Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Holmgren's path to redemption rewarded with Lester Patrick nod

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor 

The Lester Patrick Trophy seeks to honor those involved in the hockey community who have made a lasting impact through outstanding service towards promoting the game in the United States.

It's appropriate, then, that Paul Holmgren -- the Philadelphia Flyers' first impact player born in the United States and a long-time employee of the franchise, was named one of its recipients on Tuesday afternoon.

Holmgren, at 58 years old the club's President, earned the honor alongside NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly. The stern-faced Twin Cities native becomes the fifth member of the Orange and Black to gain recognition, after Keith Allen (1988), and Bob Clarke, Fred Shero and Ed Snider 1980).

"Obviously, I'm honored and humbled by the whole thing," Holmgren said prior to the Flyers-Capitals rookie game in Voorhees. "It's pretty cool. I look at the list of the people who have won, it's a pretty impressive list. Just to be added to that list, it's humbling, a tremendous honor. It's a prestigious award."

Holmgren participated in one season for the University of Minnesota, then played in parts of nine seasons for the Flyers from 1975 through February of 1984 and completed his career with his hometown Minnesota North Stars in 1985.  Taken with the last pick in the sixth round of the 1975 by the Flyers -- who wrestled him away from both the Edmonton Oilers, a team which held his WHA draft rights, and the Minnesota Fighting Saints -- the combative winger with a scoring touch totaled 144 goals and 323 points over 527 career games.

His crowning achievement as a player occurred in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final in 1980, when Holmgren became the first U.S.-born player scored a hat trick in a Cup Final game as Philadelphia whipped the Islanders by an 8-3 count. In addition to working as the head coach and GM of the Hartford Whalers from 1992-95, Holmgren has served the Flyers in multiple capacities over nearly three decades: assistant coach from 1985-88, head coach from 1988-91, director of pro scouting from 1995-97, director of player personnel from 1997-99, assistant GM from 1999-2006, and GM of the Flyers (2006-14) before assuming his current position in May.

From a club press release: "Holmgren has been widely involved in furthering the sport throughout his career in various roles for USA Hockey. He has served on the U.S. Men’s National Team Advisory Group since 2009 and was the assistant general manager of the 2006 U.S. Olympic Men’s Ice Hockey Team. In addition, he served as the general manager of the 2006 U.S. Men’s National Team and was an assistant coach for Team USA at the 1998 Olympic Winter Games and the 1996 World Cup of Hockey. As a player, Holmgren competed for the U.S. at the 1974 IIHF World Junior Championship and was invited to play on Team USA for the 1981 Canada Cup, but could not due to injury."

Of course, there have been speed bumps along the path to success.

As a player, early in his NHL tenure, Holmgren suffered a skate cut abrasion to one of his corneas, and upon admission to hospital to correct that problem, almost died as a result of an adverse reaction to anaesthetic. He also endured shoulder and knee issues which quickened the end of his career, and issues with alcohol which could have claimed his life and others while climbing through the ranks off the ice.

One incident kept largely quiet here was the time he rolled his car while driving impaired, with one of his sons inside, in New Jersey shortly after his firing as Flyers head coach. His time with a dysfunctional Whalers franchise in the early 90s whose troubles revolved around youth and booze, was punctuated by an arrest for DUI in Connecticut in March of 1994, an offense for which he saw his license suspended and a six-month jail term suspended and was nearly let go if not for the intervention of several key figures including Gary Bettman. After a stint in the Betty Ford Center to treat his alcoholism, Holmgren returned to Hartford and rebuilt both his life and hockey career thanks to pure hard work.

"I came to the Flyers as a 20-year-old, to the East Coast for the first time," Holmgren added. "This is my home now, in the Philadelphia area. This is where I want to retire, whenever that is. I've really become attached to this area and this organization." 

The award, one of the most prestigious in hockey, was presented to the National Hockey League by the New York Rangers in 1966.  It honors the memory of Lester Patrick, who spent 50 years in hockey as a player, coach and general manager and was a pioneer in the sport’s development.

The recipients will be celebrated as part of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony and Dinner on Thursday, December 4, in Minneapolis.
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