PHILADELPHIA – Paul Holmgren joked that he cried when Ron Hextall left the Flyers organization in 2006 to go to Los Angeles and help build an eventual Stanley Cup winner.
Funny as his deadpan was, it was an important glimpse into the soul of a man who lives and breathes Flyers hockey. For Holmgren knew – has known for months really – that unless he got his assistant general manager a promotion, he would soon leave the Flyers again.
Several teams wanted to hire Hextall as their next general manager. The Flyers wouldn’t say who was calling, but it’s no secret that both the Washington Capitals and Vancouver Canucks are actively searching for candidates to fill their open positions.
Holmgren knew that would be the case. Heck, he knew it when he hired him back from the Kings last summer. This time, Holmgren didn’t want to let such a good asset get plucked from the nest.
The question became, how to make it work so that Hextall would stay in Philadelphia. So, he started formulating a plan as early as November. He met with Hextall and talked about the possibility of transitioning him into a general manager’s role if Paul himself could stay within the organization in another capacity.
Then, in December, the position of team president opened up when Peter Luukko resigned and Holmgren had an idea. He talked it over with Hextall. In January, he took it directly to chairman Ed Snider.
The plan: Holmgren would move into the vacated president’s chair and Hextall would take over as GM, effective the end of the season.
Snider liked the plan. It made sense. It’s a direction that a lot of sports teams in other leagues are starting to take – where the operations people take more of a business role as the two parts of managing a franchise blend ever-more.
It put a sharp, astute businessman in Holmgren into a position of need and it put an equally sharp and astute analytical hockey mind into the general manager’s chair.
It was a seamless idea, one Hextall wouldn’t have accepted unless it were.
"I wouldn’t have taken this job if Paul Holmgren didn’t want to move to the position he’s moving to,” Hextall said. “I absolutely wouldn’t. I would have refused. You can ask Homer, at one point when we talked about it, he said, ‘Stop asking me that. I want to go where I’m going… I’m very comfortable.’ Again, I’ve had a long relationship with Homer, but I’m not the type of person to kind of get in somewhere without the people around me that I care about and I’ve worked with being very comfortable."
And like that, the plan was put in place. Five months later, it came to fruition. It wasn’t a kneejerk reaction to a first round playoff loss to the New York Rangers. It wasn’t a change forced by Snider. It was something that was on the docket for quite some time.
Hextall will have a different approach to some things than Holmgren or any other general manager of Flyers’ teams past. Namely, he will put an emphasis on player development and he will not shy away from advanced hockey analytics – although he did caution that you can’t be a slave to the math, but rather should use it as an evaluative tool.
But, like Holmgren he believes in using the draft to make the team better. He believes in being strong at the center position. He believes a defense should be a good mix of size and speed and not all one way or the other.
But, if nothing else, Hextall believes in patience – something he hardly had as a player. He believes in exhausting all forms of analysis and thought – as well as conversation – about any personnel decision, whether it be free agency, a trade or a draft pick – and that will include leaning on Holmgren when the time is right.
“I’d been an idiot not to,” Hextall said about consulting with Holmgren. “Homer played the game, he was an assistant coach, he was a head coach, as he mentioned [also] in another organization. He was an assistant GM and he’s been a general manager. If I don’t use all my resources, I’m not doing a very good job.
“Homer will be somebody I talk to about things, and bounce ideas off of. Why with a background like he’s got would I not talk to him? It’s no different than talking to our pro scouts and amateur scouts about amateur or pro players. Absolutely I’ll bounce ideas off of Homer. In the end it’ll be my job, like it was Homer’s with Mr. Snider, to talk Homer into what I’m thinking and what I want to do, and then run it up the ladder to Mr. Snider explaining why we think it’s a good move for the organization and why I want to move forward with it.”
And that will start right away. Hextall has just seven weeks until the draft, a few days more than that until free agency. There will be trade discussions in the interim, mostly heating up at the conclusion of the Stanley Cup Finals, which has to end by June 18 at the latest. So, time is of the essence for Hextall to make an imprint on the Flyers for next season.
“If you think winning a Stanley Cup is easy, I’ve got news for you,” Hextall said. “The one thing I mentioned earlier, Philadelphia’s not sitting there waiting for No. 1 picks year after year after year for five years… To maintain something for 25 or 30 years, which has been done here… it’s hard to do. You take a look at the franchises around the league that have been as successful as this one – probably in all of pro sports – in the last 30 years, and there’s not many. It’s a hard thing to do. They went to the finals in 2010… we lost in game 7 in 1987, we lost in the finals in 1997.
“if you look at the track record, other than maybe not winning the big one, which again there’s 30 teams out there, and right now there’s a team, I won’t mention any names, there’s a team out there just collecting No. 1 picks right now. Yeah, they’re going to be a pretty good team in three or four years, but ask their fans if they’ve had a fun last seven or eight years.
“The culture of winning is nothing to be embarrassed about. We should all be damn proud of this organization and how successful they’ve been. Short of winning a Stanley Cup, this organization’s done everything. That is the goal, and I can tell you there’s nothing anybody in this organization won’t do to win a Stanley Cup, from the very top all the way down.”
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