PHILADELPHIA – Peter Laviolette was perturbed when one of his hockey players questioned his advice on a new technique during a drill.
“Listen, I know what I’m talking about,” Laviolette told his player. “I’ve coached some games before.” His 11-year-old son looked at the former Carolina Hurricanes coach and told him, “Yeah, but dad, you got fired.”
“I have some credibility back with him now,” a laughing Laviolette said.
Laviolette got a monster promotion from assistant coach for his son’s Pee Wee hockey team, taking over for an underachieving Philadelphia Flyers team stuck in a Stanley Cup drought that stretches back to 1975.
John Stevens got as close as the Eastern Conference finals two seasons ago, but when he couldn’t keep the Flyers in contention this year, Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren fired him on Friday after three-plus seasons on the bench.
That paved the way for Laviolette, who coached the Hurricanes to a Stanley Cup victory in 2006.
“I still believe we have a good team,” Holmgren said. “I guess we’ll find out.”
The reeling Flyers have one win in their last seven games and have scored two goals or fewer in the last four. They’ve been shut out in consecutive games for the first time February 2003.
The additions of goalie Ray Emery and defenceman Chris Pronger made the Flyers a playoff favourite heading into this season, but injuries and a loaded offence that quickly went dry sent them into a tailspin. They are 13-11-1 for 27 points and out of the playoff picture entering Saturday’s game against Washington.
“If I had the answer, we wouldn’t be sitting here talking about this right now,” Pronger said Thursday.
Captain Mike Richards called a team meeting after their 3-0 loss to Vancouver on Thursday. Holmgren knew after the latest lost he needed to make a change and he told Stevens after Friday’s practice.
“It’s fair to say I probably caught him off guard a little bit,” Holmgren said.
Stevens, who had come under scrutiny the past week, realized the Flyers were in serious trouble.
“Yeah, there’s big-time concerns, of course there is,” Stevens said Thursday. “I mean, we’re losing hockey games.”
It’s Laviolette’s turn to try to make the Flyers winners.
Laviolette, who also coached the New York Islanders for two seasons, was 167-130-30 in his four-plus seasons with Carolina. The Hurricanes fired him in December 2008 after he missed the playoffs two straight seasons after winning the Cup.
He interviewed last summer for the Flyers’ vacant AHL head coaching vacancy, but passed because he wanted to return to the NHL. Smart move.
The Flyers also fired assistant Jack McIlhargey and replaced him with Hurricanes assistant Kevin McCarthy.
The Flyers have the type of talent that should have them closer to the pre-season exceptions that made them a Cup favourite by many prognosticators. Richards, Jeff Carter, Danny Briere, and blossoming stars James van Riemsdyk and Claude Giroux give Laviolette plenty to work with.
“I think that you have to be tough on players,” Laviolette said. “I also believe in the human side of things. I think if you can get to the human side, you can be tough.”
Stevens took over for Ken Hitchcock in 2006 with the Flyers off to a 1-6-1 start en route to the worst season in franchise history. Stevens, who led Philadelphia’s AHL affiliate to the Calder Cup in 2005, used many of those same players to cap one of the greatest turnarounds in NHL history and take the Flyers to the conference finals the next year.
The Penguins knocked them out in 2008, and eliminated the Flyers again in the first round last season.
Stevens went 120-109-34, and had two 10-game losing streaks with the Flyers.
A former draft pick of the Flyers in 1984, Stevens had a 15-year pro career as defenceman, including 53 NHL games with Philadelphia and the Hartford Whalers.
His lengthy ties to the orange and black seemingly made it difficult for chairman Ed Snider to endorse the move. He said in a statement that, “I make it a policy never to overrule my general manager, because once I do, it means I’ve lost confidence in him.”
Holmgren acknowledged, “I got grilled pretty hard.”
“He didn’t say one way or another,” Holmgren said. “He did say, it’s your decision.”
And he made it.