When looking back at the history of the Philadelphia Flyers, it’s not a surprise to learn that the franchise has come oh-so-close to ending a Stanley Cup championship drought that dates back to 1975.
Six times in the last 37 years the Flyers have reached the Cup Final only to fall just short in reclaiming the silver chalice as their own.
And yet, despite getting to within a win or two of doing just that on a few occasions, some would argue that the team that had the best chance to eradicate the drought was one that never made it to the Final.
That would be the 2003-04 Flyers, who dropped an emotional, seven-game series to the eventual Cup champs, the Tampa Bay Lightning, in the Eastern Conference Finals.
It was a team loaded with big name talent. There was Jeremy Roenick, Tony Amonte and Keith Primeau. There was John LeClair, Mark Recchi and Sami Kapanen. There was Eric Desjardins, Simon Gagne and Michal Handzus.
It was a who’s who of hockey coached by a Stanley Cup-winning coach in Ken Hitchcock.
Yet, as good as they were up front, if they were going to make a run to the Cup, they were going to need somebody to be outstanding in goal.
The year started with Jeff Hackett as the No. 1 guy, but he was diagnosed with vertigo in early January and never played again.
The Flyers traded for veteran Sean Burke about a month later and although it looked like he was going to be the guy for the first several weeks he was in Philly, in mid-March Hitchcock made a surprise decision.
Robert Esche, his 26-year-old backup goalie had played well all season filling in for both Hackett and Burke. Hitchcock decided Esche was going to be the guy the Flyers would go with for the playoffs and have Burke as a veteran to step in, in case Esche cracked under pressure.
The thing was, Esche never did crack. He finished the regular season with the best numbers of his career going 21-11-7 with a 2.04 goals against average and a .915 save percentage.
In the playoffs Esche, who refused to speak to the media that postseason, earning the nickname, “Silent Bob,” was just as good with a 2.32 GAA and an even better .918 save percentage.
He helped carry a Flyers team depleted with injuries on defense (so much so that Kapanen, a forward, had to play regularly on the Flyers defense), to Game 7 of that Conference Final.
Esche was never the same after that season. A lockout that cancelled the following season hurt Esche from a physical standpoint, as he never seemed to get back to his playing shape the next season, and was being pressured by rookie goalie Antero Niittymaki, who had guided the Philadelphia Phantoms to the Calder Cup championship in the AHL during the locked out season.
Esche still held on to the No. 1 job in the 2005-06 playoffs, but barely. Not that it mattered as the Flyers were eliminated by a good Buffalo Sabres team in six games.
The following year proved to be the worst in Flyers history, and by the end of the season Esche was ready to move on from Philadelphia.
Last month, Esche returned to Philly for the first time since leaving the Flyers. He was working out with some NHL players at Flyers Skate Zone.
We caught up with him to see what he was up to since leaving the organization in the Spring of 2007.
Q: What have you been doing since leaving the Flyers?
|In 2003, Esche won the William M. Jennings Trophy, awarded to the goalkeeper(s) having played a minimum of 25 games for the team with the fewest goals scored against it. |
A: “When I first left the NHL back in 2007 I was looking for a job here and nothing really sunk in with an NHL team. It was mostly two-way contract offers and I wanted to play a lot of games so Russia was a good fit for me.
I went to Ak Bars Kazan in my first year - which is the gateway to Siberia - and we had a great team that went far in the playoffs [He had a 1.86 GAA in 18 games]. That was exciting as I got my first taste of Russia.
“The next year I went to St. Petersburg and Barry Smith was the coach there. It was a very North American team and most of the Russians had played in the NHL so there was a lot more English being spoken and it was more of an international city where we could send our kids to school rather than do the home schooling. I stayed there for two years and had two extremely successful seasons. [He had nine shutouts and a 1.87 GAA in 2008-09 and six shutouts and a 2.07 GAA in 2009-10].
“Then I went to Belarus. At that point the family stayed home. I played in Minsk. That was different. I’ll leave it at that [3.30 GAA in 24 games].
