Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Interested in a hockey writer?

So you've already dated hockey fans and you're not quite ready to take the leap and go all out puck bunny and pursue hockey players. So why not go for something in between - a hockey writer. All the perks of being close to the game, but they (normally) have all their teeth. And though their paychecks might not be as high as actual hockey players, you can rest assured knowing Marriott (or Hilton) points and frequent flier miles galore are in your future for all your vacation dreams.

Inspired by The Active Stick's Your Guide to Dating a Hockey Fan, I give you...

Interested in a hockey writer?

  • I hope you like: Exotic vacation spots such as Minneapolis, MN for the draft.
  • How to attract one: Ask him/her questions on Twitter. Also probably helps to like hockey and understand it.
  • The scoop: Dating a hockey writer has its perks – inside information, someone who wants to talk hockey for hours on end and not get frustrated with you. However, be prepared to have your schedule/plans dictated by any move made by the team he/she is covering.
  • Will it last? Perhaps. How do you feel about Winnipeg?
  • How to keep one happy: Be his/her number one fan at all times – even if you despise the team he/she is covering.
And yes - I do date a hockey writer - so I know what I'm talking about here.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Great Player. Great Seats. Great Cause.

How would you like a chance to watch the Philadelphia Flyers from the Ice Row. Hear the crack of every stick. Feel the glass rumble as the Flyers check their opponents in the boards. Be up close to the celebration when they score a goal.

How would you like to help children fight cancer?

For over three years, Danny Briere’s organization, The Briere Bunch, has been raising funds (to the tune of $100,000 so far) for children dealing with cancer through the sale of autographed hats, donating all proceeds to charities in New York, Pennsylvania and Canada.

For a limited time, you can purchase a Briere Bunch hat, personally signed by Danny Briere, and be entered to win two Ice Row tickets to see the Philadelphia Flyers take on the Washington Capitals on March 22, 2011. The seats are located in section 103, where the Flyers shoot twice, so you’ll get front row seats to see Danny taking shots against the Capitals. Plus, each ticket is loaded with a $25 credit that you can use for food, drinks or fan gear. The tickets also include reserved parking in a Wells Fargo Center lot.

Each hat is $30 and all proceeds are donated to charities that help fight cancer. You have your choice of adult or youth sizes. For every hat you purchase, you’ll be entered to win the tickets. Hats are shipped out within two weeks of your purchase.

This offer is only available until March 15, 2011, so visit The Briere Bunch site today at You can also purchase a hat at the upcoming Flyers Wives Fight for Lives Carnival on Sunday, February 27, 2011. The winner will be contacted on March 16, 2011.

For more information, please contact The Briere Bunch at

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Latest Flyers Injury Plays Out Like a Fairy Tale in the Media

Last Friday Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren announced that goaltender Michael Leighton will have back surgery. On a conference call, Leighton admitted that the disc in his back was herniated. Moreover, he admitted that he had soreness in his back during the Flyers Stanley Cup run. Holmgren stated the Flyers knew none of this until the summer, after Leighton had signed a two-year contract worth $3.1 million.

That’s all the Philadelphia media needed to write an age-old fairy tale, complete with a distressed king, master villain, trusty sidekick and most of all, the white knight.

Paul Holmgren: Your king. Holmgren addressed the media, stating that the Flyers didn’t know that Leighton had a back issue before he signed his contract. They were unaware during negotiations. And now “it is what it is” and they’re not happy.

Michael Leighton: Your villain. He’s had a back issue all along and concealed it from the team. Asked for a chance to redeem himself, a chance to start, painted himself as the victim and tricked the Flyers into signing damaged goods.

Brian Boucher: The trusty sidekick. Always slated to be the back-up goalie. He continues his role as team-player and all around nice guy. He’s also very good at opening and closing doors.

Sergei Bobrovsky: And your white knight—the young goaltending phenom who looks poised to nab the starting role after a strong preseason and a decent showing in the season opener against the Penguins. If not for him, the Flyers season would be lost before it even started due to the evil doings of Michael Leighton.

With the stage set, most stories about the latest setback in a career-long tale of bad luck for Michael Leighton are negative, urging you to dislike him for being dishonest and tricking the Flyers into passing on other free agent goalies by signing him. In reading their articles, one would think the disc has been herniated all along, going all the way back to the playoffs. Back discomfort that occurs while stretching and herniated discs just go hand and hand. Because really, aside from Leighton, no other member of the team was fighting through undisclosed pain or discomfort—right?

