When fans look at an NHL team, they mostly look at the on-paper talent on the roster and compare that to the product they see on the ice. That product has certain playing-style characteristics. Is there a solid defense? Does the team have great goaltending? Is there an abundance of goal-scoring ability? All of those things point to what the team must do be successful in the regular season and playoffs.
The part that people don't see is the relationships within the locker room among the cast of characters that come together to form a team. The strength of these relationships is an intangible to the public that cannot be measured by individual statistics but eventually shows up over time in the win-loss column.
It shows up in a team's resiliency in times of adversity. It tends to show up in the goals against column, too, because it takes a lot of unglamorous hard work and teamwide unity and commitment to one another to play just as hard for one another without the puck as with it. Last but not least, because teammates spend so much time together, it shows up in a team's consistency across the marathon that is the NHL season from the first day of camp until the end of the playoffs.
This is achieved through mutual accountability. It is also by being able to manage the constant daily pressures that come with the territory of playing in the National Hockey League.
If the atmosphere is too lackadaisical, even the most talented roster on paper will be inconsistent on the ice and lack the ability to out-compete top opponents when the chips are down. Too uptight, and the team will burn out both mentally and physically.
What makes for a good mix in the locker room? There is no one single "magical recipe" that makes a group of individuals merge together to become a successful team. I have seen many different characters and individuals over my career, and I was on successful Flyers teams that had pretty dissimilar traits.
I played for some that were close-knit both on and off the ice and others that blended pretty well on the ice and had mutual understandings within the room but usually went their separate ways after the game. Either one can work under the right circumstances but, speaking from personal experience. the most enjoyable groups to be part of are the ones where you come to the rink as a team and leave as a team afterwards whether it's a game night or a practice day.
With that being said, I have sifted through my memory bank and came up with what I thought was the best Flyers team in terms of locker room chemistry. I would choose the 1999-2000 team as the closest-knit group with the best overall chemistry.
Man, did we ever have a cast of off-ice beauties in that group! We had guys in the locker room that were intense and others that kept the room light. I would put myself in the latter category. I hated to lose as much as anyone but, on day-to-day basis, I was pretty easy-going. I loved to joke around and laugh, and felt that I contributed to keeping the team loose.
We worked and played hard that year but we also laughed hard. We had a whole lot of talent on that team but we also had a group that I was proud to call my friends. Just to name a few, I loved being teammates with Craig Berube, and Rick Tocchet, Keith Jones and Keith Primeau and Eric Desjardins.
Of that group, only Rico had been a longstanding member of the Flyers teams that dated back to the start of my career in Philadelphia. The other guys, all vets, came aboard a little later on. (Note: Recchs was a teammate when I was rookie but traded to Montreal early in the season in a deal for John LeClair and Desjardins, and then came back to Philly several years later).
Change the people, and you change the chemistry. That group of guys who came aboard after our 1996-97 team that had reached the Stanley Cup Final, which also included veteran defenseman Luke Richardson, brought along a whole lot of on-ice experience and locker room know-how in terms of when to be serious and when to joke around. By this point, I was getting to be an NHL veteran myself.
To give an example of this, here's a story: I would say, for the last 40 games of the year and playoffs we would tape something to Craig Berube's stick literally every single day. It might be a dustpan or a pail or a box of Kleenex or an entire roll of stick tape. It was to let Chief know that he'd be just about as well off trying to handle the puck with any of these objects as he would with the blade of his stick. He'd roll his eyes in mock disgust, then chuckle and take it all in stride and have a great time with it.
Chief used to have fun walking by rookie callups or reporters, giving them a joking version of the stare-and-scowl he often wore on the ice,and then the corners of his mouth would break into friendly vampire grin. That was his way of saying hello. Under the tough exterior, Craig is very caring with a heart of gold.
Jonesy was great with the locker room banter and on-ice chirps. He had a quip and a comeback for every situation. He could take teasing with a hearty laugh and then could give it back double. Loved to instigate and prod, but would be the first guy with a word of encouragement when you needed it.
Recchs was a top point producer his entire career, who had won a Cup with Pittsburgh early in his career, and would later win several more. He loved being a Flyer, and was probably a more well-rounded player his second stint after coming back from Montreal than he had been the first time. Mark was a star on the ice but just a regular guy off the ice and a great teammate; same with John LeClair.
Tocchet, of course, was a longtime Flyers player from the previous generation of successful club. He started out as one of the young guns during the Mike Keenan years. By the time he eventually got back to the Flyers for a second stint, he was an elder statesman who had seen and done it all in the league. Still tough as nails. Still scored clutch goals. Still a great guy off the ice. Still a total pro. Intense when he needed to be, pretty easy-going the rest of the time.