“Then last year I played in Switzerland [for SCL Tigers Langnau with a 3.05 GAA in 40 games]. That was my favorite year from a family standpoint but from a hockey standpoint it was just different hockey.
“I’ve been all over the map and kept my restaurant going and doing a lot farming to supplement the restaurant, so it has been good.”Q: Can you tell us about the restaurant and your farm?
A: “I actually set up the business plan several years ago because I always wanted to go into farming. So, I went to school, took some classes on it and really studied it while I was in Russia – because there is a lot of down time there. We have the beef, the chicken broilers, the egg layers and the produce as well. We supplement roughly 55 percent of the restaurant [called Esche’s Aqua Vino, located on the Marina in downtown Utica, N.Y.] in the summer and fall months. Now we’re moving into aquaponics at the farm to try to create year-round sustainability for the restaurant.
“Oddly enough restaurants and farming are two of the most difficult industries to go into, but together they go well and are a hand-in-glove fit. Getting everybody on board is a little trying at times – like getting the chefs on board because the food is 100 percent different then food you buy from distributors. It’s not portion controlled so that’s an issue, especially when somebody comes out with a bigger steak than the next person. The restaurant is in Utica. The farm is my home property. I have 80 acres just outside of Utica.”Q: What about your future in hockey? You’re 34 years old and haven’t been in the NHL in five years. What’s next?
A: “I’d like to keep on playing as long as I can. I really want to stay over here [in North America]. The last five years from a family standpoint and personally have been tough. But I learned a lot and the weaknesses in my game got better. I never really read plays that much until I went over to Russia because that’s what you have to do there. I want to stay on this side of the ocean. Maybe I can latch on somewhere on a tryout or on a two-way contract so I can try to work my way back up back to where I think I can get to.”Q: So, how did you end up working out here? There had to be somewhere closer to home for you to skate and workout, no?
A: “I always loved the Flyers organization and everyone in the organization. I’ve always thought of myself as a Flyer. When I left, I left on good terms. It was a very frustrating year -for everyone from the bottom up to the top down. I don’t think it was easy on any one person. I wasn’t even playing at the end when we had three goalies.
“But [general manager Paul Holmgren] treated me great through that whole thing and really made a tough situation as easy as possible. So, for me, I’ve always felt that kinship with the Flyers organization, especially with guys like [head athletic trainer Jim] McCrossin and [assistant athletic trainer] Sal [Raffa] and [Head Equipment Manager] Derek [Settlemyre], [equipment manager] Harry [Bricker] and [assistant equipment trainer Mike Craytor]. Everybody in here had always helped me out the five years I was here, so I called Holmgren up to see if I would be getting in the way, and he said, no, come on down.
“I was able to work with goalie coach Jeff Reese and that was my first goalie session in five years. They don’t have goalie coaches [in Switzerland] and in Russia we had a guy, but he never worked with me. He worked with the other goalies, but never with me. I don’t know if I scared him or what.”Q: What’s the next step in the process? Do you start contacting teams to let them know you are trying to get back?
A: “I got John LeClair as my new agent. He works for Lewis Gross [LeClair’s agent when he was a player]. There was a team that was interested in me and then two months ago it fell through and I got ultra depressed. I really wanted to stay over here, but it was tough because I never really had an agent and always handled things myself. Then McCrossin told me that Johnny was starting to get into it at some level – so I called him up.
“First I talked to one of my best friends – Sean Burke and he told me he didn’t think my prospects were that good, but then I talked to Lewis and John and they said they didn’t think it would be that hard to find me something, so I called Holmgren immediately to see if I can get on the ice because we don’t have much up in Utica. Realistically, for being out of the league for five years, I think I’m probably going to have to go on a tryout somewhere to see where I fit in. If I was to be offered a contract, it’d be awesome, but realistically, an AHL contract where I remain a free agent or a tryout would be the best thing.”Q: You have the farm, you have the restaurant, you’re a very successful businessman. So, what still drives you to play hockey in the NHL after being out of the league for so long?
