It’s fun to compare what gets written about players when their team has success and when it doesn’t have success, and we have an opportunity to do so with Chris Pronger and the Philadelphia Flyers.
For much of the season, the Flyers were underwhelming: a team with great depth and talent on paper that couldn’t put it together and remained on the playoff bubble for the entire season, unable to climb to a position of security, but never falling far enough back to be written off, either. They fired a coach, swapped through a series of injured goaltenders, and in the end just slipped into the playoffs over the season’s final days.
At the beginning of April, as the Flyers fought for their playoff lives, Larry Brooks wrote about something a pair of NHL general managers had told him:
There is something foul in Philadelphia far beyond the goaltending fiasco that has become the focal point of the NHL’s most disappointing team.
We’re not there on a day-to-day basis, so we can’t claim first-hand knowledge, but when two league GMs were asked what they perceived to be the problem, neither hesitated.
"Pronger," each said, referring to Chris Pronger, the defenseman who has a reputation for splitting locker rooms as well as heads.
Chris Pronger, divider of dressing rooms, was labelled as the problem by two men running their own NHL teams. It wasn’t a consensus view at the time – Greg Wyshynski, for one, suggested that stirring up the dressing room was part of the reason the Flyers brought Pronger in to begin with – but one can be sure it’s a story that would have resonated had the Flyers been eliminated early in the playoffs. The Flyers, torn apart by internal strife, simply weren’t able to unify as a team, and that doomed them.
Now, however, the same attribute – Pronger’s reputed pushiness in the room – is being hailed as a big part of the reason for the Flyers’ success. From Mike Brophy:
Pronger made it very clear to the young players that a certain level of professionalism is required to be a champion. You do not win Stanley Cups by arriving to practice tired and then going through the motions on the ice. Pronger set the tone by always arriving early and also staying after practice for off-ice training in the weight room — just as he did with the Oilers and Ducks when they went to the Stanley Cup final. Others veterans followed his lead, but it took a while for the kids to catch on.
If the youngsters resented his offering direction, there was no way they could refute the results.
This is what the Flyers needed – professionalism. And while Pronger might not have always been liked, people started buying into his example, and by setting the tone Pronger has helped lead the Flyers to the Conference Finals.
Without picking on either writer – Brooks was right to pass along what league executives were saying, and locker room divides are a legitimate topic of discussion for NHL media – these stories bug me, because they can be presented in either way and their relevance to on-ice results is debateable.
Here’s the essential formula difference:
- NHL veterans + NHL youngsters + success = leadership, tough love, professionalism, etc.
- NHL veterans + NHL youngsters + failure = locker room divide, cancer in the room, etc.
The reality is that in each case, some personalities mesh and some don’t. Some respond to a take charge-style veteran, others are offended by the way he takes things on himself.
The Orr/Esposito Bruins are one example of a team that experienced success despite an obvious rift between the team’s key players. There are others. And while team culture undoubtedly plays a role in team success, how much is open to debate and it’s difficult to pin down when a player is helping matters or hurting matters by his speech and actions.