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MELTZER: A Thank You to Homer

Flyers contributor shares his memory of Paul Holmgren throughout his years covering the team

by Bill Meltzer @BillMeltzer / philadelphiaflyers.com

Holmgren on New Role

Paul Holmgren on his new role with the Flyers

Paul Holmgren on his new role with the Flyers

  • 01:14 •

When the late Ed Snider asked then-general manager Paul Holmgren to consider becoming team president, the team's co-founder placed the ultimate expression of trust in someone he'd known for nearly 40 years. Mr. Snider told "Homer" that he was the best person to uphold the franchise's "family" identity, from top to bottom. In other words, Holmgren was asked to help make sure the Flyers brand would be protected and nourished.

During his five years as team president, Holmgren approached the job the same way he did as a Flyers player, assistant coach, head coach, scout, assistant general manager, and general manager: He poured every ounce of his passion and energy into it. 

For example, Holmgren was tasked with being able to understand not only the functioning of the hockey operations department -- the area in which Holmgren was most comfortable and familiar -- but also to understand how other branches within the organization worked. It was the president's responsibility to make sure that everyone saw the big picture: they're all working toward the same goal.

Holmgren's manner of speaking isn't flowery or showy: It's very direct, very straightforward, and heartfelt. He is generally soft-spoken but firm. No one cared more about the Flyers -- past, present, and future -- than Homer did, and that sincerity always shined through. 

On the ice and in the realms of coaching and making tough decisions as a general manager, "Homer" was always -- and still is -- a tough guy. He's highly competitive, despises losing every bit as much as Clarke does, and believes in putting the good of the team and the organization first under almost any circumstance. 

That's Paul Holmgren, the hockey guy: the tough guy winger who cracked in the NHL at a time when there were still relatively few Americans in the league. He'd drop the gloves with anyone at any time, especially when it came to defending a teammate, but he also made himself into a 30-goal-scoring power forward. 

At the time Holmgren first cracked the Flyers lineup in 1976-77, he took the lineup spot that had previously been occupied by Dave "the Hammer" Schultz; a wildly popular fan favorite in Philadelphia to this very day. When the recently traded Schultz returned to the Spectrum as a member of the LA Kings, it was predictable and fully expected which player would be the one he'd seek out for his first fight as a visiting player: the tall, lanky-looking American. 

Holmgren won the fight decisively. The next day, a local newspaper headline proclaimed Holmgren "the new heavyweight champion of the Spectrum." Holmgren didn't like it, and told the reporter that Schultz just as easily could have gotten the better of him. 

Throughout his career, Holmgren's toughness was his hallmark. But he wasn't a one-trick pony. He could score when given linemates the caliber of Ken Linseman and Brian Propp on their famed "Rat Patrol" trio. He forechecked relentlessly. He was excellent on the boards. As generations changed and the Broad Street Bullies era player gave way to the players of the 1980s, Holmgren was one of the leaders who took young players under his wing. 

Holmgren did it all despite having suffered a very serious early-career injury that permanently and severely compromised his vision in one eye. He battled through a litany of other injuries, too, but never once made excuses. He was a testament to how desire and work ethic can win out over more naturally gifted players with less inner drive. 

But he's also someone with a heart of gold who believes not on giving back to the game, the organization and the fans, but also in paying it forward to others. 

As an assistant coach under Mike Keenan, Holmgren was a no-nonsense voice of reason whom the team's locker room leaders felt they could trust. By the time Holmgren became head coach, there had been a player mutiny against Keenan and roster attrition due to key injuries (Tim Kerr and Mark Howe), trades (Brad McCrimmon) and other factors. Nevertheless, Holmgren coaxed a declining Flyers team to the 1989 Wales Conference Final and to within two victories of another trip to the Stanley Cup Final.

As general manager, Holmgren took over from Bob Clarke in the midst of the worst season in franchise history (2006-07). Through a series of astute trades and free agent acquisitions that brought in the likes of Kimmo Timonen, Scott Hartnell, Danny Briere, Braydon Coburn and more, the Flyers were back in the Eastern Conference Final the very next season. Two years later, they made a run all the way to an overtime Game 6 of the 2010 Stanley Cup Final. In 2010-11, the Flyers had their best regular season in years and won another playoff round. In 2011-12, the Flyers upset the Stanley Cup favorite Penguins in the first round. 

There were some missteps along the way and decisions for which Holmgren wished he could have had a do-over. But the overall weight of his GM tenure was a positive one in terms of its impact on the NHL-level roster at the time. 

There's another side to Paul Holmgren: the human side. In many ways, he embodies the qualities that Mr. Snider himself prided in the Flyers family. 

Through the years, "Homer" has done countless good deeds for people both inside and outside the game. He has presented new opportunities to people in whom he sees promise and also the resources for second chances to those sincerely in need of one.

On a daily basis, Paul Holmgren cares about people's well-being and about their families. That extends even to people he doesn't personally know. 

"Homer" dislikes having attention called to the ways he's helped others in need. He's had others help him out in his own life at times when he was in need of a helping hand -- true friends such as Mr. Snider and Bob Clarke, family members, and others both within and outside the game -- and his gratitude is expressed by his actions toward others as well as his loyalties to those close to him. 

Holmgren is supremely modest. He'd have been put in the Flyers Hall of Fame years ago -- as the only person in franchise history who has served it as a player, coach, general manager and president, his credentials are beyond dispute -- but did not feel it proper to do so while he was still in a major decision-making capacity. He's never wanted credit or Thank You's' -- although he deserves them.

That, in a nutshell, is the essence of Paul Holmgren the human being. 

Another "secret" about Homer is that he has a tremendous sense of humor. Those who don't know him, or only know him from watching him in formal interview settings, where he rarely smiles or chuckles, don't often get to see his quick -- but extremely dry -- wit. The reality is that he is someone who doesn't take himself too seriously, and can deliver or take a verbal zinger with the best of them.

Last but not least, Paul Holmgren loves Flyers fans. He understands that all the fans want is a winning team, and they dream of a Cup parade in Philadelphia as much as he does. He's never taken criticism personally, knowing that it part and parcel of the life of an NHL player, coach, or executive.

Holmgren stepping aside as Flyers team president to take on a senior advisor role means that he will no longer be deeply involved on a day-to-day basis. He is looking forward to spending more time with his grandchildren and watching hockey more through the eyes of a fan of the Flyers than as someone on the front lines.

Regardless, Holmgren will still be a Flyer, through and through. Whenever called upon by David Scott, he will give his 100 percent to be of service. 

It's the only way he knows how to be. 

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