Um, no.

Let’s be honest, you’re not playing postseason hockey if you’re not battling through some nagging discomfort. The stories of players finding a way to play through broken feet and toes, busted knees, separated shoulders, sports hernias, bad hips and concussions are well-documented. And I’m just talking about the Flyers 2010 Stanley Cup run.

Last week, Ian Laperriere came out in the media and openly admitted that he lied about the state of his concussion to management. Laperriere arrived at training camp and attempted to play. The Flyers had no idea he would be unavailable for the season and did not plan accordingly. The media hailed him as a fallen hero, stating how much the Flyers would miss him and his leadership. How they could understand what would drive a man to lie about his condition because he wanted to win so badly, he wanted to play that much. I felt that way, too. I still do.

This week, Leighton revealed he had soreness in his back during the playoffs, but was quick to say it didn’t affect him on the ice. Given how the Flyers quest for the Stanley Cup ended, and how much blame the media placed on Leighton (some of it rightly so), now was the perfect opportunity to cite an ailing back as an excuse. Instead, Leighton refused to name that as a reason for his poor play.

Leighton figured rest over the summer was all he needed and that things would be fine. After all, soreness in a back for any player is not unheard of, even more so for a 6’3” man who spends the majority of the game hunched over. When the issue reoccurred during the offseason, he called the Flyers and came in for treatment. Holmgren confirmed that Leighton had an MRI in July that showed no issues with his back, and that Leighton was told to work through it, exercise and that things would be fine. If the disc was herniated, or even bulging, might the MRI have revealed this? One would think. Even Holmgren admits that they don’t even know if the two injuries are related, that the herniated disc could be a new problem that started after the contract was signed.

Leighton said the pain reached a new level during the Flyers preseason game against the Toronto Maple Leafs—the game that Leighton departed with discomfort before the shoot out. The Flyers sent him for an MRI, which at first was negative, then a bulging disc, and finally a herniated disc that requires surgery. I won’t even get into how ridiculous that chain of events sounds—the end result is the same.

But really, what does it matter what was said on that conference call and the day after. Michael Leighton made the mistake of admitting that like everyone else during the playoffs, he was playing through discomfort. And Holmgren was quick to say the Flyers had no idea when they signed Leighton to a new contract, even though Leighton passed an end of season physical. No one has even said if Leighton still had pain in his back by the end of June. And Holmgren says Leighton did not have a severely injured back when he resigned him and that "to dig any deeper is ridiculous." That doesn’t matter. Enough was said to paint a picture of deceit, the Flyers as victims and pave the way for Bobrovsky the hero.

Now that’s not a knock on Bobrovsky. The young goaltender shows a lot of promise and I hope as the season progresses, he turns out to be the real deal. He’s played well and he deserves his chance. Had he beaten a healthy Leighton for the starting role out of camp, then it would’ve been fine. Competition is a good thing and hopefully drives superior play from all involved. But the majority of our local media have already anointed him as the chosen one, the next franchise goalie. And as they do it, they are quick to remind us of Leighton the villain.

So what becomes of Michael Leighton? For starters, he’ll have surgery tomorrow. The very same surgery that Ryan Parent had last season (though many would argue that the surgery didn’t do much for Parent’s play when he was recovered). At least six to eight weeks of recovery and re-strengthening will follow, at which point, who knows. By then, the Flyers will have found out if Bobrovsky is for real. Brian Boucher will have established whether he is a solid back up, or sometimes starter. Would there even be room for Leighton?

At this point, whether there is room for Leighton seems to be the least of his problems. After our local media has finished dragging his name through mud, will he ever be able to regain the support, however shaky it was before, of a fan base that’s already been swept off its feet by the white knight?

I’m not sure how many fairy tales you’ve read, but I don’t remember too many where the villain lives happily ever after. And though he doesn’t deserve the title, Michael Leighton is the media’s villain.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Spotlight on Danny Briere: Mr. Playoffs to Us, Mr. Hero to the Bunch

As Flyers fans, we know Danny Briere as Mr. Playoffs – short in stature, but enormous in energy and scoring amazing goals.