A: “What still drives me is I do like the game. Oddly enough I’m a pretty smart guy, so I’m an absentee owner of the restaurant. That place pretty much runs itself. And the farm is really a summer thing. I don’t have a cow/calf operation where you have to go through the birthing and everything. I get feeder cattle and I get the chickens in the spring time and when you are done with them you go to have them slaughtered. So, I don’t really have anything going on in the winter. The thing I can say about my five years overseas is I really missed it over here.
“Look, I was paid well over there and that made me have a blind eye a little bit to the fact that I wasn’t in the NHL anymore, but I missed it.
“There were too many late nights talking to ex-NHLers who were on my team – whether it was [Darius] Kasparaitis or [Sergei] Zubov or [Petr] Cajanek or [Sergei] Brylin. We all said the same thing – ‘I would do anything to come back and play.’
“In those five years, I had contract offers from the NHL but the money kept keeping me over there or I wasn’t allowed out of my contract sometimes, so the timing has always been kind of screwed up with me because you have to sign a contract so early over there and I wasn’t willing to roll the dice and [not sign] and say, ‘I can come back.’
“But now my kids are older and I want to come back here and I want to play. I really enjoy the sport. I don’t think I enjoyed it over there. It’s different. You go out on the ice over there you’re just trying to get by, where as here, it’s such a competitive, passionate thing.”Q: You left the KHL for Switzerland last season despite being pretty successful as a goaltender there. Were you thinking about signing somewhere in the KHL only to change your mind after the plane crash that killed the entire Yaroslavl Lokomotiv team last September?
A: “It was horrible. I was friends with Karel Rachunek and [Pavol] Demitra and I knew [Brad] McCrimmon when I was young because he was on the Phoenix Coyotes when I was a prospect there.
“The scary thing for me personally is that summer, I was leaving Belarus and I didn’t want to go back there. I had played against Yaroslavl and had a good playoff against them. So they were talking to me and they were debating between me and Stefan Liv. They ended up signing him, but my name was thrown about as being the goalie there.
“I sit back and look at it now and it’s so weird. My idol growing up was Waylon Jennings and he’s the one who gave up his seat on a charter plane to the Big Bopper because the Big Bopper had a cold. That was the plane that crashed [also killing Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens].
“That summer I was so upset because I wanted to go to Yaroslavl, but looking back on it, sometimes things just happen and whether you believe in pre-destiny or manifest destiny, there’s no way of explaining this. It was a horrible feeling.
|Esche posted a 13-11 record with one shutout and a 2.73 goals-against average in 25 Stanley Cup Playoff games with the Flyers. |
“I have so many friends in the KHL who wanted to quit after that crash – or just take a bus – but that’s unrealistic. Those planes are all those old Soviet era planes. I guess it’s better now, I don’t know, but at the time it was horrible. I wasn’t particularly a good flyer to begin with, but the flying in Russia was not good.”Q: What is your favorite memory of playing in Philadelphia?
A: “I was extremely lucky to play with so many great guys in such a great organization so for me to put my finger on any one thing would be impossible to do. Some of the best friends I have came from this team.
“It was the golden age of hockey pre-lockout where every guy on the team was a household name and that was really cool. I know we didn’t win anything but we were really close and had some unfortunate injuries at the end there with defensemen that was pretty tough.
“Tampa Bay was awesome but we were right there. It was great, I didn’t have to talk to the media – I loved it. I wasn’t even really upset. When I got the green light I was thrilled that I didn’t have to talk to the media.
“I played with two of my best friends in Burke and Recchi but we had so many great guys – [Roenick], Johnny, Desjardins, Amonte – the whole team was filled with great, great guys and it was really unfortunate that we didn’t win it. But the Flyers always find a way to bounce back and get right back where they belong at or near the top of the league. The way they do things here is just outstanding.”