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Backchecking With Paul Holmgren

by Staff Writer / Philadelphia Flyers

Holmgren discusses being a player, coach and general manager in the NHL

By Zack Hill

Flyers Assistant General Manager Paul Holmgren recently sat down for an in-depth interview with to discuss his days in his playing days and his present position with the Flyers.

Question: What are your duties as an assistant general manager?
"As the assistant general manager, my main duties are to oversee the Philadelphia Flyers’ American Hockey League affiliate, Philadelphia Phantoms. Along with Ron Hextall, I keep track of the player personnel, coaching staff and training staff of the Phantoms. I also oversee both our pro scouting staff and amateur scouting staff."

Question: Do you work closely with Bob Clarke?
"Yes. There is nothing that goes on that Bob doesn’t know about. He is the general manager of both clubs and he needs to be kept abreast on a daily basis of what is going with both teams."

Question: You have worn a lot of different hats over the years. You were a player, an assistant head coach, a head coach and a general manager at the NHL level. Do you like being behind the scenes in your role now, or did you prefer being on the bench as a player or behind the bench as a head coach?
"Obviously, the best job in the world is being a player. You only have to worry about one person. I enjoyed coaching, too. I went from being a player to an assistant coach for four years under Head Coach Mike Keenan with the Flyers. I really enjoyed that. When you go from being a player to a coach, you still feel like you’re a real part of the action. As I’ve gotten away from coaching, I have no desire to go back. I like what I’m doing now. I like the management end in terms of looking for young players and watching how they develop over a course of time. I enjoy working closely with the coaching staff with the Phantoms and listening to what they have to say about their players. I also enjoy working with our scouts. The amateur scouting business might be the hardest business in our game. Amateur scouts have to attend games all over the place and speculate who is going to be a good player four, five, six years down the road."

Question: How do they know who is going to be good down the road?
"It’s really difficult. It’s easy to go to a hockey game and find the best player on the ice. Anybody can do that. An amateur scout not only has to find the best players, but also find a guy a team can draft in the fifth or sixth round. They need to find or see something that they can grab onto in that particular player, whether he is a great skater, or he is a tough, competitive player, or a great passer, skills like that. The scouts are looking for that something special in a player that the team can latch onto and then hope that player develops. Our amateur scouting staff does a tremendous job. They are a very close-knit group of guys who communicate well with each other. They have some great fights over players when we have our meetings. It’s neat to just sit and watch the interaction. I will sit and listen and I’ll also ask questions that really get them thinking about what we’re trying to do with the Flyers. Our ultimate goal here is to win. Our scouts live and die with how the Flyers and Phantoms perform."

Question: Are there any names of the past that come to mind when thinking of "diamonds in the rough"involved with the Flyers organization?
"There have been a few in the Flyers organization over the years. (Phantoms Assistant Coach) Craig Berube was a real diamond in the rough. The Flyers signed him as a free agent in 1986. I don’t know who scouted him or who discovered him, but we brought him in here and to the "Chief’s"credit, he was tough kid that didn’t really do anything great other than fight. He made himself a good player and ended up playing over 1,000 NHL games. You have to take your hat off to a guy like that. There are a couple of kids playing right now for the Phantoms that might be diamonds in the rough. David Printz is a Swedish player who we drafted in the seventh round (225th overall) of 2001 NHL Entry Draft. Our scouting staff saw him play in Montana in some obscure junior hockey league (AWHL). We drafted him and we continue to watch him develop. He attended our mini-camp the last two years and has really impressed us. We took a chance on him this season, signed him to a contract, and over the first six games with the Phantoms, he’s probably been the most pleasant surprise of anybody on the team. He’s a big kid (6’4", 220 pound) and he is in tremendous shape. Any off-ice activities the team has done, he has done very well. He wins all of our five-mile runs. And he’s played well. It’s neat to watch players like him mature and develop."

Question: Is Philadelphia native Tony Voce a surprise?
"I would not consider Tony Voce a surprise. What is surprising about Tony is how quickly he has produced. He’s a kid who was able to put up real good numbers over the last four years at Boston College. He’s a smaller player. What people don’t know is how thick he is from the waist down. He has a huge rear-end on him and he’s got big legs. What’s made him successful, and hopefully he can continue to have success, is his competitiveness. He wins little one-on-one confrontations that a player needs to win. He’s not opposed to getting in areas where it can get dirty. Those are areas that you have to get to in order to score at the AHL level and even more so at the NHL level."

