MINNEAPOLIS -- The city of Philadelphia is not one of the original hotbeds of hockey in the United States, but there is no question the Philadelphia Flyers have helped make it one since joining the NHL in 1967.
Along the way, several members of the Flyers organization have been honored by USA Hockey and the NHL with the Lester Patrick Trophy, given annually for service to hockey in this country. Paul Holmgren became the latest person with strong ties to the Flyers to earn the award.
"I looked at the past winners and there are a lot of people I know and I have idolized from afar for a number of reasons," Holmgren said Thursday before being honored at the United States Hockey Hall of Fame Class of 2014 induction ceremony. "Ed Snider, the owner of the Flyers, is a past recipient. Bobby Clarke, a friend of mine and one of the greatest Flyers ever. Fred Shero, a former Flyers coach. It is a who's who. To be part of that is surreal."
The Flyers were the first 1967 expansion team to enjoy great success, and professional hockey has been an integral part of the sports landscape in Eastern Pennsylvania and Southern New Jersey ever since. In recent years, the generations of new hockey fans have started to produce NHL-caliber talent as well.
Holmgren has played a large part in helping the Flyers grow hockey at all levels in the region.
"I think Ed Snider, our owner, is probably the biggest reason for that," Holmgren said. "Just look at the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation. It is a scholarship program where we take kids that maybe aren't in the best environment and bring them in and teach them hockey and it kind of goes from there. It's huge. Mr. Snider took over a couple rinks in the city and renovated them and now they're up and running. It has sort of taken on a life of its own. When look at what USA Hockey has done nationwide, that's sort of what the Ed Snider Foundation has done in Philadelphia."
Holmgren grew up here in Minnesota, a short drive east on I-94 in St. Paul. He played for the University of Minnesota, and to be a Gopher in this state is like royalty. He also played for the North Stars at one point late in his NHL career.
Despite all of that, Holmgren is here because of his work in Philadelphia. He's worked for the Flyers at just about every level there is, from player to scout to coach to general manger to president. He's become a "Philly guy," a name synonymous with the Flyers and hockey in that city.
"I've been with a few organizations but I keep coming back," he said. "I have bounced around a little bit, but I always seem to end up back in Philadelphia, which is OK with me. It's one of the greatest franchises in our sport."
It almost didn't work out this way. Holmgren was playing for the Johnstown Jets in 1975-76, a team with players that were immortalized in the movie "Slap Shot." He roomed with Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau and Dave Hanson, but did not get a chance to appear in the movie when it was being filmed there.
"I got called up right before they started filming," Holmgren said. "It kind of makes me mad. I could have been a movie star. I could have been the next Clint Eastwood.
"I was there for like a month. We all knew what was going on. Yeah, I got called up and never went to back. Those guys became movie stars. Well, Dave Hanson did anyway. Bruce had kind of a small part. ... I watched that movie with my kids growing up. I just watched it with my younger daughter and my niece not that long ago. I think back and I knew a lot of those guys. I played against them or with them. It was a pretty cool thing."