Frozen in Failure?

A bench-clearing brawl reminiscent of the rougher style of play popular in the NHL in the '70s.

A bench-clearing brawl reminiscent of the rougher style of play popular in the NHL in the ’70s.

Thirty years ago, Hall of Fame hockey goalie Ken Dryden contrasted two patterns of ice hockey in his book The Game: “dump and chase” and “international.” The dump-and-chase style is a possession game, low on generalist skills and high on physical intimidation. It is siege warfare—very close to football. By contrast, the international style is a transition game that emphasizes multiple skills, passing and spontaneous teamwork—like basketball.

Dryden said of the Flyers, long exemplars of dump and chase, “They have a fundamental flaw and can’t win. Each year since 1976, since their two-year hold on the NHL was ended, they have been the ‘new’ Flyers. They are faster, more talented, more versatile, less goon-like than their predecessors. But each year, they show they are not. They are simply the Flyers. It is an attitude, and a tradition, that will not change…The style that won them two consecutive Stanley Cups only guarantees that they will win no more.”

For more recent history, note newspaper columnist Bill Lyon’s take in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Apr. 28, 2002: “The game has changed. As is the case in virtually every other sport, speed is all. The Flyers keep acquiring hired goons.”

What’s different in 2013? Their recent wins notwithstanding, apparently not much. Broad Street Bullies? The Flyers were Richie Incognito long before there was a Richie Incognito purportedly bullying players on the NFL’s Miami Dolphins. On a corporate level, they remind us of Kodak—a culture so addicted to the cash cow of film (read, digging in and fighting) that they totally missed the industry shift to digital photography (adapting). Or perhaps the best parallel of all is Ernestine, Lily Tomlin’s famous phone operator character: “We don’t care. We don’t have to. We’re the Phone Company.”

There appears to be a DNA problem at the top that continues to perpetuate itself and metastasize throughout the Flyers’ organization. Unfortunately, unless and until serious change happens on high, we can expect more of the same—four decades of frustration—down below on the ice.

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