Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Want Berube gone? Shout, shout, let it all out

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor 
On the afternoon of November 29, 1991, the walls of the Spectrum shook with the collected wailing of a fan base beyond all rational levels of frustration.

With the Flyers hurtling towards a demoralizing 9-3 Black Friday matinee defeat to the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins, the sellout crowd of 17,380 began a chant which turned the tide of opinion against a local legend:


This was less than 48 hours since a stupefying 7-3 loss to the eternally mediocre Hartford Whalers on that same ice put a different set of the paying faithful on edge. That was the fourth unsuccessful contest in what became an 0-7-1 stretch that pulled a .500 team into the doldrums of the Patrick Division and virtually out of the playoff race before Christmas.

A fifth straight game without a win featured Kevin Stevens scoring four of the Penguins' first five goals and Mario Lemieux tallying twice with an assist. Paul Holmgren's team decided not to wake up until the start of the third period, already down 6-0, and despite a brief burst which turned the venom to Bronx cheers, the visitors scored three more times to turn the contest into an embarrassing rout.

Holmgren didn't survive another week behind the Flyers' bench. By the time the team returned home from a trip to Pittsburgh and Manhattan, multiple Calder Cup-winning coach Bill Dineen was called upon to finish out the season.

It didn't matter that Homer was less than three years removed from a Wales Conference Finals berth, or that he did his best to hold the club together in the wake of Bob Clarke's questionable roster restocking, his firing and the hiring of non-Flyer Russ Farwell in the GM position. His image as a loyal soldier and capable boss was quickly eroding, and the virulent reaction of an impatient fan base used to years of success made a deep impact on team President Jay Snider.

For Holmgren's part, as the ship was sinking, he relied on some old chestnuts from his playing days, appearing to dismiss any signs of imminent trouble for he or his players.

"The fans are looking for something to cheer about, and we're certainly not giving it to them right now. We just have to work our way out of it. One of these days the pucks are going to bounce our way," he said to Inquirer beat Gary Miles.

This crushing defeat ended up being the tip of the iceberg and prompted management to pull the trigger and remove one of its franchise icons from a position of power. 

On the afternoon of March 6, 2015, Daily News beat Frank Seravalli detailed how goaltending coach Jeff Reese came to disagree so strongly with bench boss Craig Berube and the front office regarding his and their handling of injured starting goaltender Steve Mason.

At the head of the disagreement was Mason's insertion into a Feb. 26 game at Toronto, one in which the visitors were trailing by two goals just over 25 minutes into the contest -- long enough that substitute starter Rob Zepp was pulled in favor of Mason. Problem was, Mason -- only 16 days removed from surgery to shave 60 percent of a torn meniscus in his right knee -- was initially told that he'd only see game action in an emergency.

A two-goal deficit on the road against a moribund non-playoff team which was dominated in possession and the shot charts to that point doesn't exactly constitute flipping on the flashing lights and blaring the siren. Yet Berube, perhaps motivated by the closeness of his team in the standings to a wild-card berth, made the decision to wake up his charges.

“(I) would have preferred Zepp to finish the game … but that’s my gut and I went with it," Berube said in the postgame. And the mouths of countless fans across this continent went slack. 

Despite a rapidly-quickening current of discord from the fan base which now stretches well beyond the confines of the Delaware Valley, into pockets of support throughout Canada and Europe and who knows how much further afield, Berube is firmly entrenched at his position. 

Night after night, through terrible lineup decisions (such as the prolonged healthy scratchings of Vinny Lecavalier and Michael Del Zotto and the total underusage of spare defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo in the place of Nick Grossmann and Andrew MacDonald), questionable in-game line adjustments (such as the times when Zac Rinaldo received equal if not greater ice time at certain points than NHL scoring-lead challenger Jake Voracek) and little to no insight behind the above, it's status quo. There has been no indication that his job is in jeopardy once this confusing morass of a regular season has completed.

What's the difference in the two situations where a head coaching change was the most likely remedy? Buffers.

Back in 1991, the Flyers front office was in a period of transition following Clarke's ouster in disagreements over how a roster reshaping should proceed. Ed Snider's hockey son lost a battle with his biological son, who happened to be in a higher position of power. Enter Farwell, an outsider to the organization who inherited a team on the decline, forced to deal with a franchise two seasons out of a playoff race and heading rapidly for a third.  

