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Flyers soar because Smith is grounded

by Karl Samuelson

Team captain, Jason Smith, has been a key ingredient in the Flyer's recipe for success.
The 2006-07 season was an anomaly for the Philadelphia Flyers. Generally a perennial contender, last season the Flyers were more commonly known for their ineptitude, ending the season with a 22-48-12 record.

The Flyers set team records for most losses (48), most losses at home (24), fewest points in the standings (56) and fewest points in the standings at home (27). Not satisfactory stuff. So in typical Flyers fashion, the club took the bull by the horns and reinvented itself with numerous off-season acquisitions.

So far this season, the Flyers have been a very solid team and been in the thick of the playoff hunt. As a result, the Wachovia Center has been rocking.

“I think they’re back,” Flyers assistant coach Jack McIlhargey said of the club’s rabid fan base. “It’s nice to see them. They want a winner. It’s the same as every city. It’s just the way it is. And they know their hockey in Philadelphia. They’ve been accustomed to winning and watching hard teams. That is exactly what they want to see. The fans are going to hold us accountable and that’s great.”

McIlhargey acknowledges that the days of the “Broad Street Bullies” are long gone, but adds that the work ethic and desire that characterized the Flyers of years ago remains relevant in today’s game.

“The game has changed,” says McIlhargey. “We want to be known as a hard-working, tough team to play against. No easy games. We want to make sure we finish every check, work our butts off backchecking and do all the little things that win hockey games. We want to make sure we have a very good team structure and work hard on every shift.”

A key ingredient in the Flyers’ recipe for success is a strong role model in the form of team captain Jason Smith. One of the most respected defensemen in the League, the 6-foot-3, 215 pound veteran joined the Flyers in a multi-player deal with the Edmonton Oilers during the summer. Coming along with Smith was offensive standout Joffrey Lupul, who has had the hot hand of late. The Flyers surrendered defenseman Joni Pitkanen and forward Geoff Sanderson in the deal.

“We brought a lot of new players in over the summer,” McIlhargey said. “(General Manager) Paul Holmgren did a great job signing players and making trades. We wanted to establish new leadership on the club and knew that Jason had a lot of experience as a leader.”

Experience indeed.

Leadership is no stranger to the Flyers’ captain. Drafted by the New Jersey Devils in the first round (18th overall) of the 1992 Entry Draft, Smith enjoyed a phenomenal junior hockey career with the Western Hockey League’s Regina Pats. He served as team captain in his final season (1992-93) and won the Bill Hunter Trophy as the WHL’s Outstanding Defenseman thanks to superlative defensive play and an impressive 66 points in 64 games.

Leadership is no stranger to Smith, he served as team captain in his last season with the WHL's Regina Pats.

“Jason was more of an offensive-type guy for the Regina Pats,” recalls Lorne Molleken, general manager and head coach of the arch-rival Saskatoon Blades. “Jason went into the New Jersey system, whose No. 1 priority is teaching defense and the team game. He has really blossomed as a player, moving from New Jersey to Toronto and then to Edmonton. I worked in the Oilers organization for three years (1995-98) and know that Jason fit in real well because of his character and leadership.”

A bulwark in the defensive zone, the 34-year old Calgary native still is capable of putting a few points on the board. But Smith’s role clearly is to anchor the Flyers’ defense.

“I scored points in junior,” says Smith, “but like most junior teams, ours played a run-and-gun style where we tried to score goals like crazy. In New Jersey, we were more focused on keeping the puck out of our net and scoring enough goals to win. Going from New Jersey to Toronto was a break because I got a chance to play regularly and develop as a player for a couple of years. Moving to Edmonton brought my development to another level, and I got even more opportunity to play.”

“My role here in Philadelphia is to be a defensive, physical defenseman and I enjoy it,” Smith added. “It’s always fun to make a big hit or to be involved in something that brings energy and excitement to your team. Some guys don’t get the opportunity to score goals regularly, so you try to create energy with a big hit or a solid defensive play. The most important thing for me is to go out and play hard. They want me to go out and play my game and be a presence on the ice and off the ice.”

“Jason came in right from Day 1 at training camp and took charge of the team and showed that he was a leader,” McIlhargey said. “He plays the style of hockey that we want from our team and we all felt that he was the perfect fit for being team captain. He is a blue-collar player and that’s what our fans like. Jason is a stay-at-home defenseman that grinds it out in the corners, grinds it out in front of the net, blocks shots and does all the little things.”

And in the process, he’s helping Philadelphia forget last season.

“I think with all the new faces this year a lot of us didn’t experience what had happened the last couple of years, especially last year,” says Smith. “At training camp, we came out with the attitude that we want to make a footprint and move forward with what this team is now and the direction we are going. With our work ethic and execution, and by competing at a high level every night, we want to build our own identity.”

The Flyers’ culture always has been characterized by strong execution and physical play. While the players’ names have changed since their days as perennial Stanley Cup favorites, there is a strong link to the Flyers’ past in the faces of team management – Paul Holmgren, Bob Clarke, McIlhargey, Dave Brown, Simon Nolet, Al Hill and Ilkka Sinisalo. For his part, the responsibility of continuing the Flyers’ tradition of excellence does not rest lightly on Smith’s shoulders.

“This is a great organization,” Smith said. “The way the players are treated is outstanding. With me being a new player, I know from Day 1 everything that could be done has been done for my family. Myself and all the other new guys have very similar thoughts on it. The passion the fans show in the area is second to none. It is great to be playing in a place where the passion is there for the team. From the start of training camp, the people watching practices, through the exhibition season and now right up through the games at home the fans are very aware of the game and really enjoy it. Philly is one of the places in the United States where hockey has a lot of support. They like guys to go out and play hard and that’s important for us as a team.”

Playing hard. Competing every night at home or away. That’s the Philly way. The Flyers have gained a reputation over the years as a scrappy squad that fights tooth and nail for every inch of ice. In the spirit of the great Philadelphia teams in the past, the current version of the Flyers are doing it again, thanks in large part to the leadership provided by Smith.

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