May 26, 2010

My life as a Flyers fan.

I was 11 when the Philadelphia Flyers made it to the 1997 Stanley Cup Finals.

I don't recall much, if anything, about that team. I was just starting to get heavily into sports; I believe a Rod Brind'Amour game-winner earlier that season was the first time I got truly excited for a hockey game. Hockey-Reference.com tells me that Trent Klatt scored 24 goals, which I find hard to believe, as Trent Klatt sucked. I see that John LeClair, my favorite hockey player of all time, reached the 50-goal plateau for the second time in his career, and I do remember that 21-year-old Janne Niinimaa looked like our stud offensive defenseman of the future (he was traded to Edmonton for Dan McGillis the next year). But beyond that, my mind is a blank slate; I don't remember a single second of their pitiful effort in the Finals, which is probably a good thing.

And then there was the 1999-2000 team. I remember Brian Boucher's sprawling save on Patrik Elias in Game 3 of their Conference Finals match-up with the New Jersey Devils. I remember watching Game 4 with my dad and his friends, a game that featured a rare goal from then-goon, beloved Flyer and current assistant coach "The Chief" Craig Berube. And, of course, I remember attending Game 7 of that series, the Eric Lindros hit game. I remember the air coming out of the then-First Union Center after Scott Stevens' crushing (and clean) check, and I remember waiting, while a feeling of dread circulated, for the Devils to score what felt like an inevitable goal in the third period. For whatever reason, we knew they were going to lose. And lose they did.

And then there was the 2003-2004 team. I remember Keith Primeau making his monstrous presence felt in almost every game, leading Phil Esposito to eventually tell the then-captain, "During the '04 playoffs, when you and the Flyers took the Lightning to seven games, you were the most dominating player I ever saw. More than Orr, Howe, Gretzky, or anyone." That quote still gives me chills; I never got to see either of those three in their primes, but I don't doubt that Espo was right. That's how overpowering Keith was.

I remember Game 7 of that Lightning series was over prom weekend. We were down the shore, and all the guys decided to take shots every time the Flyers scored. It was one shot for an even-strength goal, two shots for a power-play goal and three shots for a shorthanded goal. It had all the makings of a disaster, but when the Flyers managed just one measly even-strength goal, it seemed like the crisis was averted. The 2-1 loss, however, was far too crushing to just give up there. My friend Dan and I took a bottle of vodka into a back room and passed it back and forth for about 20 minutes. How did that end up? You can ask my date/then-girlfriend, but she might have blocked out that memory. Cleaning up vomit at 3 AM will do that to you.

Basically, I've never seen a hockey postseason like this. I've never seen a team overcome this kind of adversity, and I've never seen the Flyers so in tune with their coach's system. Hockey has never been this exciting, and the Flyers have never been so likable. Almost magically, everything has fallen into place. Reviled "scorers" with albatross contracts like Danny Briere and Scott Hartnell have justified their salaries with huge goals. Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen have ensured their places in Flyers history as superstar big-game defensemen, and Matt Carle and Braydon Coburn have learned much by worshiping at their altars. Mike Richards has become a close runner-up to LeClair as my favorite all-time Flyer. And of course, not since Ron Hextall in 1987 have the Flyers seen playoff goaltending like what they've gotten from Boucher and Michael Leighton.

And I haven't been too young, I haven't had my heart broken, I haven't blacked out and thrown up. I've sat here night after night, crossed my fingers, hoped for the best, and been rewarded with a hockey team that any true fan would be proud of. I've written this particular Flyers team off more times than I can count, but they've shown an almost supernatural ability to prove me, and every other doubter, wrong. No matter what happens in the Stanley Cup Finals, that's something we fans should never forget.

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