Are You Ready For Some Hockey? Puck, Yeah!






GORDONVILLE — Are you ready for some … hockey?

Shoot, I am.

Haven’t been this fired up about the puck dropping on a new season in a while, and for two connected reasons.

The first is personal, as the sport as always been close to my heart.

A lifestyle change now allows to me to be home at night, watching games. I might even get to see some live action, and nothing hits my sports soul with more impact than walking through a tunnel of an arena and seeing a hockey rink.

The second reason is an extension of the first. Born in 1965, I grew up at a time when the Philadelphia teams were bad going on worse.

If you could scratch and sniff the sports scene upon which I was weaned, you would have gagged.

I learned to read the agate page of the newspaper by looking up the baseball standings every day to see if the National League East cellar-dwelling Phillies at least had a better record than the pathetic San Diego Padres in the NL West.

It was years before I actually saw the Eagles win a home game (my dad had season tickets, but only brought me to a few each season when I young). I remember going to a game during the ill-fated, nine-win 1972-73 76ers season and taking heart that at least they led after the first quarter of a blowout loss to the powerful Boston Celtics.

It was a pitiful introduction to sports.

But just when the inferiority complex was about to be cemented, the Broad Street Bullies came along and changed everything, winning the Stanley Cup in 1974 and again in 1975.

I joined the rest of the near-world in playing hockey. Ice rinks were few and far between, and most didn’t last long when they did open. But we always had the street – or a schoolyard — to pretend you were Bobby Clarke or Bernie Parent or Rick MacLeish or any of the others who were loved so much here and hated elsewhere in the civilized world.

With Clarke as my primary role model, I found a formula that made me successful. I just hustled and always tried to be around the puck/ball and good things tended to happen.

While the success of the Flyers gave me pride as a young fan with not much else to cheer for in this region, my personal success gave me self-confidence.

Fast-forward to the present.

It’s not exactly the same scenario, but it is close enough to hang on to the hope that history can repeat itself (even though you won’t see me outside with a Bobby Clarke, orange-blade street hockey stick).

All you have to do is survey the Philadelphia sports landscape with an objective eye.

The Eagles, in spite of their fast-break offense, are a work in progress. Success will be measured more by changing the culture from the humdrum that marked the end of the Andy Reid era than by a won-loss record or doing a blind squirrel routine and finding some back door to sneak into the playoffs.

The Sixers, well, they are purposefully tanking the season – trying to replicate 1972-73 — to get as high of a draft pick as possible for next season’s front-loaded draft. That should tell you all you need to know about the upcoming campaign in which one of the prized rookies, Nerlens Noel, may not even play.

The Phillies, in effect, saw their season unceremoniously end by stumbling out of gate when the bell rang after the all-star break. Next year, with an odd mix of post- and pre-prime players, they will be working under the guidance of a manager, Ryne (not Ryan!) Sandberg. At best it will be a transitional year to get where they want to be, so keep your fingers away from that window as it slams shut.

It has been a while since a Philadelphia team has even made the postseason, which is the vital first step toward even catching a whiff of a coveted championship.

The Flyers are about to start playing for keeps, and they enter the season with some questions that need to be answered.  Nonetheless, the immediate future does not look as bleak as their brethren in the City of Brotherly Love.

Truth be uttered, all that kept them out of the playoffs a year back was the lockout. For whatever reason, they hit the ice skidding and were chasing that sluggish start the rest of the way. Whenever they seemed to gain traction, the injury bug would rear its ugly head.

It was just one of those vicious cycles that might have been broken with those extra 30 games to get it together, but the shortened slate did not have mercy on slow starters.

And then there was the other problem, the goalie with the inconsistent play and bizarre quotes that filled up the notebooks of smirking beat writers but divided the locker room of the players laying it on the line each night in front of him.

Illya Bryzgalov is gone. The team swallowed a bitter pill by eating his onerous contract. Instead of “Bryz” backed up by a non-option, the Flyers will now have a healthier situation with the tag team of Steve Mason and Ray Emery.

However it shakes out in terms of opening night, the max – barring injury – will be a 60-40 split in starts. Two quality/sane goalies staying fresh by not being overworked means addition by subtraction on any sports calculator (except in the Flyers’ business office, where they still have to cut checks to the currently unemployable Bryzgalov).

The other killer last season, beyond the goaltending and endless stream of injuries, was the infectious nature of the dreaded sophomore slump.

Sean Couturier, Brayden Schenn and Matt Read failed – at varying degrees – to pick up where they had left off the prior season.

Logic would dictate that the primary cause was the lockout, as the younger players had a harder time keeping themselves focused and ready to go when it was suddenly announced that a season – more of a sprint than a marathon – was going to start.

This talented trio will be counted on to support to top guns – Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, newcomer and one-time standout Vinny Lecavalier, Scott Hartnell and Wayne Simmonds – to pick up the pace on an offense that sagged last year.

Meanwhile, on the blue line, Braydon Coburn appears healthy and ready to resume bump-and-grind action at 18-20 minutes a night (instead of 22-24). Newcomer Mark Streit takes some pressure off veteran Kimmo Timonen as a mobile defenseman. Luke Schenn, Brayden’s older brother, seemed to be coming into his own – as younger larger-sized defenseman often do after a few seasons and a change of scenery – by season’s end. While upstart Erik Gustafsson is a viable wild card, the real success of this group hinges on the health of Andrei Meszaros and Nick Grossmann.

While the defense still lack that No. 1 stud worthy of 22-24 minutes game, like a Chris Pronger, the potential depth almost makes up for it.

On paper, the Flyers look like a solid team. Good enough to make the postseason, which, in our city’s current sports funk, will almost be parade-worthy, even if they get swept in the first round.

On the ice, we will have to take a wait-and-see approach.

Given the options in this town, that’s an upgrade.

It’s a reason to believe that as it happened before, it could happen again.

It all starts Wednesday against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Game on.

This column originally appeared at

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