Since the Flyers are Peter Laviolette’s third NHL team as a head coach, he’s learned he can’t snap his fingers and have his new team playing exactly the way he wants. The Flyers played several games under Laviolette before the lights finally went on and they began executing his system.
“When there are changes, sometimes it does take time,” Laviolette said. “It didn’t happen right away. When there’s a new voice and a different direction there’s no right way and wrong way. We struggled for the first three weeks or so. We found ourselves in a bigger hole than when I first got here. The players were hesitating, but we seem to have found our way.”
When Laviolette was named the Flyers coach December 4, the feeling was that the club wasn’t responding under John Stevens. Their record was 13-11-1 and they were tied for 10th in the NHL’s Eastern Conference. They had lost six of their last seven games when general manager Paul Holmgren made the decision to replace Stevens with Laviolette.
Laviolette didn’t waste time patting players on the back. During one of his early games behind the Flyers bench, the new coach called a timeout and unleashed a Laviolette lashing at the players. Surely, many frustrated Flyers fans were saying “Way to go, coach!”
“We’ve come a long way,” Laviolette said, as the Flyers are fifth in the Eastern Conference at this writing. “In three months we’ve come from toward the bottom of the conference standings. It’s been a long road back. Over the last couple months we’ve taken a lot of steps in the right direction. We seem to be moving better, playing more disciplined and understanding the system.
“Going into the (Winter Olympic) break we were playing probably some of the more consistent hockey since I’ve been here. At the break you send some players to the Olympics and other players home. It’s a little bit of grind coming back. I feel we’ve slipped a little with our game and our conditioning to where we were before the break.”
The way the Flyers were playing before the Olympic break, their fans wished there was no Vancouver interruption. The Flyers were beating good teams (New Jersey and Montreal) and playing solid defense in front of goaltender Michael Leighton.
|Peter Laviolette reacts on the bench at the end of the 2010 Winter Classic at Fenway Park in Boston on January 1. (Getty Images) |
Regrettably for Leighton, he sustained a severe high left ankle sprain injury against Nashville and is sidelined for 8-to-10 weeks. Veteran Brian Boucher will carry the Flyers goaltending hopes the rest of the regular season and into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
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Growing up in Massachusetts, Laviolette was aware of the Boston-Philadelphia rivalry.
“Boston is a city that carries a big name when it comes to sports; Philadelphia is the same thing,” he said. “The Flyers have a lot of tradition and a lot of great history. First on their agenda is to win the Stanley Cup. When you come to work for an organization that has that that type of history with that agenda, you find yourself in a good spot.”
That the Flyers have not won the Cup in 35 years is one of the mysteries of sports.
Laviolette first laced up the skates when he was 4 years old. “I think every kid who plays hockey grows up (thinking about) playing in the NHL and scoring goals when you’re playing in your basement or on the street or a pond,” he said. “My path wasn’t one of scholarships in Division I and getting drafted. It didn’t unfold like that. I got the opportunity to play in high school and Division III college hockey. I went because I wanted a degree in business and they had hockey.”
Following graduation from Westfield State in Massachusetts, Laviolette signed a minor-league hockey contract with the Indianapolis Checkers of the International Hockey League.
“I carved out a career playing and got the opportunity to get my foot in the door coaching. I’ve been very fortunate to stay in hockey for 25 years.”
The Flyers have a lot of tradition and a lot of great history. First on their agenda is to win the Stanley Cup. When you come to work for an organization that has that that type of history with that agenda, you find yourself in a good spot.” - Peter Laviolette
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Laviolette was asked to be a player-assistant coach with the Providence Bruins in his last year there for Bobby Francis. “I really enjoyed it,” he said. “I guess at that point I wanted to be a head coach.”
Along the way, Laviolette, who played 12 games with the New York Rangers in 1988-89, learned from such coaches as Tim Taylor, a U.S. Olympic team coach; Francis; his high school coach, Bobby Luccini, and John Paddock, a former Flyers player and NHL coach who is now an assistant general manager with the club.
“I think you learn something from everybody,” Laviolette said. “Ultimately, you have to create your own identity as a coach: who you are, what you believe in, how the game should be played. I think you do that over time. You’re constantly learning and trying to get better.”
When Laviolette gets a break from coaching the Flyers, he also enjoys working with amateur hockey players. In February, he made an appearance with the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation players at the Scanlon Ice Rink in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. Laviolette jokingly said he didn’t know where he was, but he was enthusiastic about spending time on the ice with the youngsters.
“In that situation, you’re getting an opportunity to help kids who may not have gotten an opportunity to play hockey,” Laviolette said. “Through the Ed Snider Foundation, they are able to get out on the ice, get equipment and ice time and learn the game of hockey. To try and help them and share in that, that’s a positive thing and something I enjoy doing.”
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When Laviolette joined the Flyers he brought Kevin McCarthy with him. McCarthy, the Flyers’ first-round draft choice in 1977, was one of Laviolette’s assistants in Carolina. McCarthy played 10 seasons in the NHL. Jeff Reese, Craig Berube and Joe Mullen were retained to fill out the staff.
Referring to McCarthy, Laviolette said, “He’s a really good teacher. The players really respect him because he improves them as hockey players and human beings. Watching him deal with the game and people and life (are his strengths). He’s one of those character people that you feel fortunate you get to know and be friends with.”
Blending McCarthy in with the holdover assistants wasn’t an overnight achievement.
“It takes time,” Laviolette said. “Nothing would happen from one conversation. Through time, you work side by side. Every day you’re trying to do what’s best for the team. Eventually you start to form relationships.”
For the Flyers to be a force in the Stanley Cup playoffs, they still have to figure out a way to capitalize on momentum moving victories like the 3-2 decision over Chicago at the Wachovia Center. When Chris Pronger
converted Claude Giroux
’s pinpoint pass into the game-winner with just two seconds remaining, the Flyers should’ve stormed into New York and beaten the desperate Rangers. Instead, they let Sean Avery get under their skin and lost. To reach the playoffs and be successful, the Flyers will have to be more consistent.Please note that the views expressed in this column are not necessarily the views expressed by the Philadelphia Flyers Hockey Club.
Bill Fleischman is a veteran Philadelphia Daily News sportswriter. He was the Flyers' beat reporter for the Daily News in the 1970s, and continued to cover games in later years. A former president of the Professional Hockey Writers and the Philadelphia Sports Writers Associations, Fleischman is co-author of "Bernie, Bernie," the autobiography of Bernie Parent. Fleischman also is co-author of "The Unauthorized NASCAR Fan Guide." Since 1982, he has been an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware journalism program.
He is a graduate of Germantown High School and Gettysburg College.