Question: You played in over 500 NHL games and recorded 1,600 penalty minutes (second all-time in Flyers history) in 10 seasons in the NHL. Did you like being an enforcer or did you think of it as being "part of the job?"
"I was an American kid playing hockey in Minnesota and there was no fighting allowed. I played one season of junior hockey in Minnesota and there was some fighting and then I went to college the following season and there was no fighting. If you fought in college, you got suspended for that game and the next game, so nobody fought. I liked playing football when I was a kid and I really liked the hitting. I considered myself a physical player, not necessarily a fighter. When you’re a physical player who liked to hit at the NHL level, fighting became a part of the aftermath. Did I like fighting? I can’t say I did. I get a headache thinking about it today. Fighting was a means to an end. I knew I had to do it. I was a player who would stick up for my teammates. I wasn’t a fighter, per se, but if I had to get in there and stick up for someone like Bob Clarke, Kenny Linesman, Jimmy Watson or anybody else for that matter, I was going to be there."

Question: Who was the toughest opponent you ever faced in the NHL?
"There were a lot of tough guys back then. Terry O’Reilly was probably the toughest player that I ever played against. He was a good, hard-nosed player that whenever you played against him you knew it was going to be a struggle.

Question: You got hurt really bad once and it wasn’t due to a fight. Your heart actually stopped beating for quite some time. What exactly happened?
"I don’t really remember. I had an eye injury that actually occurred when I was playing for the Flyers’ minor league team. I got called up to the Flyers and my eye continued to get worse. I played my very first game against the New York Rangers and the next day we flew to Boston. We were going to play a Saturday afternoon game against the Bruins. On Friday night, we had a team meeting that (head coach) Fred Shero always planned. Barry Ashbee and Bob Clarke grabbed me and rushed me to the hospital. They ended up having to do emergency surgery on my eye. I had a corneal laceration that had to be repaired. During the operation, I had some sort of allergic reaction to the anesthesia and apparently my heart stopped for some period of time. They had to bring the paddles out to restart my heart. Heck, I didn’t find out about it until my dad told me later that day or the next, I don’t remember. I have no recollection other than what I’ve been told."

Question: What are your top 10 hockey memories?
"No. 10 - Playing in the Minnesota State High School hockey tournament as a junior and senior. As a Minnesota kid, this is a huge deal.
No. 9 - Playing in the World Junior Tournament in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in 1973. We never won a game, but what an experience.
No. 8 - Being a member of the Clark Cup playoff champion St. Paul Vulcans in 1974 (Midwest Junior hockey league, now called the United States Junior League).
No. 7 - Playing for the University of Minnesota, WCHA champions and NCAA runner up in 1974-75.
No. 6 - Signing with by my hometown Minnesota Fighting Saints in the WHA in 1975. Unfortunately, the team folded in March 1976.
No. 5 - Signing with the Philadelphia Flyers in March 1976 and playing my first NHL game with the team vs. the New York Rangers.
No. 4 - Being an assistant coach for the World Cup of Hockey champion Team USA in 1996.
No. 3 - Being named head coach of the Flyers in June 1988.
No. 2 - Playing in the 1980 Stanley Cup Finals for the Flyers. Even though we lost to the Islanders, it is something I will never forget.
No. 1 - Being a member of the Flyers during the 35-game unbeaten streak in 1979-80---what a ride!"

Question: What is the Holmgren family up to these days?
"The family is good. All of the kids, Jason (26), Kirsten (24), Wes (22) and Greta (18) are out of the house. We have an empty nest now. Jason lives in Minnesota with his wife, Becky, and their daughter. My granddaughter (Hannah) is going to be a year old on November 24, and she recently starting walking. Kirsten is attending college in Minnesota as well as working full time. Wes is a senior majoring in accounting at the College of New Jersey and my youngest, Greta, is a freshman at Villanova University. My lovely wife Doreen ("the warden") is presently employed with the Phantoms in their accounting department.

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