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Questioning the culture

Posted by Eric Fisher On October 7

The definition of culture: the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic or age group. Or: the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another.

Culture, specifically a discussion about the Flyers’ culture, provided the most interesting moment of Monday’s news conference announcing the firing of head coach Peter Laviolette after just three games and the promotion of assistant coach Craig Berube, whose 17 years with the organization includes two stints as a player, a stretch as assistant coach and then head coach of the Phantoms and six-plus years as a Flyers assistant coach.

Berube is a Flyer, through and through. Even though he has spent time with other organizations, he always remained a Flyer at heart.

And that is what prompted new Inquirer sports columnist Mike Sielski – I warned you he would elevate the level of discussion/stir up trouble – to ask Flyers chairman Ed Snider, “Given the fact that you guys haven’t won a Cup in 38 years, why bring in somebody who is steeped in that sort of culture?”

“What’s the culture?” responded an obviously perturbed Snider.

“The culture that hasn’t won a championship in four decades,” Sielski said.

“We haven’t won a championship,” Snider said, “but we’ve been in the Stanley Cup Finals a lot of times and we’ve been in the playoffs a lot of times, and the culture is to win. Thirty teams are trying to win the Cup. And we’re doing our damndest to do it. That’s our culture.”

Sielski starts to respond, but Snider interrupts with an emphatic, “That’s our culture!”

“A fresh perspective …,” Sielski starts to say.

“No, we don’t need a fresh perspective,” Snider said. “We have a pretty good culture and we know who we’re dealing with.”

The discussion starts with a question about choosing a coach from inside the organization instead of going outside the organization. My PhillyPhanatics.com colleague Ron Opher questions whether Berube would have been the choice if the Flyers had dismissed Laviolette after last season, when the pool of available candidates would have been larger, instead of three games into this season.

A look at the 18 head coaches in Flyers history reveals a mixed bag. Some coaches, such as Holmgren, Bill Barber and John Stevens are from within the organization. Others, such as Laviolette, Ken Hitchcock and Bill Dineen are from outside the organization. But let’s put aside the actual count of coaches from inside and outside the organization so we can concentrate on the bigger picture.

The real subject of this discussion is whether the Flyers’ culture, which certainly includes a heavy dose of loyalty, prevents them from winning a Stanley Cup. The general manager, Paul Holmgren, has been a loyal Flyer as a player, coach and executive. Assistant general manager Ron Hextall, who many have speculated is being groomed as Holmgren’s replacement, has always been a Flyer at heart, even when he played for and worked for other organizations. Former Flyers enforcer Dave Brown is a scout.

If nothing else, the Flyers’ staff would be favored if an off-ice executive/coaching staff brawl ever broke out – and that includes the still-feisty 80-year-old chairman, who would likely have been favored Monday if he could have gotten his hands on Sielski, who is less than half Snider’s age. Toughness, too, is part of the Flyers’ culture.

Loyalty and toughness are part of the Flyers’ culture, and so, unquestionably, is the desire to win.

“We want to win the Cup each and every year,” Snider said.

That’s not true of every NHL franchise. Sure, they all want to win. But the Flyers are one of the organizations that actually tries to win the Cup every year.

What’s wrong with that? Sometimes an overwhelming desire to win leads to rash decisions. Sometimes it leads to a lack of patience.

Snider repeatedly says that he has never signed a player. But there’s no doubt that his public comments in 2011 after the Flyers were eliminated from the playoffs while Laviolette employed a goaltender carousel pressured Holmgren into overpaying Ilya Bryzgalov, considered the best goalie on the market that offseason.

The “win now!” culture also leads to questions about whether the Flyers would have been better off trying to acquire young players this offseason instead of signing veterans on the downside of their careers, such as Mark Streit and Vinny Lecavalier. This doesn’t mean that Streit and Lecavalier won’t contribute. It merely suggests that if the Flyers had recognized they were a year or two away from returning to Cup contender status, maybe they would have been better off building with younger players.

If they had focused on younger players, though, perhaps that wouldn’t have been fair to Laviolette. It seems strange to speak about fairness after a coach has been fired three games into the season, but it would have been unfair to ask him to turn the Flyers’ fortunes around without adding players who can contribute right away.

The “win now!” mentality may be embedded even deeper in Flyers culture these days due to a desire to win another Cup for Snider, the patriarch of the organization since its creation. As Snider gets older, perhaps the pressure to win becomes even more intense – if that’s possible.

So, is the Flyers’ culture of loyalty, toughness and “win now!” the culprit in the 38-year Stanley Cup drought? Or is the Flyers’ culture the reason only the Oilers and Canadiens have been to more Stanley Cup Finals than the Flyers since the Flyers won their last Cup in 1975?

I’m sure Snider would say that the Flyers’ culture of winning is why they’ve returned to the Stanley Cup Finals six times since 1975. It’s why they’ve only missed the playoffs twice in the last 18 years. It’s why missing the playoffs last year was considered unacceptable.

It’s why Laviolette was fired Monday after three listless losses, the earliest a coach has been fired in NHL history.

Snider says “the culture is to win.” But sixteen teams have sipped from Lord Stanley’s Cup since 1975. The Flyers aren’t one of them.

Is the culture that has kept the Flyers competitive for most of those 38 years also to blame for the franchise’s failure to win a third Stanley Cup?

That’s certainly a fair question.


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2 Responses

  1. Ron Opher Says:

    I think it was slightly out of bounds of Sielski to frame the question the way he did. I know he led in with “meaning no disrespect…” but that was edited out of every excerpt/summary – because people like the controversy and tension. He also isn’t all that brave, since all he did was follow Howard Eskin into the fray.

    I would have preferred my question be asked – “if you had to do it over again, would you have made the move in April?”

    If Holmgren/Snider said/insisted “no, we wanted to give Lavi a chance,” the obvious follow-up would be – “aren’t you now behind the 8-ball having done so, pretty much eliminating the opportunity to do a full-fledged search for his replacement?”

    That would at least have made them either say that Berube was being groomed all along (which seems borderline preposterous) or to admit that they blew it and possibly pissed away this season with their misplaced blame for last season on factors like the lockout, short training camp, injuries and Bryzgalov – none of which really caused the poor play it now seems.

    What’s the point of taking on Snider directly about “culture?” We know as long as he’s around (and possibly much longer, with his disciples in charge), that the culture of loyalty + overrating what you have and denigrating what others have + putting intense pressure on people perhaps needlessly is not working so well – at least not today, a real low point in the history of the team.

    It’s eerily reminiscent of the dual Clarke/Hitchcock dismissals which foreshadowed a horrible season in 2006-07 and which thrust an assistant coach who was not really ready for an NHL head coaching job at that time right into the fire. The similarities continue with Terry Murray arguably being the co-coach of that team – and John Paddock will reprise Terry Murray’s role now.

    Posted on October 7th, 2013 at 10:12 pm

  2. Eric Fisher Says:

    As you know from my column, I didn’t think Mike’s question was out of bounds. I think it’s a legitimate question.

    My only problem was the insinuation that somehow it’s a losing culture. But I think Mike cleared that up in his column.

    I like your question as well, which is why I mentioned it in the column. Whether Berube would have been the choice after last season or if someone else — I’ve always liked Lindy Ruff — would have been hired.

    Posted on October 8th, 2013 at 4:59 pm

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