Chief and Tocch and Luke Richardson all knew how to keep guys accountable. Believe me, no one wanted any of those guys mad at them. If they were, though, it was for good reason. The rest of the time, they kept things loose. You also knew they all had your back, whether some guy had cheap-shotted you on the ice or if your car had broken down on the way to the rink. They'd take care of you.
Luke in particular would do absolutely anything for a teammate. No ask was too big or too small. Off the ice, he made sure that everyone felt like they belonged. It made no difference who you were, how long you'd be there or what your role was on the team. Didn't matter if you were a guy he'd known since junior hockey or a just-arrived European player still learning the language and culture. Luke would help you to the absolute best of his ability, day or night, at the rink or on off-day.
In return, damn right, you never wanted to disappoint these guys. You'd see how hard they worked each and every day, how willingly they'd shed their own blood to protect you if that's what it took, how they made sure you didn't feel isolated or like a lesser part of the team off the ice. How they never threw you under the bus to a coach or to a reporter. The least you could do was to try your 100 percent best to follow in kind.
Keith Primeau was more on the serious end of the stick; a little less unflappable than the stoic Rod Brind'Amour, less go-with-the-flow than John LeClair. I don't meant that in a bad way whatsoever. I simply mean that Prims was all business, on the ice and in the locker room. He wasn't going to joke around much and wasn't the right guy to needle. He needed his focus and concentration to be in "on" mode most of the time to be successful. As a teammate, you needed to respect that. Once you got to know Keith and he got to know you -- this is the type of mutual understanding I referred to earlier -- he was actually a very good leader and a nice guy.
As I mentioned in last week's blog about leadership, my longtime defense partner, Eric Desjardins, was another player in the locker room that did not say much but was as important as anybody you would find in that room. He brought a Stanley cup with him, impeccable work habits, an almost superhuman ability to block out pain (including playing through an 80 percent ACL tear for half a season) and a winner's attitude wherein he never made a single excuse. Win or lose, he was one who stayed on an even keel but you knew that losing stung him deeply.
Both before and after 1999-2000, we had winning team. That year's team wasn't even our most talented of my two-stint Flyers career. We'd lost Eric Lindros for much of the season. Rod Brind'Amour's iron man streak ended at the start of the season and then he was traded mid-season for Prims.
Nevertheless, even with depletions at key times and with the adversity of Roger Neilson being diagnosed with cancer and assistant coach Craig Ramsay taking over as interim head coach near the end, I was never on a team that was more perfectly assembled and better equipped to win a Stanley Cup than the one we had that year.
Yes, I include the 1996-97 team that reached the Stanley Cup Final and the 2003-04 team (the final 3/4 year of my first Flyers stint) in that statement. Those were special teams for different reasons, but the best chemistry was forged among that 1999-2000 group, in my opinion. In the 2000 Stanley Cup playoffs, we had a three games to one lead on the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference Finals before losing three straight. That was the most painful result of my NHL career, made even worse by the fact the Devils won the Stanley Cup. It stung me worse than the Cup Final sweep by Detroit three years earlier.
To this day, it still hurts.That was a perfectly put together group by Bob Clarke. We were ultra-competitive but loose. We had some youth, such as rookie goalie Brian Boucher and rookie defenseman Andy Delmore, and we had older veteran guys who really mentored younger players and help them along. Being a great team is not just about being able to move the puck and score goals. It's also about loving your teammate off the ice like you would a family member. Any time you have a group that has the talent to compete, but also a family-like level of caring for one another, you are on to something special and unique. Clarkie knew how to build teams.
Like any big family, you are going to find a cast of characters with different personalities. Like any family, sometimes there will be disagreements that get heated. A strong family unit pulls through it, and gets that much stronger.
Clarkie understood the importance of that dynamic. He also understood that a team also need some guys who don't rock the boat and pretty much get along well with everybody. These middle-ground guys are the bridge between the most intense teammates and the ultra laid-back ones, and help keep the team from being too divided into cliques.
I think was one of those middle-ground guys. John LeClair and Shjon Podein would be two others; Johnny more on the quiet side than Podes but with a dry sense of humor, and Podes certainly more on the outgoing end. Both were very easy for everyone to get along with. What's more, I never met a human being who couldn't get along with Mikael Renberg. He's a genuinely good man who finds the good in every other person and makes the best of every situation.