But to a host of other people, the soften spoken Briere is a champion off the ice, bringing his charity, the Briere Bunch, to the Philadelphia area when he arrived in the summer of 2007.

For over three years, Briere’s organization, the Briere Bunch, has been raising funds (to the tune of $100,000 so far) for children dealing with cancer through the sale of autographed hats, donating all proceeds to charities in New York, Pennsylvania and Canada.

The idea for the Briere Bunch originally started when Briere was a member of the Buffalo Sabres organization. A group of fans, led by Dave Pietrowski of LoVullo Associates, decided to show their support for the Sabres' co-captain by designing hats that read “Briere Bunch” on the front. When this same group heard that Briere invited children from Camp Good Days – an organization that provides support to children with cancer – the group donated hats to the children attending the games.

The fashion trend soon caught on, as fans all over Buffalo inquired about how to be a member of the Briere Bunch. The fans approached Briere and asked if he would be willing to provide autographed hats to fans, with all proceeds from the hats going to his charities. And the Briere Bunch was born.

But his dedication to children in need goes beyond signing hats. As he did in Buffalo, Briere arranges for children suffering from cancer and their families to attend Flyers games as his special guests. He even invited three children and their families to the now ill-fated game six of the Stanley Cup finals.

“Sure, I’m fighting a battle on the ice,” said Briere, “but it is nothing compared to the battle these kids are up against. The least I can do is give them a chance to be in a place where they don’t have to think about their next chemo treatment. Tonight, they are just kids…and more importantly, Flyer fans!”

One of those three lucky children was Duncan Mitcheltree, two years old and fighting a battle against Wilms tumor, a type of kidney cancer that occurs in children – a cancerous tumor the size of a Gatorade bottle. During Duncan’s brave battle, his father, Eric, took Duncan to his first Flyers game on January 6, 2010, against the Toronto Maple Leafs, where Briere scored his 500th NHL point.

Eric emailed the Briere Bunch charity to express his gratitude for what they are doing for children in Duncan’s situation. He also placed an order for two Briere Bunch hats.

Then, out of the blue following game seven of the history-making comeback against the Boston Bruins, Eric’s cell phone rang. On the other end – Danny Briere. Briere and Eric chatted for a few minutes, discussing how Duncan was doing, as well as the excitement surrounding the Flyers historic comeback and the next round against the Montreal Canadiens. Briere asked for their address and promised to send autographed photos for Duncan. Eric ended the call by asking Briere to “pot a couple for us tonight.” (Briere went on to net a goal and an assist in the game one rout of Montreal.)

The Briere Bunch even made a generous donation to Duncan’s Relay for Life team, a team formed to help raise money for the American Cancer Society.

“My wife and I have always given to children’s charities, the Flyers Carnival, Make a Wish and several church-driven charities. I never thought we would be on the other side of the coin.”

A few weeks later, Eric and his family were guests of Briere for game six of the Stanley Cup finals, and though the night didn’t end well for the Flyers, the event was something the Mitcheltree family will never forget.

“I said to Briere’s Dad ‘are you the father of the world's greatest hockey player?’ He said, ‘I wouldn't say he is the greatest.’ I said ‘in my son's eyes there will never be a better player.’”

Duncan is on the road to recovery now, the cancerous tumor and his kidney have been removed and he’s long since finished chemotherapy treatments. His base line tests have come back clear and though he faces another three years of blood tests, scans and observations, his family hopes this chapter in his life is over.

But the bond between his family and the Briere Bunch lives on to this day, as the Mitcheltree family was invited to meet Briere after a recent preseason game against the Buffalo Sabres.

“The thing that separates Danny from the rest of the athletes that do this is that Danny continues the relationship well past the initial contact. I guess that goes to show you the type of Dad he is, the type of man he is,” Eric said.

Though Briere didn’t play that night due to infected tonsils, he spent time with the Mitcheltree family, sharing his thoughts on the season and the team. It was a conversation Eric will cherish forever, and one day, Duncan will be old enough to appreciate. For now, he just knows that he has a new hero for life.

Final Thoughts from the Mitcheltree Family:
Words can't express the joy that this simple gesture has meant to our family. We have been through so much sadness and stress these last 10 months that NOTHING makes me tear up more then the smiles on my kids’ faces. Thank you Danny.

