Ed Moran | Even opponents are pulling for Downie

PROBABLY THE MOST interesting comment about Steve Downie and the hit he put on Dean McAmmond came from the injured center's coach.

"I think for the good of Steve Downie, he needs to be suspended for a long time," Ottawa Senators coach John Paddock told the Canadian media Thursday.

"We were cheering for [Downie] the last two Christmas times [at the World Junior Championships] and he was a big factor. We were cheering his clean hits and we wouldn't be cheering for something like that," Paddock said of the crushing, shoulder-to-head hit Downie used to lay McAmmond out as he came around from behind the Flyers' net last Tuesday night in Ottawa.

"I think this kid is the kind of player every team in the league wants, but you have to have control," he said. "He is a young guy who, unfortunately, we all know his history in the OHL, and stuff. Probably hockey is the most important [thing to Downie]. Take it away from him, so hopefully he remembers."

The league did that Friday, suspending Downie for 20 games. But the way this shakes out, he is not going to miss hockey. The Flyers sent him to the AHL Phantoms Saturday. He can play there and will be carried on the Flyers' roster on the days the Phantoms are not playing.

That's the Flyers' plan. There is still some question if the AHL will let that happen, but it's a different league and NHL suspensions do not cross over.

He'll serve his suspension without missing hockey, just a chance to play with the Flyers, something that could have happened considering they will start the season without forwards R.J. Umberger and Scottie Upshall.

That Paddock wanted Downie suspended for a long time is not unusual. But his comments showed that he, like nearly everyone who knows Downie, admires the grit and competitiveness that he brings to the game and empathizes with his past.

A smaller player at 5-10, 185 pounds, Downie is a fierce, determined and skilled player with a work ethic and a personality that endears him to coaches, teammates and fans. He distinguished himself as a player in two Junior Worlds. The Flyers call him "Downs" and "Curveball," and they like him.

Flyers coach John Stevens has an even bigger affection for him.

Downie did not have it easy as a kid, and it impacts him the way his story impacts everyone that gets to know him. His father, John, was killed in a car accident driving him to hockey practice when Steve was 7.

At 13, the hearing in his right ear began to fade and he now wears an aid off the ice.

The hearing was not part of the accident in which Downie was injured. He was raised by his mother and led as normal a life as any fatherless boy could.

When he was drafted by the Flyers 29th overall in 2005, he broke down and cried. He told reporters of the sacrifices his mother had made and how he was saddened that his father was not there to be part of the day.

He said that he remembered the day his father died. "I remember every minute of it. It only makes me play harder," he said.

Most people who know Downie know these stories, as well as the stories of his suspensions in junior hockey, his temper and his inability to keep all of that pent-up energy and emotion in check.

When brought up to Stevens that the McAmmond hit is indicative of what people worry about when they try to project him as an NHL player, the reaction from the Flyers' coach last week was, "So what do you want to do, write the kid off?"

Stevens has a fatherlike reaction for Downie that is also inspired by the fact that Downie is an inspiration in the way he works at the game and the fire he brings with him on the ice.

"Is he mature enough? No, probably not," Stevens said. "A lot of our young players have a way to go before they are mature enough.

"But we think a lot of the kid. He's going to need some direction and he's going to need some discipline, both on and off the ice, to structure his life better, but he's the kind of kid you root for.

"I just can't help but watch him play and admire his effort. To me he's the kind of kid you work with all day long because he wants to play, he's a gamer. He loves to play. The maturity is about making good decisions all of the time and thinking of the consequences when you do things. We think a lot of this kid."

If the Flyers really think this much of him, then they have to get him to see the hit for what it was and not pass it off as just a play in a game that was a little

excessive.

It was more than that.

Snap shots

The Flyers are expected to wrap up the last unfinished detail today when they announce who will be team captain. There are several strong possibilities, including three new players who were captains of their former teams - Daniel Briere (Buffalo), Jason Smith (Edmonton), and Kimmo Timonen (Nashville). The possibilities among the Flyers from last season are Simon Gagne and Sami Kapanen . . . The Flyers finished the preseason at 3-5 with a 3-2 loss to the New York Rangers Saturday night. The game featured 31 penalties and several fights . . . The Flyers open the season Thursday in Calgary. *

Send e-mail to morane@phillynews.com