Flyers executive Paul Holmgren, team owner Ed Snider, and GM Ron Hextall. (Zack Hill/NHLI via Getty Images)
In an exclusive interview with Adam Proteau, Flyers owner Ed Snider talks about his confidence in new GM Ron Hextall, mistakes he's made in the past, and the team's core philosophy.
Ed Snider has heard the criticisms of the NHL team he has led for nearly five decades. He may even think there’s some credence to elements of them, but in a recent conversation with THN.com, the Flyers’ founder and the only owner the team was more than willing to publicly set the record straight about his hockey philosophies and his involvement with the team.
That the 81-year-old is willing to do so with one of his most frequent critics is a credit to him. And maybe that’s because, in the first year of Ron Hextall’s tenure as GM, Snider is confident about the team and feels as if he’s gotten back to his roots – the same roots that led to the franchise’s first (and only) two Stanley Cup championships in 1974 and 1975.
Prepare yourself for the era of Patience In Philadelphia.
“Ron Hextall has come in and preached patience,” Snider said. “Ron said, ‘We're not going to rush guys along. We're going to develop our kids and really work on that phase of the game.’ That was my philosophy when I started the team.”
Back in those days, Snider will tell you, the Flyers were all about avoiding the trade and free agent route to improve. There was a reason why that happened – namely, that they were an expansion team – but when Philadelphia won it all in their seventh and eighth seasons of existence, his approach was validated. However, some of Snider’s critics have pointed to him straying from that philosophy as the reason Cup success has eluded the Flyers since the mid-70s. Former NHLer Bobby Holik was among those critics, claiming the consistent roster turnover every off-season led to on-ice instability. And Snider concedes that impatience became an issue for him and the team.
“Probably after five years of not winning the Cup and so forth, I started to get anxious,” Snider said. “I believe the tone of an organization comes from the top; my father always told me fish stinks from the head. And I set the tone and probably forgot my roots to a degree, wanted to win now, and lost my patience.”
That said, Snider is quick to reference the positive results his approach has delivered. And he’s right – the Flyers have been remarkably successful, posting the NHL’s second-best win percentage (57.8, trailing only the Canadiens) and making six appearances in the Cup Final and 15 in the conference final.
“We’ve had a pretty damn good record despite our impatience,” said Snider, who at the same time knows excuses don’t mean anything. “We’re always in the hunt and we’ve won two Cups. I feel we’ve been snake-bitten every year since then when we’ve made it to the Final, but that's irrelevant.”
Snider also says the picture painted of him as being a hands-on owner is not an accurate one. He does want to know why decisions are made, he says, but he adamantly maintains he’s never overruled a GM on any matter.
“Because I’ve owned the team forever, because I’m very passionate, because I’m sometimes quoted in the press about what I think about the team, a lot of people have the impression I call the shots,” Snider said. “I don't.”
When a hockey writer explained that comments he made concerning the signing of free agent Ilya Bryzgalov in 2011 suggested he was directly involved in choosing the goalie and giving him $51 million over nine years, Snider clarified the role he played in acquiring him.
“We had five goalies in the playoffs the year we went to the final (in 2010), so I said to (former Flyers GM) Paul Holmgren, and I said it to the press – which probably was a mistake – that we can never have that happen again, so let’s go out and really find a goalie,” Snider said. “That’s it. Then it was up to Paul. I didn’t know Bryzgalov from Adam. If I start judging talent and saying I want this guy or that guy, then I’d better get out of the business.”
Even in his first years with the team, Snider said, he could’ve easily succumbed to temptation. Before the Flyers won their Cups, legendary Canadiens GM Sam Pollock once bypassed then-Philly-GM Keith Allen by calling Snider directly and offering him five players and two top draft picks for one of his young players. That player’s name was Bobby Clarke. History tells us what Snider said, but here’s a direct quote:
“I said, ‘No way.’ ” Snider said. “And to his credit, he said, ‘I was hoping that’s what you’d say. That’s the right answer. I just didn’t want anybody else to get him.’ That’s how smart Sam Pollock was.”
The Flyers entered the 2014-15 campaign without a bona fide enforcer for the first time in recent memory. But during his conversation with THN – the majority of which will appear in an upcoming Oral History of the Broad Street Bullies in THN magazine – Snider explained the origins of the team’s hard-nosed approach to the game, and you got the sense there will always be some degree of toughness on his roster as long as he’s around.
It all began when an especially aggressive St. Louis Blues team manhandled Philly’s contingent of smaller, talented French-Canadian players; in Game Seven of the Flyers’ first ever playoff appearance in 1968, the Blues terrorized them before sending them home for the summer, and it changed Snider’s view on the game forever.
“That was one of the worst brawls I had ever seen,” he said. “Some of our guys went down in a bloody heap after being sucker-punched and I looked at all this and I couldn’t stand it and then the next year we weren’t in the playoffs, but during the season we were being manhandled.
“And when I made Keith Allen GM, I said, 'Look, Keith, we’re an expansion team, we may not be able to skate, we may not have great players, but we can go out and get the toughest son-of-a-bitches in the world and I don’t want to see our team ever get beat up again. I don’t give a goddamn about having one policeman, let’s have five or six.' And that’s the beginning of the Broad Street Bullies. I didn’t invent fighting in hockey and I don’t necessarily love it. I’m just saying I don’t want anybody to kick the shit out of a Flyer ever again.”
Snider still feels that way. He's confident that won't happen under Hextall, who replaced Holmgren after coming back to the organization from the Stanley Cup champion L.A. Kings. And he's happy Holmgren is avoiding quick fixes and has the team active in the field of advanced statistics. The Flyers have injury issues to start the season, but Snider feels the team is in good hands for the short and long term.
“It was probably good for him to move on, and figure out how other people do it, because we are an organization that doesn't know how anybody else does it.” Snider said of Hextall. “I’m thrilled Ron has come back into the organization, looked at the picture and said, ‘We’ve got to be patient.’ I love it."