For more information on the Briere Bunch, log on to

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Catching Up With Eric Weinrich: Part II

Reprint from 2008

January 8, 2002

Philadelphia Flyers' defenseman Eric Weinrich strolled quietly out of the First Union Center (now the Wachovia Center) with family and friends after the Flyers defeated the Atlanta Thrashers 7-4. A group of teenage boys walked up and began congratulating him on his four-goal night. They've mistaken him for Flyers' forward Jiri Dopita – perhaps it’s the shaved head. Weinrich alerted them of their mistake and kept walking. No harm done. Not that Weinrich didn't contribute to the Flyers's win. Without a key assist by Weinrich, Dopita may not have scored one of his four goals, but Weinrich doesn't seem to mind.

"I like being appreciated from time to time, but I would rather be known as a winner because of team success, rather than individual achievement," he says.


Weinrich was a member of the Flyers for two and half seasons before being traded to the St. Louis Blues, but his time in Philadelphia provided lasting memories for him and his family.

In part two of the interview, Weinrich takes some time to talk about his experience in Philadelphia and what he thinks of the NHL today.

Playing for the Philadelphia Flyers

Was playing in Philadelphia really as tough as all the media outlets suggest it is? Are the Philly fans really that bad?

The fans are only bad if you read the paper, listen to the sports call in shows or have a bad game. If anyone can tell me that the fans and media aren’t bad by sampling these outlets, I’ll be surprised.

The Flyers are known for having a very close-knit organization, would you agree? Do you think the Flyers organization is different from other organizations?

I loved the atmosphere around the rink in Philly, with ex-players in management and former guys still living in the area always around. Having Clarkie (Bobby Clarke) and Homer (Paul Holmgen) there everyday made the guys more accountable. I liked that about Philly. Some other places do that, but in Philly it seemed different.

Your first year in Philadelphia was the first year after the departure of Eric Lindros. Did you see any lasting effects or opinions from teammates who played with him?

No — except Johnny LeClair’s production went down.

You arrived in Philadelphia the same year as Jeremy Roenick. What was it like to play with him again?

When I started to play with JR (Roenick) [in Chicago], he was 180 pounds, lightning fast and very aggressive. He was on the edge of becoming a household name, but he was still an emerging star. By the time he got to Philly, JR was everywhere - magazines, TV, video games. A bit more on his plate than he had in Chicago. Not nearly as dynamic.

In his last year of coaching the Flyers, some believe that the players lost respect for and turned their backs on Bill Barber (for example, Keith Primeau, Brian Boucher, Mark Recchi), which led to his dismissal – do you think this is true?

Maybe. It happens everywhere.

The year the Flyers traded you, they went on to lose the majority of their defense in their quest for the playoffs. How did that make you feel?

Well, it was tough, but a few years later I heard from a few people that the Flyers felt if they hadn’t traded Chris Therien and me, they would have won the Cup. Of course that doesn’t make up for the trade, but…

Some say the Broad Street Bullies are back. If you are following the NHL at all this year, do you really think the Flyers are as “evil” as the media paints them lately?

There will never be a team in Philly that is anything like the Broad Street Bullies.

The National Hockey League Today

Describe the ideal skill-set for defensemen in this new hockey era.

[You need to be a] good skater, smart passer and be good positionally. Size doesn’t matter as much.

Obviously, we don’t want players going out with the intent to injure, but it seems the league rules are making enforcers a thing of the past. Do you think the NHL has gone soft? Is the game losing its physical aspect?

I think if [Gary] Bettman had his way he would eliminate it (the physical aspect). Old school guys that are in management won’t let it happen. In my opinion, if there were no goons now, it wouldn’t make much difference.

The Flyers have been known for “dangerous hits” and suspensions this year. Do you have any thoughts on these hits?

I think the respect factor is gone from the game. Players don’t let up when guys are in vulnerable positions, like the ones involving Philly this year.

It appears as if a lot of players are turning their backs near the boards, hoping that the refs/boards will protect them. Do you have any thoughts on this?

The new rules make it hard to defend in these areas. Brian Burke (general manager of the Anaheim Ducks) has brought up a solution to stop these types of hits. He calls it “wrapping up a guy.” This is when you take a guy into the boards and wrap your arms abound him in a way that he knows you are behind him and you keep from driving the player from behind.

What do you think of the instigator rule?