In addition, an itchy fan base looking for release from this downturn had just two major outlets with which to vent their opinions: calling team offices and showing up to games to vocalize their issues. They'd managed to help chase a coach/GM out of town once before in Bob McCammon -- and that occurred after a 1983-84 season where he'd won 44 games but presided over a third straight early playoff exit in a sweep to the Capitals.

When that anger finally simmered over again 7 1/2 years later, in a public forum, with every single seat filled and the volume of their complaints amplified, the power structure couldn't help but take notice. It wasn't like 10,000 fans showed up and collectively simmered for 60 minutes, this was full throat for at least a period's worth of game action. 

Had Clarke been in charge then, wouldn't it have been reasonable to suspect he'd do everything he could to protect his former line mate and protege from the chopping block? But he wasn't there, and Farwell, perhaps, showed some intestinal fortitude in pushing things to their inevitable conclusion. Jay Snider, just as conscious as his old man of the image his team projected, couldn't ignore what was unfolding in front of his eyes and ears.

Flash forward a generation. In the club's front office is the elder-statesman and chairman Snider, followed by a resurrected Holmgren -- after a seven-plus-year stretch as team GM which can be described as mixed at best now promoted to President -- and then his successor Ron Hextall, a former firebrand as player and Cup winner as Kings assistant GM brought in to inject some new ideas into a franchise perpetually looking to get lucky.

And in the fans' corner is this lovely invention called social media. Where anyone, anywhere at any time can send a message or a tweet and know who's in their corner or who's against whatever a person might be railing against at the moment. For an entire season, Flyers fans have railed every which way about Berube's intelligence, hockey sense and general uselessness. The mob, of course, has a point.

That invective has filled a world in which people are becoming increasingly invested, but which is only reachable with the flick of a switch. On the other hand, you can't simply power down or turn off real life.

Messages with hashtags and aimed at the Flyers' account railing against the head coach and perceived inaction of their GM have surely littered the internets. And yet, when you observe the number of fans who fill the Wells Fargo Center on any given night during this season of emotional bingo, whether it's packed to the gills for a Penguins game or one-quarter deserted due to bad weather and the Hurricanes in town, there's little to no sustained vocalization of that disappointment.

Add to that the reports which state Berube's lineup decisions that often come under fire are a function of a unified front between Holmgren, Hextall and the head coach, and you have a recipe for apathy brewing. As in, what good is it to publicly express displeasure if everyone who matters has the head coach's back?

Let's not forget this fact: unlike Holmgren (107-126-31), Berube has his record on his side. Forced to pick up the pieces from Peter Laviolette's unceremonious exit after three games last year, Chief will be given credit for leading the Orange and Black to the playoffs last Spring. His overall NHL mark stands at 70-54-23 after last night's 2-1 loss to the Stars.

This year's team has suffered some losses (like last night) where they look like the skating dead, but despite a stretch of 1-8-1 in late November and a five-game losing streak in December, the degradation of play game-to-game simply hasn't reached the point of a six-goal blowout and likely won't ever sink that low.

Among the 18,723 in attendance, there was only one brief spate of booing. That's not good enough, and you can't tell me there aren't enough dissatisfied fans and season-ticket holders who can be present one night who can't be in full throat. Voices were heard in a season where the Flyers finished in third place and brushed up against 100 points. Those voices helped Clarke cast a wide net beyond the NHL's old boy network and lead to the Mike Keenan era.

You can help Hextall with this decision, if the will and the volume is there. Start from Saturday afternoon and continue through the final seven home dates this season. Forget about the outcome, the score, the margin of wins and losses. If Mike Babcock is ever to be a possibility here or some other savior who exists under the radar, it starts with direct action and one simple phrase, repeated over and over, and loudly, for all to hear:

Fire Chief. Chief Must Go. It's fairly simple. Say it loud and say it proud. But say it in the right place at the right time. Remember that thing about afflicting the comfortable?

"I don't really think about it to be honest with you," said Berube to the Courier Post before the Stars' game when questioned about his future at his current position. "I told you that before and I don't now. It's the nature of the business. I don't worry about it."

He's also clearly unconcerned about explaining himself. Never one to waste words even when the scoreboard works in his favor, Berube's time spent at the podium last night clocked in at 1:41, which challenges a season low for a home game. That's unacceptable. It's high time Hextall is forced to think about how a good soldier doesn't translate into being a great general, despite the protection the organization offers.

Anything less, and it's all just impotent whining and moaning into the ether. None of which can achieve the desired effect.
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