Friday, May 22, 2015

How the Flyers ruined my college graduation (and set me on the path as a pro)

Sleep deprived but satisfied, roughly 90 minutes after sunrise I drifted off to sleep in the comfort of my window-side bed in Rubenstein Hall, D62, on the morning of May 22, 2000.

In a few hours, I would drag myself out of bed, doff the ceremonial cap and gown, and slog through meaningless platitudes from acting Secretary of Something Tommy Thompson to emerge as a graduate of Boston College.

Once the fog subsided and the whirlwind of commencement speakers, individual honors, diploma reception, tearful goodbyes and complicated handshakes, clearing out the dorms and navigating the madness of the funereal line of cars snaking along the sole escape route ceased, I was ready for the inevitable.

The Philadelphia Flyers were going to beat the New Jersey Devils for the fourth time in five games, and gain a second berth in the Stanley Cup Finals in the last four seasons. They were closing out the Eastern Finals in front of a home crowd whose last impression of the Orange and Black was a come-from-behind 4-3 victory in Game 2 where their cascade of hats to celebrate a John LeClair trifecta was premature.

It would be magical, to finally witness the Red and Black Dragon slain after five long years.

'Round about the time Andy Delmore beat the Penguins with an overtime goal in Game 3 of the Eastern semis to save the Flyers from an impending state of wretchedness in the series, I came up with two brilliant ideas: to take the rest of the weekend off from studying for exams and visit a friend at Lafayette College, and to grow a "playoff beard" until the Flyers were eliminated.

Bear in mind, that college is that precious time in young adults' lives when new information falls into the categories of Wondrous Revelation or Utter Bullshit, with little gray area. Growing that postseason scruff, 18 days until graduation be damned, fell into the former category. So did any thoughts of losing three straight games after building up to 11 and needing only five more...

Did I deserve to exit Chestnut Hill with the best laid plans intact? I thought so. Six weeks earlier, my first foray into broadcasting ended with an emotionally-draining trip to Providence where BC lost to North Dakota in the NCAA hockey finals. My classmates (and future NHLers like Brian Gionta), who represented the hopes of a program on the upswing, disappointed thousands despite a valiant effort.

My school's team provided the ultimate letdown, so how could my hometown team do the same, needing only one stinking win? The Cup Finals were just the icing on the cake.

From the comfort of a hotel room just off the curved expanse of I-95 in the Western suburbs of Boston, the horror unfolded. The Devils played textbook smothering defense, the Flyers were spinning wheels all night, and Brian Boucher gave up three goals before the night was 22 minutes old. After an eventual 4-1 loss which I fell asleep on midway through the third period, the series headed up to New Jersey while I was headed back home to Philadelphia to begin a new life.

It was a long 7 hour ride, stewing silently as the rolling hills of the Poconos whizzed past. Just this one thing couldn't go right?!?!

Two nights later, Eric Lindros returned to the lineup after almost two months recovering from a Grade II concussion and the balanced attack which worked in Craig Ramsay's favor all postseason dried up. The ugly phenomenon reared its head and the rest of the club waited for their star to take over. Lindros came within tenths of a second of giving his team the lead at the second-period buzzer and he did score with 31 seconds left. Only problem there, Claude Lemieux and Alex Mogilny already put the Devils in the driver's seat on goals five minutes apart late in the third.

Philadelphia had already blown a 3-1 series lead in my lifetime, 12 years earlier against the Capitals. It's now been reduced to a single video clip, shown year after year, of Dale Hunter scoring in overtime, but when you're 10 years old, you get over things like that real quick. Back then, I used to use "thinking about hockey" as a go-to excuse for pulling B's and C's in school during the fourth quarter.

On the night of Game 7, Friday May 26, I was intoxicated and in Scranton. Both on purpose. A good friend of mine from high school was about to be extricated from the Jesuit university there, and I lent my support and last remaining cash for a weekend of celebration before his own walk into the real world.

Imagine if you will the flow of news without the internet, and without people 21-22 years old having cell phones attached at the ear. It was called patience -- and it was tested to the limit as my buddy, his Pittsburgh-native, Devils-fan girlfriend and I waited for a bus to take us downtown for the drunkening. Cut to the chase, it's 30 minutes later and we walk into the joint, this guy wired like a junkie knowing the game started and is an untold number of minutes along. It's dead quiet and half full, even with all available TVs on the game.

I ask the server why there wasn't a party atmosphere for an event of astronomical importance. She said, flatly, the Devils were already winning, and just before we walked in, there was a long break in the game because Lindros was hit by Scott Stevens and had to be carried off the ice. At that point, everything went white behind the eyes.

I remember pitchers upon pitchers of beer, and laughing, and trying to keep my eyes glued to the screen instead of hiding them in the palm of my hand. I don't remember Rick Tocchet's tying goal in the second period, and definitely don't remember how Patrik Elias scored the eventual dagger. All I recall was the feel, the feel of total silence and despair.