Get rid of it and let the guys police themselves. Players would be less able to take liberties.

What do you think of the “new NHL” where it appears there are more “touch penalties” instead of letting players play the puck longer?

That (touch penalties) is the best way to put it. What is the game coming to when touching a guy with your stick is a penalty? In 10 years, how would you describe a LeClair-type goal to a kid who sees the calls nowadays? There are no tough goals anymore.

What are you thoughts on Sidney Crosby? It seems the skill is there, but his attitude leaves a lot to be desired. Personally, I find Alexander Ovechkin to be a more exciting and complete forward. Who do you think is the best player in the NHL right now?

They both exemplify the new breed, but I think both would be stars in the old game. They can both play in the tough areas and yet still dazzle us with skill. I personally like to watch Ovechkin better.

You may not want to hear this, but I think Marty Brodeur is still the best.

Special thanks to Eric Weinrich to take the time to answers these questions.

Catching Up With Eric Weinrich: Part I

Reprint from 2008

While my ideal job involves being a sports writer, my current job pays the mortgage. So in my spare time, I decided to take a crack at an interview and write up. It doesn't hurt that a former NHL defenseman is a family friend. Enjoy!

Catching Up With Eric Weinrich: Part I

Imagine spending the majority of your adult life as a defenseman in the National Hockey League (NHL). In 17 seasons, you’ve found yourself playing for eight teams and moving your family across the United States and Canada on multiple occasions. And just when you think your career has reached the end, one more offer is dangled in front of you — one last chance to chase the opportunity to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup. The downside, you’d need to move your family from the city they’ve called home for over five years to Calgary. What would you do?

If you are former NHL defenseman Eric Weinrich, you chose your family and a chance to finally settle down in one place for the rest of your life.

“I had made a decision before that offer that I would only consider offers from teams close to home (Portland, Maine), or close to New Jersey,” says Weinrich. “When this offer came up, it was only attractive because the offer came from one of my favorite coaches, Darryl Sutter. We spent a day thinking it over, but ultimately it came down to moving again.”

For Weinrich, the decision was made quickly and he opted to turn down the offer from Calgary and move his family back to Maine, the place he grew up and where the road to the NHL began for him.

Born in Virginia, but raised in Maine, the 41-year-old Weinrich credits his father's Sunday hockey games on a frozen lake as the motivation to peak his interest in hockey. At the age of 21, Weinrich was drafted 32nd overall by the New Jersey Devils. But this was not his first brush with the NHL draft.

A few years earlier, Dave McNab, a scout for the Hartford Whalers (now the Carolina Hurricanes) and good friend of Weinrich's, called to inform Weinrich that he'd been selected by the Buffalo Sabres in the eighth round of the draft. Weinrich's birthday had been listed incorrectly, making the ineligible Weinrich appear eligible for the draft. Weinrich doesn't make a big deal of the situation.

"I was flattered when I heard, but my friend Dave said it was an insult to my ability to be taken so late in the draft. I was still excited."

During his 17 years in the NHL, Weinrich played for the Devils, Hartford Whalers, Chicago Blackhawks, Montreal Canadiens, Boston Bruins, Philadelphia Flyers, St. Louis Blues and Vancouver Canucks.

Though his NHL career came to an end after the 2005-2006 season, his career as an assistant coach and player for the Portland Pirates in the American Hockey League (AHL) was just beginning.

In his “spare time”, Eric took some time to sit down and answer questions from the members of

PSF: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer all of our questions. We really appreciate it.

Okay, I already know the answer to this, but it’s something you’re “famous” for, so let’s get it out of the way. The yellow visor — why do you wear it? How does the game look through it? Does it really help your vision all that much?

EW: My ex-teammate, Bill Huard, was working for Oakley. He told me they were testing a new visor color — yellow, based on glasses made for shooting. I tried it and found it made no difference, but just continued to use it. Not much of a story, huh?

Playing/Coaching in the American Hockey League

PSF: What was it like transitioning from the NHL to the AHL? Describe some of the differences you see (both on and off the ice). Why did you decide to play again after retiring?

EW: Well, everything is just less grand — hotels, travel, food, arenas and of course the talent. The major difference in that respect (the talent) is the age of players. Average age [is now] around 23. These guys are here to develop and hopefully make the jump to the NHL. The reality is, though, that most won’t make it. The players here are prospects, and they are in this league to either improve on a skill they lack, or they will play here for their career because they don’t have a skill that would put them in the NHL.

