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Vets Ready and Able to Steady Flyers

by Bill Meltzer / Philadelphia Flyers
Much has been made of the infusion of youth on the Flyers’ roster this season. But a closer look at the roster shows that there is a largely equal blend of experienced veterans who know all about the highs and lows of the marathon-like NHL season, as well as youngsters who bring their energy and enthusiasm to the mix.

Now that the team is going through its first adversity of the young season, the leadership group will have to step to the forefront. Following three losses in the last four games, the club needs to get back on the course that was set both in the preseason and in opening-week victories over both the defending Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins and the defending Western Conference Champion Vancouver Canucks.

Fortunately for Philadelphia, the veteran quartet of Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timonen, Danny Briere and Jaromir Jagr have seen and done it all over the course of their respective careers. They all know that it how a team navigates stormy seas – much more than it how it looks cruising through tranquil waters – that ultimately determine its worthiness to be considered a contender.

“There are always going to be tough times during any season,” said Briere. “It’s the way that you work through it as a team that matters. Part of being on a team is that everybody has to look in the mirror and be honest with themselves about what they can do better. Honestly, you need to be doing that when you are winning, too, and keep challenging yourself to improve. We’ve got a good team here, and I think everyone is in the same page. Leadership isn’t just one or two people. It’s about the whole team.”

In team captain Pronger and Jagr, the Flyers have two future Hall of Famers with Stanley Cup rings and Olympic gold medals. Alternate captain Briere has been the team’s best playoff performer over the duration of his time in Philadelphia, and is a two-time NHL All-Star. The other alternate captain, Timonen, has been chosen for four NHL All-Star Games and recently became just the third Finnish defenseman (along with Teppo Numminen and Jyrki Lumme) to play 900 NHL regular season games.

The four men have personalities that are as divergent as their playing styles. Pronger relishes being in charge, and can be either devilishly humorous, caustic or blunt. Timonen is a no-excuses type with a dry sense of humor bubbling just beneath the surface. Jagr brings a combination of independent thinking, a commitment to his craft and a demeanor that in equal parts is happy-go-lucky and perfectionistic. Briere is soft-spoken, approachable and optimistic, but also extremely competitive and driven.

What they all have in common is a supreme work ethic, sharp hockey minds and an extraordinary ability to block out distractions and nagging injuries to play at a high level. They lead by their actions as well as through their words. Simply by paying attention to the way the older veteran players approach their conditioning, practice and game preparations with the utmost care and attention to detail, the Flyers’ younger players can get a world-class hockey education that they will carry for the rest of their careers.

“Definitely, we all can learn a lot just by watching and listening to those guys,” said Wayne Simmonds, who is in his fourth pro season. “They are good communicators on the ice and in the room and they lead by example. We can go to them when we need to. When you look across the room and see these guys who are some of the best in the game, and have won Stanley Cups, that’s what’s is all about.”

In some instances, simply getting the opportunity to play with iconic players represents the fulfillment of a childhood dream. Such is case for Jakub Voracek, who hails from the same hometown in the Czech Republic as Jagr. Seventeen years younger than Jagr, Voracek could not help by idolize the national sports hero who came up through the same local hockey program (HC Kladno) where Voracek and his friends later played their youth and junior hockey.

When the news broke on July 1that Jagr had signed as a free agent with the Flyers, no one was happier than Voracek. By the time Voracek was four years old, a 21-year-old Jagr was already a local legend in Kladno and a rising superstar in the NHL. Like so many other Czech youngsters and especially fellow HC Kladno junior program players, Voracek grew up in awe of Jagr’s exploits.

“I was excited when I found out [on June 23] that I was coming to Philadelphia,” said Voracek, who was acquired in the deal that sent Jeff Carter to the Columbus Blue Jackets. “Now to have Jagr come to play here, too, is amazing.”

The Flyers’ current blueline corps as a whole is an experienced group. Its three youngest members – Andrej Meszaros, Braydon Coburn and Matt Carle – are in their mid-20s and all have at least five full seasons of NHL experience under their belts at this point. Nevertheless, the trio cannot help but marvel at the way that Pronger and Timonen approach a difficult position.

“The biggest thing when you play defense is to know where your partner is going to be, and to have good communication,” said Carle, who has been primarily partnered with Pronger for the last two-plus seasons. “It’s very easy to play with Chris or someone like Kimmo because they are always in the right place and they can adapt to a lot of different situations.”

Adds Coburn, “Just their mental toughness and game-to-game approach is something that I’ve tried to learn from. I’ve played a lot with Kimmo, and it’s amazing how focused and steady he is. He doesn’t get too high or too low.”

From head coach Peter Laviolette’s point of view, it is a blessing to have so many accomplished veterans on a single team. They serve as on-ice teachers and mentors in ways that the coaching staff cannot, and they also can be relied upon to reinforce the message that commitment to winning is more important than any personal goal.

“When someone plays as long – and at such a high level – as guys like Chris or Jagr, it’s because they keep themselves in shape and they are driven to compete,” said Laviolette. “It’s not just about skill. When they’re sitting in the bench, they aren’t just resting. They are watching the game and communicating. The day after a game, they’ve already got their minds set on next game and understand what they can build from for next time. That’s what special players do and we’re fortunate to have several of them on our hockey club.”

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