In trying to piece together what occurred when the night was over, it ended up feeling like that scene in The Simpsons when Homer dances around a May pole in a tutu intercut with slides which read "scene missing." Worse still, there were two more days to spend in Scranton.

Many years later, it became clear how the hockey gods operated. The Flyers couldn't get away with the Lindros concussion soap opera, a trade involving their second-line center and rumors of bedroom impropriety, a rookie goaltender who made a once-in-a-decade highlight-reel save, Craig Berube providing meaningful offense, a coach sidelined by cancer and have it all come out smelling like roses.

Did they have to go and blow it all up at once, in the span of four days?

In the end all the pictures from graduation day look terrible. Crooked smiles, dark circles around the eyes, and a scraggly proto-Amish-chinstrap deal that was in no way reminiscent of anything that can be called a beard. Regrets, I've had a few...
After sunrise, 5/22/00. Flyers up 3-1 on Devils. Author on left.

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In all seriousness, the events of the last full week of May, 2000 were the driving force in my conversion from a citizen fan into a cynical adult. That it was bracketed by my own graduation and that of a friend was merely coincidental.

Fifteen years ago, there was a clear division of labor: either you pursued a career in sports media through journalism and broadcasting and hoped to latch on somewhere at the bottom of the ladder in order to work your way through, or you took a job somewhere else and embarked on the adult version of the fan you grew to be.

For me, the timing was, for lack of any better word, serendipitous despite the terrible outcome. The Flyers wasting that three games to one lead and failing to make the Stanley Cup Finals, along with all the drama which shadowed the team's success to that point, represented a break in the social contract of franchise to this fan, as far as I was concerned.

Ed Snider dictated the Flyers would make the Finals in the first year in their new building -- which did happen thanks to the Legion of Doom and their cohorts, though, again, that loss in four straight to the Red Wings in 1997 was unpredictably unpleasant. Nonetheless, the events of '95 and '97 instilled hope and drew interest which didn't exist five years prior.

Bob Clarke had three years to try and re-stock for another run, but he destroyed the fabric of the top line with the Chris Gratton deal, then tore up the roster with 13 trades in 1998-99 then ultimately settled on depth with four solid lines and the twin behemoths of Eric Lindros and Keith Primeau at center. Problem was, Clarke waited too long to try and match the Devils' strategy, who embraced more of a dynamic style by 2000 compared to their trap-fueled Cup win five years before.

He shifted the coaching duties from laconic and overmatched Terry Murray to the befuddled Wayne Cashman to the stealth master Roger Neilson to an unemotional Ramsay and dared to question Neilson's sanity at one point when he wished to return to the bench following cancer treatments.

Those of us around then might fondly remember Snider's $50,000 outburst against what he perceived as biased officials following a first-round Game 6 season-ending home loss to the Maple Leafs in '99. What's pushed to the background is the Flyers -- Lindros or no -- failed to score a single goal in an elimination game and lost four one-goal games against a Toronto club which was completely offensive-minded that year.

The Summer of 2000 was filled with the toxic fallout of Lindros' concussion timeline and his announcement that he'd never play for the Flyers again, and a lot of ugliness was exposed on both sides to the point where a clean break -- if not from the daily rondo of discussion and arguments of who was right or wrong on either side, then from talking hockey altogether -- was desperately needed.

All of the endless shifting in personnel with the usual explanation of "doing what's best for the organ-eye-zation" was no longer cutting it. Hearing the same message no matter the disastrous result was a motivating factor in my own shift in perception regarding what the true goals of the club's power structure were. Over the ensuing years, nothing said in front of the cameras or done on the draft/trade/signing front shook me of that realization until Ron Hextall was hired as GM last Spring.

Within two days of that Game 5 loss, I began an internship with WIP. That first year in the real world, with Lindros holding out, life had no choice but to move on. I mined enough contacts to get a shot at broadcasting what is to date my first and only NHL contest, Flyers-Wild in March of 2001, and used that tape to get interviews in the minors.

After that one good opportunity to fly this coop -- a place with the Macon Whoopee in the CHL -- evaporated before my closing interview when the team was bought and elevated to the ECHL, I was forced to start over again. Four months later, I gained my first job in hockey as a stats assistant based in Reading. During the 2004-05 season, with the NHL dormant, I covered the AHL for the first time and the next season, made the leap to the Flyers and have kept a credential in some form or another since.

I've seen (and taken) plenty of opportunities to skewer the on-ice product and the men in charge over the years since, moreso than many others we read and whom draw more interest than I. The reward in that position is, nobody's seen fit to deny access due to anything I've said or written, because it was never borne of malice. I'd strongly suggest that tack to anyone who covers the NHL, anywhere, not to be blinded too much by that credential, and to think of game coverage anywhere in the chain more as a responsibility and less of wish fulfillment.

As Lester Bangs said to William Miller in Almost Famous, be honest and unmerciful. Truth is truth, and while it can be sweet, it is often harsh. I was lucky to learn at the right time in life, unprompted.

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