I was not ready to give up playing, but when I took the coaching job, I never thought Anaheim would consider me for a playing position in Portland. I always thought it would be fun to play in Maine.

PSF: How do you handle bench duties when playing and coaching? Does an assistant coach handle the ice time and line changes?

EW: When I’m a player I’m only a player. That was made quite clear when I took the playing position. However, the coaches expect me to help in a mentor capacity.

PSF: Other then practice and games, what do you do to stay physically able to play during the season? Does your routine now differ from when you played in the NHL?

EW: Bike, bike, bike! I live on my bike in the summer and that has helped tremendously. I did follow the Anaheim summer program this summer, modified of course. I do not lift weights as much as I did when I was in the NHL.

PSF: You currently play on a team with Bobby Ryan, who is originally from Philadelphia. What do you think of his development so far? And of course, since this interview is geared toward Philadelphia fans, do you think he’d fit in with the Flyers “goon squad” if the Flyers were to acquire him?

EW: Bobby Ryan is one of those rare talents as an athlete. He possesses puck-handling skills that only a minority of the sport will ever have. He is a very young pro and is learning the ins and outs of the pro life, but has an edge to his personality that has helped with his transition. I am confident that he will be a very good NHL player when he realizes his potential. He has already dominated the AHL game at times, and this is a sign that you are ready for the next step. He could play on any team in the NHL, whatever the style.

Playing in the National Hockey League

PSF: What was your favorite city to play in and why? (We won’t be offended if you don’t say Philadelphia – well, not that offended.)

EW: Well, that is a tough question, because do you mean to live and play in or just play a game in? I have been fortunate to play for some of the most storied franchises in the history of the game. Chicago was our (the Weinrich family) first real big time sports team. The teams I played for had good success and we had a strong fan following. We would actually draw equal to the Jordan-era Bulls’ teams. My career definitely took off in Chicago.

Then, it was on to Montreal — maybe the Yankees of hockey. Walking down the street the first morning in Montreal, at least half the people welcomed me to the city! We were like movie stars in that town. The arena was always buzzing. The games were like going to the theatre for a lot of the fans. Everyone dressed up. It was a scene. And the fans were very knowledgeable — applauding fine play. Living there was another experience — as close to Europe as you will get in North America. That, and the history behind the team — the former greats and the many Cups — made Montreal an unforgettable place to play.

For my family, Philly probably had their best memories — and for me, some of my best [memories] as a player. We had three solid years as a team, and probably the best coach I will ever have, Hitch (Ken Hitchcock). The former players from the past teams were great to have around the team and the city. It is hard to argue against Philly being one of the great sports cities in the world. I have never seen people go to more events than I did here. My family will always treat Philly like home, and I will remember those days as some of my fondest as a player.

PSF: What was your favorite moment as an NHL player? As a Flyer?

EW: I would say winning my first playoff round in Chicago. That is what you play for the whole season.In Philly, the seventh game win against Toronto [in 2002-2003]. What a tough series but it was sweet to win at home.

PSF: During the playoffs, do you think a large number of players work through pain that goes unreported? If you had to guess, what percentage of players do you think are playing through pain/serious injury? Can you think of any examples that you can share?

EW: It would be tough to say what the percentage is because guys are playing hurt all year. The injuries that occur in the playoffs are often overlooked by the players because they don’t want to miss a game. I have seen some guys play with some very nasty injuries, but if they are too serious, you just can’t play. And if it is in an early round, the chance of causing more harm for a later round may deter a player from playing through it.

Two stick out in my mind. Ken Daneyko was struck in the hand and broke it badly. His hand turned black and blue and swelled tremendously. He actually had the trainer tape his stick to his glove so he wouldn’t drop it.

In the Toronto series I mentioned before, Dmitri Yushkevich separated his shoulder and required a cortisone shot to play. It was nasty to look at, and having a slightly separated shoulder that year, I could not imagine the pain he was playing through.

PSF: Who was your favorite defensive partner over your years in the NHL? Who was your favorite defensive partner on the Flyers?

