Clarke: Desjardins a classy player as Flyers set to honour former blue-liner

On one side he’ll see Montreal, the team that gave him his NHL start and is currently enjoying one of its most successful seasons in recent years. On the other will be the Flyers, the team with which the defenceman finished his 17-year career and is currently last in the NHL.

It hurts him to see the team he captained at rock bottom.

“Sometimes looking back you wonder if there’s more you could have done to help them,” the 37-year-old said this week. “Especially the young guys being more ready, taking charge a little more… But that’s the past and you have to look at it and hope they can finish the season on a better note.”

His number won’t be retired but the Flyers are going all-out in a ceremony prior to their game against the Habs to show him how much he was appreciated during his 11 years in Philadelphia. A video tribute will be followed by gifts from both clubs and an address from Desjardins to the fans.

“I don’t think there’s one thing that you could ever say about Desjardins that wouldn’t be positive for what he did and what he meant to our hockey club,” former Flyers GM Bob Clarke said Wednesday. “He was that critical to our team. …

“Desjardins’ conduct on and off the ice is what every athlete should be like.”

Asked how he wanted to be remembered as a Flyer, the humble Desjardins responded: “Somebody that really cared about the Flyers’ success.”

Desjardins was forced to retire last August after a litany of injuries ended his career.

A rock solid defender with offensive touch and the leadership skills to back it all up, Desjardins wasn’t a hockey pool find but tremendously appreciated by his team.

“He earned the right to be on the ice at critical times,” said Clarke. “Everything Eric did was for the good of the team. It wasn’t ever for the good of Eric. He was a humble player, he sacrificed for the team, he did the right things for the team. Off the ice he was classy and a perfect example for other players who came on your team.”

It was Clarke who snatched him away from the Canadiens in a February 1995 deal. Desjardins, now looking back, said it was a big shock. As a native of Rouyn, Que., he grew up cheering for the Habs and was thrilled to not only play for them but to help the Canadiens win a Stanley Cup in ’93.

“Growing up in Quebec, French-speaking guy, you think you’re going to spend the rest of your life in your province and country,” said Desjardins. “But once I got to Philly it was great from the start. We became a great team, we started winning right away.

“It seems every time we stepped on the ice we had a great feeling. It was pretty easy once I got to Philly to adjust, I felt right at home.”

It was one of Clarke’s finest trades: Desjardins, John LeClair and Gilbert Dionne in exchange for Mark Recchi and a third-round draft pick (Martin Hohenberger).

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“I don’t think it was quite as one-sided as its been made out to be, because Recchi scored for them, and LeClair wasn’t,” Clarke said. “Our needs at the time was a steady, reliable defenceman and we also needed a big forward.”

They knew what they were getting in Desjardins. There weren’t sure whether LeClair would score goals but felt at least he could be good checking centre.

“As it turned out him and Lindros hit it off right away and he became a huge scorer. So we were lucky in that respect,” said Clarke. “But Desjardins was also an all-star for us and that was a tremendous benefit to our team.”

Desjardins admits the adjustment to normal life since his retirement hasn’t been easy.

“At first it was tough, not getting ready for training camp and a new season,” he said. “It’s an adjustment, there’s no doubt about it. But I try to keep myself busy.”

He coaches his son’s novice hockey team in the Montreal area and is also in the midst of opening a hockey camp.

Does he see himself coaching in the NHL one day?

“I do realize how much I enjoy coaching and teaching the kids,” said Desjardins. “Maybe it’s something I could do later down the road. But for now I have to work my way up there.”

He wouldn’t dream of stepping into the big league now.

“You think because you’ve played all those years that coaching is easy but you realize, I just coach at the novice level and it’s something. I can’t imagine being behind the bench in the American League or the National League right now. It would be too fast for me. I think have to learn how things are done behind the bench.”

Desjardins had 575 points (136-439) in 1,143 regular-season games with the two clubs. He played in three all-star games and had a memorable evening during the ’93 Cup final with the Habs, scoring a hat trick in Game 2 against Los Angeles. He got goosebumps earlier this week when someone played him the soundtrack of his third goal, the overtime winner on Kelly Hrudey at the Montreal Forum.

“It was unbelievable, actually it took me a couple of games to come back from that,” said Desjardins. “I can’t remember playing the games in Los Angeles (Games 3 and 4). Although I remember it was the first time I was ever booed during the player introductions (before Game 3 in Los Angeles). That was a weird feeling.”

He is second on the Flyers’ all-time list for defencemen in goals (93), assists (303) and points (396).

“I played with so many great teammates, great leaders, Ron Hextall, John LeClair, Mark Recchi, Simon Gagne, Eric Lindros, Paul Coffey – I’m just mentioning a few but there were a lot of great players who were in Philly while I was there. I really enjoyed it.”