Despite a lot of outside vitriol among media and fans, the players and coaches of the Washington Capitals
and Philadelphia Flyers
, who meet in Game 6 tonight (7 p.m. ET, TSN, RDS) at the Wachovia Center have been professional and respectful of one another.
The Flyers' players, coaches and management don't hate the Capitals. And the Capitals express respect for their opponents as well.
In hockey, it ends with a handshake. Many of the rivals have played together and in some cases, roomed together. Flyers GM Paul Holmgren
, Capitals GM George McPhee
and Capitals assistant coach Dean Evason
were fierce rivals during their NHL careers. Flyers coach John Stevens
and Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau
were rivals as American Hockey League players and coaches and both coached Calder Cup champions. Boudreau and Holmgren briefly roomed together when they played for the Johnstown Jets of Slap Shot
Capitals center David Steckel
and Flyers forward R.J. Umberger
were roommates when they played together at Ohio State University. Flyers center Mike Richards
and Capitals defenseman Steve Eminger
won a Memorial Cup with the Kitchener Rangers. Evason coached a Kamloops Blazers team that included Flyers right winger Scottie Upshall
and Capitals defenseman Shaone Morrisonn
The Flyers and Capitals finished last and next-to-last in the Eastern Conference in 2006-07, but meet in a playoff series this year. That's never happened before. The Capitals were in last place in the East after midseason this season and made the playoffs. That's never happened. Both Holmgren and McPhee expressed admiration for the other's work.
"George has done a tremendous job in Washington," Holmgren said. "Look at the success he has had in the draft in recent years. You could say, sure, he's been drafting high, but I don't put a lot into that. (Alex) Ovechkin was probably the obvious choice, although (Evgeni) Malkin wouldn't have been bad either. Nicklas Backstrom
was a great pick.
"And he's done a good job with free agents. Imagine where this team would be if they had Michael Nylander
healthy and playing. He's been out all year. The deals he made at the deadline were very astute and clearly gave his team a boost.
"Looking back at the coaching change, I think they lost 11-straight games before they made the change and look at the record since George put Bruce Boudreau
in as coach. It's been tremendous. They are a young team that looks like they're having lots of fun. They play hard and they play physical. I enjoy watching them. They're a fun team to watch."
McPhee was no less complimentary.
"They did a great job. Nobody could have had more injuries than they did last year or even this year," McPhee said. "They've been very aggressive about filling their needs. It's worked very well for them to see what they did this year and through the playoffs because they had a ton of injuries."
Steckel and Umberger played on Ohio State teams that also included Flyers' minor-league defenseman Nate Guenin
"We had a lot of success team wise and individually," Steckel said. "I only played with Nate in my last year and he was a great defenseman. I went in kind of defensively, but played more of an offensive role in my first year. Then, I think I moved to the next level and started playing more defensively as a center. From there, I got stronger and I think I needed the four years to develop in order to make it here.
"I texted R.J. before the series and we talked a little bit, but other than that we don't talk much on the ice. If I get a chance to 'beak' him, I'll be the first one to say something to him. It's friendly banter. Nobody gets too out of control. It's how the game is. You don't have time to get off your game to bother somebody else."
"I talked to him before the series and a little at the end of the game. But we'll talk more after," Umberger said. "I played two years at the U.S. program with him, three years at Ohio State. Played five years together. He's been playing great, he's a real competitive player. He's having a good series. Dave's always been an extremely smart player. He thinks the game very well. He plays two-way hockey, he's great on the penalty kill, he has a great stick. Hard to play against defensively, he shuts down players. And he can chip in on the goals. He's a very sound two-way player.
"I always knew he would (get his chance). He's a good player and he just had to keep working for it. He's got his chance and he's making the most of it."
While the fans demonize opponents, and that's their right, they pay the freight, the players know they could easily be teammates, given the nature of professional sports. Holmgren proved that point.
"David was a first-round pick of the Los Angeles Kings
. Washington jumped on him when he became a free agent," Holmgren said. "I know we were interested in him too because we got to watch him a lot during the work stoppage. He's a big strong guy who knows his way around defensively but also chips in with the odd big goal. He skates very well for a big man and does very well on faceoffs.
"I think a lot of teams knew about him because he was a high pick and Los Angeles didn't sign him. That raised some eyebrows but he's made himself a pretty good player."
Eminger said that he and Richards might hack and whack for the rest of their careers, but they share a lifelong bond, along with former Kitchener teammates Derek Roy
, Greg Campbell and David Clarkson
"He's still a friend. When you win championships, those guys are friends forever," Eminger said. "He's like any other player out there. I'm going to play him hard and I'm going to play him honest. It's got nothing to do with him but it's the only thing to do. You can be friends off the ice, but when you're out on the ice, no one is friends and I'm sure he approaches it the same way."
"At that time, he was in his second year in the (Ontario Hockey) league. He was a young kid but he was one of our top forwards. He played a lot the way he plays now. He plays all out offensively and he played a big role for our team.
"It was my fourth year there and I had experience. I started the season in Washington and that definitely helped. In general, we had four good lines, six good defensemen and two good goalies and that's why we won. Our depth was so good, it didn't matter who we put out there."
"Steve was our best defenseman at Kitchener. We wouldn't have won without his leadership," Richards said.
"Playing for Dean Evason
helped me get to where I am today," Upshall said. "Shaone Morrisonn
was my teammate there and a leader. We had a really good team in each of my three years, but we could never get past the first round of the playoffs. That was disappointing but I benefited from being there."
"He's still a friend. When you win championships, those guys are friends forever." -- Caps' defenseman Steve Eminger on Flyers' center Mike Richards, who won a Memorial Cup together
"Both Scottie and Shaone were leaders on our hockey club," Evason said. "Scottie came to us as an undrafted player in the Western Hockey League. We listed him and got him to come in and I remember he went home. He was unsure if he wanted to play in the Western Hockey. He went home to Fort MacMurray and, fortunately, his decision was to come back after he talked with his family.
"He played the same way he plays every night in the NHL: He competes, finishes his checks and has tremendous skills to score goals. He led our hockey our club. Morrisonn was a guy that wasn't expected to go in the first round in the NHL but he worked himself into a position where he developed in junior to a point where he's playing top-four minutes in the NHL.
One of Upshall's strengths is pushing the puck up ice. The Flyers will trade thwarted opportunities in the neutral zone for awhile and then there's Upshall screaming down the right wing. Not all rushes produce points so Evason was asked if Upshall's energy and determination exceed his skills. He answered emphatically.
"His skill level is as good as there is," Evanson countered. "He may not be at the elite level yet but he plays a physical role for their hockey club and has the potential to score goals and be a top-six forward in this league. Obviously, that's what Philadelphia saw when they acquired him."
That's it for the praise for opposing players. The Flyers hold a 3-2 edge in the series and are intent on closing it out tonight. The Capitals need to win twice. Evason knows it's Morrisonn and Eminger and the rest of the Capitals that will have to shut down Upshall and his Flyers' teammates.
"You want to win and you prepare your hockey club to win but once the game starts, it's the players who play against each other," Evason said. "After the puck drops, there's nothing that I can do to combat what Scottie Upshall
is going to do on the ice. He plays his game and nothing is going to change that."