GORDONVILLE — On Oct. 8, 2011, the sports world lost an iconic figure.
Al Davis, whose “just win, baby!” approach made the Oakland Raiders – the team for which he was the principal owner and general manager – a one-time powerhouse in the old American Football League and then the merged NFL, died at age 82.
But perhaps he did not die.
Perhaps his spirit morphed into that of another man with a similar background and similar story, that being one Edward M. Snider.
Although not internationally recognized, like Davis, Snider is well-known as the chairman of our Philadelphia Flyers.
Like Davis, Snider’s guidance and achievements with the Flyers have earned him a pass – at least locally – during tough stretches and regrettable missteps. After all, he brought a winner to a town that had become used to losing and booing away the angst.
And winning became addictive for Snider. It remains his primary objective.
Like Davis in the NFL, Snider is not exactly Mr. Popularity around the NHL. Like Davis, he not only doesn’t care how he is perceived, but enjoys it. And that scores more endearment points here.
But the parallel, unfortunately, is taking a more ominous turn.
Davis, toward the end of his storybook run with the Raiders, had pretty much written the textbook on how and why impulse decisions beget more of the same in a business where the opposite is needed. He left the Raiders in a shambles, hiring and firing coaches and front-office types as if it were a Burger King.
Snider, with a vice-like grip on the Flyers, seems to be doing the same.
At the end of last season, one shortened by a lockout, Snider and Co. gave a tepid vote of confidence to head coach Peter Laviolette.
After a one-win preseason, which included some silly team-bonding shenanigans in Lake Placid, N.Y., the Flyers seemed to be hoping for their own miracle on ice when the rubber hit the ice for real. Instead, they remained cold as ice, dropping their first three games with an anemic offense and defense lacking the necessary cohesion.
And then, in a move ripped the playbook of the latter years of Al Davis’ reign – one which morphed from terror to error – Laviolette was axed, only to be replaced by assistant coach Craig Berube.
The move may have sent shockwaves through the league, but the necessary culture shock within the “organ-I-zation” was not felt.
There’s no “just win, baby!” when you put a coach on a learning curve. Berube, a 17-year NHL enforcer, is being set up to fail, but the turnstiles at the Wells Fargo center keep on churning.
It doesn’t even trickle across the goal line as a short-term fix.
How is a guy who sat in coaches’ meetings with Laviolette – plotting flawed strategies and square-peg-in-a-round-hole system – going to kick-start this team?
We got our answer.
No honeymoon period here.
Berube has one win – 2-1 over the Florida Panthers, not to be confused with the Wayne Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers of yore – and that was only because goalie Steve Mason, one of the few bright spots this season, practically stood on his head to secure the lone highlight of the season. Beyond that, it has been more of the same.
The Flyers, who were granted a week’s reprieve by the league’s schedule-makers, enter action again Thursday against the New York Rangers with a 1-7 record.
It has gotten so bad that this respite is being billed as time to replenish and begin anew, but seven losses in the first eight games can haunt you in the quest for a playoff berth as much seven losses in the last eight.
It has gotten so bad that they come away from losses feeling like they are just about to turn the corner.
Bottom line: That’s loser talk, and that’s the culture now bred in the Flyers’ locker room.
And the water is carried from that poisoned well to the public by the team’s beat writers, who are taking spin control to a new low.
It took media outside of that small circle of friends to hit Snider with the necessary hard question – the elephant in the room – after Laviolette was canned.
It was about the propensity to hire from within – to the point of it being a sports equivalent to incest – considering that Berube spent a chunk of his 17-year “playing” career in orange and black.
The culture, and the need to change it, was called into question.
Snider snapped, responding that the team has been to the finals repeatedly – six times – since winning Stanley Cups to cap off the 1973-74 and 1974-75 seasons.
It sounded good.
It had that “wow, he told him” feel to it.
But Snider – like a later-era, cartoonish Davis – has lost his mojo. He just came across like a grumpy old man.
The fact is that in those six trips to the finals, which puts the Flyers atop the list of active teams in major sports in the area of futility when comes to the final showdown in the town square, reveals a different picture.
In 1975-76, when the Flyers came up short in their bid for a hat trick, Fred Shero was still at the helm. The next time, 1979-80, the coach was Pat Quinn. He had played over 600 games in his NHL career, but not one in a Flyers’ uniform. He became an assistant under Shero, apprenticed in the AHL and ascended to the top job during the 1978-79 season.
The next trip, again ending without champagne, was the 1984-85 season. The coach, Mike Keenan, was a fresh face from the Canadian collegiate ranks, replacing an “organ-I-zational” hack, Bob McCammon. They got there again under Keenan, in 1986-87, and came
agonizingly close to the Holy Grail, falling in seven games to that Gretzky-led Oiler juggernaut.
The next time, sigh, was in 1996-97. The coach was Terry Murray, who spent most of career as a NHL/AHL tweener with the “organ-I-zation,” but cut coaching teeth for five seasons behind the bench in Washington before “coming home.” After taking the Flyers from their franchise low point to the finals in his third year, Murray was fired and made a scout before resuming his coaching career.
There was no improvement.
It wouldn’t be until 2009-10, with Laviolette running the team, that the Flyers would make a wacky run to the finals before losing in six games to Chicago. He came here with no ties, a fresh perspective and a Stanley Cup (2005-06) on his resume.
Maybe it was time for Laviolette to go, as the spring of 2010 playoff run was really the peak of his time here. But shouldn’t that move have been after last season when there were seasoned coaches – other than an untested assistant – out there for the taking?
Impulse decisions beget more of the same. In the world of sports, the results are 1-7 starts.
Just win, baby?
Ghost of a chance, Ed – courtesy of Al Davis.
Happy Halloween, Flyers Nation.