most games they are stubborn defensively. Despite the absence of defenseman Chris Pronger, as he recovers from a broken foot, the Flyers have marched on.

Pronger is one towering example of Holmgren’s shrewd acquisitions. Two others are Ville Leino and Matt Carle.

As Flyers fans know, after Leino was acquired from Detroit last season for veteran defenseman Ole-Kristian Tollefsen he didn’t play much. Then Leino worked his way into the lineup and was a productive player in the playoffs, setting a Flyers rookie record for points (21).

“Ville isn’t the fastest or biggest player in the world,” Holmgren said, “but he knows how to play the game. He’s really good with the puck. He’ll make a nice pass for you and give you the opportunity to score. I remember watching him play in Finland: he seemed to have the puck all the time.

“Matt isn’t a big, punishing defenseman like some Flyers in the past. But he gets you out of trouble and can make a good play in the offensive end.”

As the Flyers GM, Holmgren doesn’t have the time to scout as much as he used to. Scouting is one of his favorite parts of hockey. As he told Daily News columnist Rich Hofmann, “I like getting out to see junior games (and) I like going to college games. When Clarkie stepped down, I made a vow to not get away from doing that, but the nature of the (GM) job has kept me from doing as much as I’d like to.”
Paul Holmgren along with Peter Luukko and Ed Snider have secured the future of the Flyers by signing long term contracts of stars such as Chris Pronger, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter.

Great scouts have the ability to watch players on their current level of competition and project them as potential NHL players. “There are four or five categories you look for,” Holmgren said. “One of the biggest is skating (because it’s so important in today’s NHL). If you can’t skate, you’ll probably be bypassed. Then you look for how competitive the players are and how much hockey sense they have.”

With Ian Laperriere likely sidelined for the season with injuries, the Flyers are making use of the popular player as a scout. Laperriere has expressed interest in staying in hockey, either as a scout or coach.

“He’s watching the young kids we’ve draft, and he’s watching the Phantoms,” Holmgren said. “He worked out with some of the Phantoms (prior to this season). He’s gung ho about helping out. Keeping a colorful character like `Lappy’ involved in the game is a good thing.”

No GM, in any sport, has a perfect record. Remember those college players Holmgren signed two years ago for one-game appearances when the Flyers faced salary-cup issues? To Holmgren’s credit, he admitted the didn’t handle the cap issue well. As noted though, his overall record as GM is stamped with success. Hiring Laviolette is another of Holmgren’s major plusses.

Laviolette replaced Holmgren’s friend John Stevens in early December last season and, after a slow start, guided the Flyers to the Stanley Cup Final. Laviolette, who coached Carolina to the Stanley Cup in 2006, and Holmgren didn’t know each other well until the ’06 Olympics in Torino, Italy. Laviolette was the head coach of the United States Olympic team and Holmgren was an assistant manager.

“We lived in the same apartment in the village,” Holmgren recalled. “I got to see how he works. I was impressed with the thoroughness of his preparation. In the Olympics, you have the greatest players in the world and you have to get them together in a short period of time. His communication with the players was outstanding.

“He’s very positive: the glass is never half empty with him, it’s always half full. He doesn’t let things slide, good or bad.”

Sometimes, players eventually tune out even the best coaches.

Thus far, that hasn’t happened with Laviolette and the Flyers. “Lavy” knows when to push the right buttons, when to call time outs, when to tear into the players if they aren’t playing well.

Laviolette also knows when to surprise the Flyers. The latest example was their outdoor practice in New York’s Central Park the day before playing the Rangers.

“We kept it pretty quiet,” Holmgren said. ”As we were walking toward the little (dressing) room they had for us, I heard a little kid say, “That’s Chris Pronger!” Then the kid realized the Flyers were there. It was pretty cool.”

Imagine Rangers fans skating with their families in Central Park and seeing the hated Flyers arriving. I suspect a few parents grabbed their children to protect them.
Holmgren brought in head coach Peter Laviolette on Dec. 4 of the 2009-10 season, and would later advance to the Stanley Cup Final.
Also imagine Sergei Bobrovsky looking around Central Park and thinking “This is really cool,” or whatever they’d say in Russian. “Bob the goalie” has been a major find for the Flyers this season. After a tremendous start, Bobrovsky faltered a little as opposing teams learned how to score on him. Since then, however, Holmgren has been pleased with the rookie.
“He’s bounced back lately and played a lot better,” the Flyers GM said. “The coaches have done a good job with him. With Brian Boucher playing so well, the coaches have been able to step back with Sergei and work on his positioning and puck handling.”

Bobrovsky’s on-ice communication with teammates also is improving. “Bob” has been progressing with his English lessons.

“As we walked out of the arena in Boston,” Holmgren said, “I tapped him on the shoulder. He turned and said `How are you doing?”

Bob, the Flyers and Paul Holmgren are all doing well.

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