EW: Another tough question. Each guy I played with made an impression on me. Bruce Driver was my first partner in the NHL. He was a good mentor for me. Of course, some of the guys were tremendous players. Scott Stevens, a Hall of Famer, would be right up there. Kim Johnsson was a very talented guy, and made it easy to play.

I guess the guy that sticks out the most would be Chris Chelios. He was such an inspiration. And what a role model to have in your locker room everyday. He still is.

PSF: Chris Therien, your former teammate, was known for “controlling” Jaromir Jar whenever the Flyers faced him. Is there any forward you've played against that you felt you were always at the top of your game when defending against him?

EW: Anyone good. As a defenseman, you always needed to be at the top of your game when you were facing Jagr, [Pat] LaFontaine or [Mario] Lemieux or anyone of that stature.

PSF: We all know practical jokes go on in the locker room. What was the best prank you’ve seen over the years?

EW: The best one I have seen is when a new player, usually a rookie, is told he is leading the team on the ice. So he goes running out for warm ups and the rest of the guys don’t follow him. ********************************

Come back later to read part II: Playing for the Philadelphia Flyers and the National Hockey League Today

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Improbable Run of Michael Leighton

He may be all of 29 years old, but there are a lot of miles hidden behind the sad eyes of goaltender Michael Leighton. Often staring off into nowhere, or up at the rafters, it seems like Leighton is always far away, looking beyond what’s in front of him. Maybe he’s trying not to get too attached to anything because he knows that by tomorrow, it could all be gone.

A true journeyman, he made his NHL debut with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2002-2003, posting a shutout in a 0-0 tie against the Phoenix Coyotes. And that’s about the only thing that went right for Michael Leighton in his NHL career. He spent the next six years bouncing around from team to team, between the NHL and AHL. He lived out of a suitcase, rarely settling down in one place because he never knew how long he was staying. When he captured the Aldege "Baz" Bastien Memorial Award as the best goaltender in the AHL in 2007-2008, the Carolina Hurricanes brought him up to be Cam Ward’s backup. But after a season as the second string goalie, he found himself back on the waiver wire in December 2009.

But let’s step back a moment.

I first heard the name Michael Leighton in January of 2007. The Flyers were in the midst of a horrific season where nothing went right and they were well on their way to the worst finish in franchise history. (So bad in fact, that when the time came for the draft lottery, they couldn’t even win that. Little did we know then how much that would haunt us.) The Flyers claimed Leighton off waivers from the Nashville Predators and sent him to the AHL Phantoms. Of course, as is the story with most Flyers goalies, Robert Esche went down with an injury and Leighton got the call up. After four games – a 2-2 split and a less than stellar GAA, Leighton once again found himself on waivers (and claimed by the Montreal Canadiens) when the Flyers acquired Martin Biron. I figured that was the last time I would ever hear the name Michael Leighton.

I was wrong.

Fast forward to December 15, 2009. Flyers starter Ray Emery had gone down with an injury – surprise, surprise. Paul Holmgren claimed Leighton off waivers (again) from the Carolina Hurricanes as most Philadelphia fans asked “why?” Clearly, they thought, it was just to back up Brian Boucher rather than taking playing time away from Johan Backlund, the Phantoms goalie. But no one really cared, he was just taking up space on the bench, right? Wrong. Boucher went down with an injury and fans said “welcome to the show Michael Leighton, please don’t suck too much.” Then again, when they’d recently expelled the coach and fallen to 29th in the league, how bad could he really be?

And you know what? Not only did he not suck – he went 8-1-1 in his first 10 starts. Suddenly, the goaltender who sported a mask covered in white medical tape with a Flyers sticker got a shiny new mask, complete with the Philadelphia skyline, a snowy Flyers logo and the names of his two young daughters. Why, you might ask? Because he would’ve looked a little silly wearing that old mask on national television as the starting goaltender in the Winter Classic at Fenway Park as the Flyers took on the Bruins.

When Emery returned, Leighton had us wondering who would get waived – he or Boucher? Leighton merely shrugged and said, “It is what it is.” Thankfully, the Flyers took no chances and held on to both Leighton and Boucher – and Leighton was back in net when Emery went down yet again, this time for the rest of the season. As Leighton went on to go 8-4-1 in his next 13 starts, we thought maybe, just maybe the Flyers could make a run in the playoffs. Then down went Leighton with a high ankle sprain – his dream of a secure starting role seemingly over along with the team’s playoff chances.