A quick example of Johnny's dry wit at its best: We had a game in the early 2000s where, for whatever reason, we just couldn't get anything going. The guys were starting to get frustrated, slamming sticks and yelling at no one in particular. The body language was bad, and the moods were foul.
On the bench, Johnny hollered in a deadpan voice, "C'mon, boys! We just need to pick up on Pavel's energy, and we'll be fine."
I looked down the bench. Young forward Pavel Brendl, who was anything but a high-energy sort of personalty, sat there inattentively with a slumped-over and lethargic posture, stick blade facing the wrong way and a sad-eyed facial expression that looked very much like the Droopy Dog cartoon character. I couldn't help myself. I broke out laughing so hard that I nearly wet myself. Other guys spit out the contents of their water bottles from their laughter. It was contagious.
Just like that, the frustration was lifted. Bad body language gave way to a more positive vibe. Suddenly, we were all having some fun again. Hockey is best when you're competing hard but also having fun.
We'll close this week with a few more of my favorite anecdotes about staying loose, and the importance of your relationships with teammates.
One of the best examples I can give you about staying loose before game and how a guy helped I was my NHL debut against Quebec at the Spectrum. I was nervous a couple hours before the game, getting ready to play. I went to the training room to hang out for a while; that's what a lot of guys did.
In the room were two of our veteran NHL players, Mark Lamb and Craig MacTavish. They were old buddies, having played together in Edmonton for years and won a Stanley Cup together. I was in awe and a bit speechless.
Lamb, a low-scoring but defensively sound checking forward and penalty killer, must have noticed it.
He said, "I think we should fly in Darryl Sittler for the game today."
I asked why.
"That's 'cause I'm gonna break his record today," Mark replied.
"What record?" I asked.
I wasn't trying to be the straight man -- I had no idea what record Lamber was talking about -- but it was set up on the tee and Mark delivered the punch line with gusto.
"Ten points in one game," he proclaimed. "They're gonna have a big ceremony for me after I do it."
I laughed, and my nerves were calmed for a few moments. Mark, by the way, had 46 goals and 146 points in his entire 403-game NHL career. He did have nine points as a Flyer, but that came over 27 games.
A couple of other great guys I want to mention: Jeremy Roenick and Peter Forsberg.
One positive thing to have as part of locker room chemistry and looseness is a veteran who can take heat from the head coach -- especially if it's a hard-pushing type -- and have it roll right off his back. He can give it right back, too, in the right doses.
J.R. was exactly that sort of presence in our locker room when Ken Hitchcock was the coach; from a later generation, Scott Hartnell provided some of the same when Peter Laviolette was behind the bench. They could take whatever Hitch or Lavy dished out, give it back just enough to make the boys in the room or the bench grin, and keep right on being themselves.
Aptly nicknamed "Styles" by his teammates -- he also had it on his license plate -- Roenick was absolutely beauty. Such a character, complete with a disco ball that he brought into the locker room. Hitch hated the thing, and the more he demanded that J.R. get rid of it, the more adamant he was about keeping it.
Imagine if Robin Williams had played the Bob Crane role on Hogan's Heroes, and Ken Hitchcock himself was cast as Col. Klink. You'd get an idea of how zany the clashes were between those two.
Only J.R. could get away with some of things he threw back at Hitch. One night, from the ice, Roenick hollered over at our haranguing on the bench, "We're trying to play hockey here, Hitch. Just shut up already!" Another time, after Hitch found fault with our performance in a shut-out win over Pittsburgh, Roenick told the media, "If he couldn't bitch, he wouldn't be Hitch."
Here's the key: J.R. was a character but he also HAD character in spades. We knew -- and Hitch knew, too -- that Roenick would compete his tail off and deliver when it was needed the most. Jeremy's disposition made it a little easier for all of us to play under Hitch, and the coach understood that even if they drove each other crazy (crazier?) at times.
Peter Forsberg was ultra-intense and serious on the ice. A perfectionist, especially about his own performance. Off the ice, though, he was lighthearted with a good sense of humor and very little ego despite his stature within the game.
When I looked back at the teams at Bob Clarke had here in Philadelphia it was evident that he respected his players, liked and trusted us. In return, every single year, we tried to be the very best product on-ice that we could be for our passionate fan base.
My only regret is that we came close a few times to bringing a Stanley Cup parade to the fans of Philadelphia, but never got to the promised land. As for my teammates, once a Flyer always a Flyer. Nowadays, as Flyers Alumni, I might even enjoy seeing those guys even more than when I played.