Tuesday, May 27, 2014

For Flyers, playing is easy; comedy is hard

The Philadelphia Flyers are a proud organization, which boasts the following ledger over their 47-year NHL existence: 39 playoff appearances, 16 division titles, 16 berths in the semifinals, eight trips to the Stanley Cup Finals and back-to-back engravings on the silver chalice.

What the organization is missing is one sense of humor, about itself, its former players, its history and its current situation.

Think about it. Ed Snider has set himself up in the history books as the guiding force for this team since before it ever set foot on NHL ice. Over nearly five decades, that's an exhausting prospect, one which requires constant vigilance that the brand and the man should never be disparaged for his time of service and dedication. When was the last time you saw Bob Clarke, or Paul Holmgren -- the men who have guided the on-ice product for 26 of the last 30 seasons from the GM's chair -- crack a smile at anything other than the perfunctory free-agent press conferences?

Maybe when Jeremy Roenick took to the ice pre-game wearing a curly blonde wig, a Clarke #16 jersey from the early 80s along with the requisite first-generation Cooperalls -- and that was more than 10 years ago. I think there was something resembling an upturned mouth from Clarkie's face during the Alumni Game as part of the Winter Classic here 2 1/2 years ago, but, like Bigfoot, concrete evidence has been fleeting.

While the organization projects a serious, single-minded approach to winning, the players themselves are laughing all the way to the bank. A collection of Canadians both urban and country, American kids and slick Europeans provide ample material for the ribbing and inside jokes than punctuate locker-room sessions and various modes of transport during road trips over an 82-game season plus playoffs. Why not tone down the humor from R to PG-13 and make some memorable vignettes?

Given any lingering bad feelings from the league's third lockout in 20 years, the Flyers' subsequent playoff-less Spring in 2013 and the nightmarish start to this past season, it's long past due that the franchise, as a whole, should embrace those cultural and age differences and strike out with some finely-tuned goodwill so the fan base knows that beneath those suits of armor beats the heart of a human being. And I'm not talking about a re-boot of Coatsey's Corner.

Type in "Philadelphia Flyers sense of humor" and the results are right on par with the typical German book on the subject. One picture that did stand out from the crowd was this gem, generated by the Boston Bruins in time for the clubs' NHL-record-making Eastern Conference Semifinal series four years ago. More on them later in this column.

That hasn't always been the case. Although it's regrettably not online, I have several game tapes from the 1990-91 season where the Flyers' Wives Fight for Lives Carnival is advertised in 30-second blurbs.

One particular spot features a mixture of players speaking about the cause in their native tongues. Rick Tocchet speaks in English, Kjell Samuelsson in Swedish, Jiri Latal in Czech, and when it comes time for Craig Berube to have his say, all he can speak is garbled nonsense. After his teammates yell at him to put in his teeth, what comes out is clear: the number to call for tickets. Another bright idea was to outfit the guys in fedoras, sunglasses and musical instruments and do a "so-bad-it's-good" send-up of the Super Bowl Shuffle to promote the Carnival. It wasn't fall-on-the-floor brilliance, but typical understated, clever humor that can only come from players taught to be humble in whatever they do.

Years pass, and golden opportunities to showcase the Crazy Eights Line, the Legion of Doom, the Minnesota Line, Carter & Richards, the Ginger Savior and others fall by the wayside. Roenick arrives in 2001 and tries to liven things up, but he's stuck musing about how to figure out when 95 North becomes 295 South while shilling for BMWs. Even the following memorable ads featuring some likely and unlikely players weren't promoting the Philadelphia Flyers, but the league as a whole and a phone company:




What the rest of the NHL does

It doesn't seem to matter. Whether you're a successful club in southern California trying to compete with the weather and a million other distractions, or an Original Six franchise trying to recapture the hearts and minds of the next generation, you're not too cool for school and satisfied living off your reputation to poke a little fun.

To wit, a commercial featuring Cherry Hill's Own Bobby Ryan for the Anaheim Ducks:




How about Ollie Kolzig going up against a paperboy:




Sometimes, the Evil Empire can poke fun at itself with ease:



Still, one team stands out above all others when lampooning parts of their culture which many opposing fans have derided over the years: the Boston Bruins.

Starting in 2009, the B's rolled out an ad campaign aimed at getting their fans ready for the coming resurgence. It had been roughly a decade and a half since hockey really mattered in the Hub, so the wizards who put the package together had a broad canvas with which to paint.  Featuring a massive, yet non-threatening grizzly as the team mascot and arbiter of what's good as a Bruins fan, there has been four years' worth of chuckles.

They've addressed dating. Visiting fans packing TD Garden. Proper bathroom etiquette. Manners. Interspecies love. And more. 

However, where the club really leaves no left turn unstoned, is in the serial, zany and unhinged episodes of "Bear and the Gang." Everyone is involved, from the players to the head coach, front office personnel along with the broadcasters and national anthem singer which local social media seems to drown in Haterade over and over again.

Episode One dragged them all out at once:



After that, we had Claude Julien breaking up a romantic interlude,  the 80's sitcom intro, the ultimate cheeseball Christmas short, and...uhhh...this "exercise" clip.

What Flyers can do to spice things up

They can move away from using those under contract for blatant advertising, like in this 1996 clip featuring LeClair, Lindros and Renberg, and open themselves up to something greater than the typical in-house "humor" regarding which player is the worst gift giver at Christmas.

The club missed a golden opportunity two years back to turn the locker room "controversy" over Ilya Bryzgalov's play and personality and cut the press off at the knees with a humorous commercial or two. No reason to think Bryz couldn't have been paired up with Neil DeGrasse Tyson to explore the cosmos. A large part of effective humor is learning how to use a player or goaltender's uniqueness and spin it into something the fan base can get behind. It definitely could have humanized him.

Aside from actual skill set, personality is what lures people to the team and to the sport, but the Flyers have consistently acted as if they're above advertising -- besides the laughs we might get in guessing at which point in a nationally-televised playoff game the crawl will appear promoting ticket plans for the following season.

Scott Hartnell and Claude Giroux actually participating in a Harlem Globetrotters game this past season was practically begging for a crossover ad with the Sixers, but that was another missed opportunity.  Hartnell and his interactions with Cy Clark, the Hulk Hogan look-alike in Pittsburgh two years ago, was aces as well.

How about something involving all the college kids Holmgren signed at the end of the season to populate the Phantoms' roster, along with Matt Read, trying to "teach" the players who came up through juniors about the basics of hockey? Steve Mason in his crease, actually constructing a wall to keep pucks away? The possibilities are endless, if one member of the front office with some wild ideas and a sense of playfulness exists.

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