Frequent Flyers: Welcoming old players back into the fold

Mike Knuble, left, and Simon Gagne were teammates here in 2007 and again in 2013. Credit: Getty Images
Mike Knuble, left, and Simon Gagne were teammates here in 2007 — and now again in 2013.
Credit: Getty Images

Simon Gagne joining Ruslan Fedotenko and Mike Knuble — with good soldier Brian Boucher waiting in the wings — is only the latest in a tradition that may be unlike any other. Rick MacLeish, Bernie Parent, Mark Recchi, Rick Tocchet and Ron Hextall are among those who have previously blazed a trail here in the birthplace of our nation.

You can call them Frequent Flyers.

“Of course we think about it,” admitted team founder-turned Comcast-Spectacor chairman Ed Snider. “It’s not an accident. If there are several guys available who can help us that are equal and one is an ex-player, we’ll take that ex-player every time.”

That’s why Philadelphia has become the place they often flock to in their golden hockey years. Old Flyers don’t die — they just fade away as older Flyers.

Once in a while — as in the cases of Parent, Recchi and Hextall — the sequel measures up to the opening act. More often, it doesn’t play out that way.

“I think you do appreciate it more after you’ve been away,” said the 40-year-old Knuble. “If somebody said then, ‘You’ll be back someday,’ I think I would’ve been very excited about that. As a player, you hope to feel connected to your organization.”

Gagne, a Flyers mainstay for 10 years, returned this season after hoisting the Stanley Cup in Los Angeles.

“It’s not an easy place to play,” said Gagne. “It’s demanding, but, at the same time, if you do well it’s a great place to play. It’s like coming back home.”

And hearing fans always urging them on serves as motivation.

“What’s great is you still have those great fans who support you and kind of remember you from 10 years ago,” said Fedotenko, who won two Cups between Flyers tours.

Boucher, a Phantom at the moment, will second that.

“I was drafted by this organization,” said Boucher, in his third Flyers’ tour of duty. “Played in the minors here, won a Calder Cup and grew up here. From a players point of view it’s always easier to come back to a place where you’ve had success. Go to a new place and it takes time to adjust to new teammates, to the area, to everything. I’m just fortunate and grateful to be wanted back.”

The meaning of being a Flyer

So what’s so special about being a Flyer? After all, the organization is going on 38 years between Stanley Cups.

It starts with what Mike Knuble calls the crest.

“The crest and the colors kind of speak for themselves, and it’s kind of an intimidating logo,” said Knuble, back after a three-year hiatus in Washington. “That old logo has a lot of history behind it. When you’re wearing it, you don’t want to embarrass yourselves because of that history. A lot of great players have come through here. So you try to wear that crest proudly.”

“If you’ve grown up here you know what’s expected of you here, and what it means to be a Flyer,” said Brian Boucher, a three-time Flyer. “Sometimes when you put together a team you like to have guys familiar with the setting. Maybe that’s why players come back here so often.”

And always have going back to the day they first dropped the puck here.

Is Ed Snider loyal to a fault?

The Flyers’ founder makes no secret that he delights in filling his organization with his own. Through the decades the franchise has continuously brought back former players usually nearing the end of the line — as if somehow hoping to regain their old form once they put that orange-and-black sweater back on.

Not only that, but when you go through the organization from top to bottom, you’ll find it littered with alumni. That ranges from the front office (Paul Holmgren, Bob Clarke) to assistant coaches (Craig Berube, Kevin McCarthy), to scouts (Simon Nolet, Al Hill, Bill Barber, Ilkka Sinisalo), to goodwill ambassadors (Bernie Parent, Bob Kelly, Gary Dornhoefer) to broadcasters (Bill Clement, Chris Therien).

“We look after our people,” Snider told Metro. “That’s our philosophy. We like to take care of our own if we can. I take a lot of pride in that.”

You might argue Snider & Co. are so caught up in that mindset that they are living in the past. They love celebrating that past, never more evident than the love fest which accompanied last year’s Alumni Game as part of the 2012 Winter Classic.

But it’s going on 38 years and counting since Clarke, Parent, Barber & Co. last hoisted the Stanley Cup — although the statue commemorating that moment was recently unveiled outside XFinity Live! sure makes it seem more recent.

Yes, they have come close since, most recently Peter Laviolette’s 2010 club that went from nearly missing the playoffs to Game 6 of the Cup Finals. But the trophy case remains barren no matter how many former players Snider rewards. Don’t look for him to change.

“We’re not gonna bring back a player if we think we can bring in somebody else better,” said Snider, “but we know our guys. We know their character and what they’re capable of. We know if they get older, they’re not quite as good as they were.”

As much as Snider leans towards bringing old players back in some capacity, the feeling is indeed mutual.

“I’d like to think they really like our organization and want to be a part of it,” he explained. “This is a hockey town and players like to be in a town where hockey’s big. By the same token, they wouldn’t come back to an organization where they were unhappy.”

Seeing the same faces opening doors and nursing injuries adds to it.

“You know they’re always gonna do whatever it takes to win,” said Mike Knuble. “When you’re here as a player the first time it clicks with some guys and not with others. For the guys it clicks with who go on to different places, it’s home.’’

And that’s where the heart is.

“I think we have a history of players being a real part of the fabric in the community,” said Comcast-Spectacor president Peter Luukko, whose son, Nick, was a Flyers’ 2010 draft choice. “I really think it’s a tribute to the Flyers’ family and that tradition. We always say you’re a Flyer forever. I’m sure it happens with other teams, too. But it seems like it happens more here.”

The bottom line is Ed Snider has made sure the Philadelphia Flyers have always been one big happy family. At the same time, all that loyalty and love bestowed upon his former players has never filtered down to the ice and rewarded him with a championship.


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