But as we soon learned, you should never count this Flyers team out. With the help of Boucher, the Flyers snuck into the playoffs as the 7th seed on the last day of the season – winning, of all things, a shootout against the New York Rangers. They disposed of the Devils in five games, but quickly fell behind the Bruins 0-3. When Simon Gagne scored a huge OT goal in game four, the series returned to Boston for game five and Leighton returned to the bench. With no expectation of getting his role back from Boucher, Leighton was just happy to be part of the playoffs and support his teammates.

And then Ryan Parent made what might be his only significant contribution to the playoffs: he fell on Boucher, spraining both of Boucher’s knees as the goaltender let out a horrific cry of pain and threw his blocker (perhaps paying homage to teammate Scott Hartnell?). And just like that, a very cold Leighton was thrust into a 1-0 game, season on the line (no pressure or anything), stopping all 14 shots he faced to help the Flyers win game five. And after they won game six and mounted an amazing comeback in game seven, it was Leighton who leapt into the arms of Kimmo Timonen and Mike Richards to celebrate as the Flyers made history.

The Flyers knocked off the other Cinderella story of the East – the Montreal Canadiens – in five games, while Leighton added three shutouts to his storybook season. He even earned himself an NHL History Will Be Made Commercial – “What if Leighton didn’t seize the moment?” And it was on to the Stanley Cup finals.

But first he was forced to endure a five day wait. Five days of media stories as Leighton’s personal life took center stage. And though the stories had been floating around since his arrival in December 2009, this was the first time I really took the time to read about our waiver saver.

Married to his high school sweetheart. Father of two daughters – Ella (4) and Annalise (six months). Ella is such a fan of her father’s teammate Chris Pronger that she hangs a poster of Pronger in her hotel room when she is there to help ward off the boogeyman. And she wishes her father would just stop playing hockey and come home because she misses him, because he’s not there that often – they have a house, they have money – she just wants her Daddy.

Leighton didn’t move his family to Philadelphia when he arrived – and he only moved them into his hotel room when he was injured and wasn’t traveling with the team. Leighton, even after being told to find a place to live, opted for hotel life rather than settling in a place he wasn’t sure he was staying for long. He knew better.

And while I appreciated the great run he’d put up, and was so glad he helped save our season, those five days were the first time I really cared about Michael Leighton. After all, fans in Philadelphia are programmed to endure the goalie carousel – never get too attached because they’re probably not staying. Could Leighton have played his way into a contract, into security, into a chance to have his family with him in one place for an entire year?

But it wasn’t meant to be. While Leighton held steady at home in games three and four, he was mediocre on the road and yanked twice. The Flyers dream run came to an unhappily ever after end on June 9th during game 6, as horrified fans watched the puck trickle under the stick and through the legs of Leighton barely four minutes into overtime. And while at times the team as a whole had a breakdown, you can’t help but wonder if Michael Leighton could have been the glue that held them together, rescued them from their own faults - held us together just long enough to fight back in even one of those games. Maybe then he would have gotten his own happy ending.

Instead, the Flyers will probably move on without him.

But how will he be remembered? As the man who helped save our season from ruin? The man who stepped in cold into game five of that Bruins series and helped us make history? Maybe the loving father and husband who spent weeks upon end away from his family, living out of a suitcase in a hotel, just to play the game he loves and live his dream? One would think that in Philadelphia, he’ll be remembered as a scapegoat who just wasn’t good enough to give us a Stanley Cup -- not even a thank you, just a goodbye and expression of disappointment. But less than 24 hours after that fateful goal, Leighton was embraced by fans, receiving a large ovation as the Phillies took on the Marlins. So maybe he’ll be remembered as the man who for a short while, rose above his journeyman status on an improbable run that came up short.

But to me, he’ll always be Michael Leighton, the man who for just a brief time, tugged a little bit on my heart strings, while trying desperately to share his dream of winning a Stanley Cup with the city of Philadelphia, no matter how many times the world knocked him down along the way.


Well, it looks like Michael Leighton will get a somewhat happy ending. The Flyers re-signed him to a two-year deal, worth $3.1M. The journeyman will have the chance to compete for the starting role and maybe, just maybe, leave a better lasting memory in the hearts of the fans of Philadelphia.