Friday, December 05, 2014

Long road through hockey led Holmgren to Lester Patrick Award

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor 

Last night, on his home turf of the Twin Cities, Philadelphia Flyers team President Paul Holmgren was honored as one of two recipients of the Lester Patrick Award for dedication and oustanding service to the game of hockey in the United States.

Early on, it could have been a different story. Speaking to NHL radio before the season began about his formative days in the sport, Holmgren revealed that life in the low minor leagues could have provided him a road block to a different life path.

"I had no idea (If he wanted to be a 'hockey lifer') ... it just sort of developed. I was 19 years old and started the season in Johnstown in the North American Hockey League in those days, just before they started filming 'Slap Shot.' I played 50-some-odd games there and the team was in financial disarray. I remember taking a vote, the players took a vote because they told us they weren't going to pay us ... so they took a vote to see if we were going to stay on and play a month.

"I'm looking around the room and there's Davie Keon, Teddy Hampson and Shakey Walton, John McKenzie, guys who had gotten around. They were in their late 30s and some of them were 40, and they're all voting on whether to play and I'm like 'what the heck am I gonna do?' At that point in time, I was thinking I'll go back to college and I'll play baseball."

Holmgren did attend college, at the University of Minnesota for one season, before jumping to the pros in 1975. After leaving Johnstown, he played six games for the Flyers' affiliate in Richmond, Virginia and then one game for the Flyers during their crack at becoming three-peat winners of the Stanley Cup before an eye injury derailed that season.

That minute skate abrasion on his cornea suffered at the bottom of a scrum, nearly turned deadly when Holmgren had an adverse reaction to anasthesia during surgery to correct the problem. He managed to skirt disaster that time as well, but couldn't overcome chronic shoulder issues which slowed him down during his later years here and ended his career in 1985 while skating for his hometown North Stars.

Nonetheless, Holmgren's mark as a player was his now-broken team-record for career penalty minutes and becoming the first American to record a hat trick in the Stanley Cup Finals, fueling an 8-3 win over the Islanders in Game 2 of the 1980 series.

"Paul Holmgren has served the Philadelphia Flyers at virtually every level  . . .  and they probably even forgave him in Philadelphia for a brief stint with the Hartford Whalers," NHL Commissioner and award presenter Gary Bettman said of Holmgren, who turned 59 on Tuesday. "He has devoted lots of time, attention and energy towards the growth of youth hockey in the Philadelphia area. I am extraordinarily pleased that the committee chose to honor his efforts on hockey's behalf."

Holmgren re-joined the Orange and Black as an assistant to Mike Keenan prior to the 1985-86 season, then became head coach in September of 1988 after Keenan's firing, staying on until a slump during the early part of his fourth year behind the bench necessitated his removal.

And about that time in Hartford which Bettman referred ... Holmgren faced yet another crossroads in his hockey and personal life in the late Winter of 1994. In his time as the team's General Manager, late in the 1993-94 season, the stoic Minnesotan was forced to deal with off-ice alcohol issues which almost derailed Chris Pronger's young career, the fallout from a brawl in a Buffalo establishment which involved several players, assistants and locals, as well as his own DUI arrest for plowing into mailboxes in a suburban Hartford community.

A stint in the Betty Ford Center helped wipe the slate clean, and Holmgren eventually returned to the Whalers as head coach until his firing in November of 1995 eventually led him back to Philadelphia in January of 1996. Over the course of nearly two decades, Holmgren carved out a niche in the Flyers' front office, rising from a scouting position to Director of Player Personnel, to assistant General Manager to GM as a replacement for Bob Clarke, and now as team President, a post to which he was named last May.

Along with the program's namesake, Holmgren has increased his involvement with local programs promoting the sport through the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation.

"It's a scholarship program for young kids in perhaps not the greatest environment. We get them playing hockey and it goes from there," Holmgren said. "I don't know what our numbers our with youth kids playing the game, not only boys but girls, but they've done a great job. And now the NHL is 25 percent American-born players, and it's a number that's going to continue to grow because more kids are getting the opportunity to play."

He joined Bobby Clarke, Ed Snider and Fred Shero (1980), Keith Allen (1988) and Bud Poile (1989) as franchise principals who previously were honored. Mike Emrick (2004) spent three separate stints here as a broadcaster (1980-83 PRISM play-by-play; 86-88 intermission host; 88-93 PRISM/Channel 57 & 17 play-by-play).
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