A week ago Wednesday, the Pittsburgh Penguins were polishing off a 5-0 victory over the Flyers in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, and throughout the Wells Fargo Center, a low noise grew louder. The arena already had begun to empty, but among the few fans who remained, a chant rose to the rafters before raining down on coach Dave Hakstol: “FI-RE HAK-STOL.”
Eight days later, as Flyers general manager Ron Hextall held his end-of-season news conference Thursday, the chant wasn’t necessarily still ringing in his ears, but it was fresh in his memory.
“I think you’re talking about a minority of our fans,” Hextall said, and maybe it was a minority. But it was a vocal one, and its disgust and frustration over what would be a six-game loss to the Penguins, a sixth consecutive season in which the Flyers failed to advance beyond the playoffs’ first round, and a 43rd consecutive season that did not culminate with a Stanley Cup made clear the disconnect between Hextall’s patience and many Flyers fans’ urgent desire to win a championship.
“We’re not going to change what we set out to do four years ago,” Hextall said. “We put a plan in place, and to go sideways now would be the wrong thing to do. To do that now would not be setting us up for success. Successful is not making the playoffs or winning one round or winning two rounds. Four years ago, I sat here. I said our vision is to build a top, contending team that can win the Stanley Cup. Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen overnight. … This is a bit of a slow process.”
There was a time when the embarrassment of hearing the franchise’s ticket-holders and most devoted followers demand that a coach be fired would have compelled the Flyers to act. In perhaps the most infamous such episode, Bob McCammon was serenaded by “BOB MUST GO” at the Spectrum during a first-round sweep by the Washington Capitals in 1984, and even if there were no singalongs, soon enough the sentiment was the same for Terry Simpson, Bill Barber, Ken Hitchcock, and Peter Laviolette. Miss the playoffs? Flame out in the first or second round? Look out, because Ed Snider would be on the line, and hell would follow the phone’s first ring.
Those were the Flyers whom everyone knew for generations, and until and even after his death in 2016, Snider was the most beloved owner in Philadelphia sports because, dammit, at least he tried. Never mind that the persistent trying – the willingness to give up too soon on young talent, the shrinking space under the salary cap, the all-in-every-year philosophy that was common under Snider – contributed to the Flyers’ Stanley Cup drought. These were the Flyers. This is what they did. This is what they were always supposed to do.
That’s not what they’re doing under Hextall, though, and an unfortunate byproduct of the Flyers’ old approach is that it conditioned people to be impatient and have outsize expectations for teams that really weren’t all that close to contending. Hextall has set about fixing the Flyers from within, and he is taking the time necessary to do it, and for all the disappointment over the Penguins’ domination in that series, anyone who expected something different, at this stage of the Flyers’ rebuilding, was fooling himself.
Three years into what is reportedly a five-year contract, hired to coax excellence from the organization’s most promising players and prospects, Hakstol isn’t going anywhere, and it doesn’t make sense that he would. He wasn’t hired to transform Matt Read, Brandon Manning, and other veteran roster-spot fillers into stars. He was hired to help Shayne Gostisbehere, Ivan Provorov, Travis Konecny, and players like them develop into a club that can win a Cup, and he is still early in that mission. Hextall reaffirmed as much Thursday, and to him, those chants in the closing seconds of Game 4 might as well have been screams in a sound-proof room.
“I know this: I know a lot more about our coaches than everybody else knows,” he said. “Our coaches know a lot more about our players than everybody else knows. Our coaches study our players. They talk to our players. They see our players in practice every day. They have a really good grip on our players, and I’m very satisfied with the job our coaches have done. Do we all have to get better? Absolutely. …
“We had to be patient the last couple of years, yes, and in a cap world, you can’t make rash decisions that have long-term ramifications that hurt you to try to fix something short-term. I have to be level-headed. I can’t react like I used to on the ice. It is a process here.”
For those keeping count, that was the second of two “process” references that Hextall made Thursday. He’s banking that a different chant – one popularized by the fans of another team that plays at the Wells Fargo Center – will eventually be more appropriate. It may take a while for that time to come. Those who wish to use their voices will just have to get used to it.