WITH THE END of the Flyers' season coming this week, I sign off on my weekly hockey column with some random thoughts about the year, the past, the future and reaction to the debate of the past week, as in "to fight or not to fight" . . . I never said ban it.
But I'll save that for last.
First, I want to say that I was as surprised by this team as anyone. I never thought it would win the Stanley Cup or come out of the Eastern Conference, but I never, ever, thought it would be this bad.
Having said that, I'm really glad the Flyers were as bad as they were. If they had limped through the season, made the playoffs and then exited in the first round, the sweeping changes that have occurred would not have happened.
The end of the Bob Clarke era was overdue. No disrespect to a guy that poured his heart and soul into this team for the majority of his adult life, but he had lost the zest for the job and didn't see the changes in the game in time to adjust. I wish him well and congratulate his commitment and contribution to the Flyers.
I was hesitant to endorse Paul Holmgren as his replacement.
Being wrong is a good thing in this instance. Holmgren has shown he has the patience and fortitude to stick out some difficult situations and he has the energy and knowledge to make the right decisions and put the right people around him.
John Stevens probably should have had more time to adjust to coaching at the NHL level. But, like Holmgren, he has patience and he knows the game and deserves the chance he is getting. It's interesting to see the differences between him and former head coach Ken Hitchcock.
It was easy to know how Hitchcock felt, but Stevens keeps his cards close to the vest and protects the players from criticism, sometimes to a fault. So many times this year, in the face of awful play, the coach talked about the "good effort," or the "positives" he took from a game.
I saw him discipline a guy only once. He made Stefan Ruzicka sit on the bench during an entire practice in New York and then made him report to the hotel gym to ride a bike because the kid didn't do the extra work he was supposed to.
You never hear Stevens waxing negatively from the bench and I've never seen him visibly angry.
There are good points and bad points to that. He's a trustworthy, fair man and coach, but this team needed a kick in the pants more than one night this season.
If I hear "he's still young," he's "a work in progress," just once next year as it relates to Joni Pitkanen, I'm going to be ill. Enough! The Flyers traded Ruslan Fedotenko to move up in the draft to get this guy. He has talent, hands and speed, and he's been a gigantic disappointment all season. He either gets it next season or he doesn't, but his time is up.
There have been more than a few pleasant surprises among the new faces since Holmgren started moving things around, among them Scottie Upshall. Nashville missed something. He's fast and can score and that just means there is more to come.
Another surprise is Dmitry Afanasenkov. Tampa Bay made a checking, defensive forward out of him? Even on a loaded team, that was a mistake. He has speed and hands and can play.
The e-mails have been pouring in since I wrote about fighting last Monday. The response has been intense and passionate and about 50-50.
Those who like fighting are calling for me to be fired. If I don't like fighting, that means I don't know anything about hockey and shouldn't cover it.
Go write about golf or tennis, wrote one repeat e-mailer. Clueless said another. According to one fan, the entire section 108 in the Wachovia Center will never read the Daily News again because of me. He wants me fired.
Those who are against fighting thanked me for speaking out.
But here's the real rub.
What I wrote was not titled "Ban Fighting." I said the arguments about being unable to stop it, about how skill players need protection, about how only guys who fight can police the game, was a load of bunk.
It still is.
For the record, this uninformed know-nothing likes the speed and skill players, and the fierce, hard-hitting guys. They come hand-in-hand with hockey.
I don't mind when Ben Eager knocks people all over the ice and creates the kind of space that makes it easy to get to the net and score, like he did Saturday in the 6-4 loss to the Rangers.
I don't mind when Randy Jones jumps a guy after a teammate gets drilled into the boards from behind.
What I don't like and never will are the prearranged, "Hey, let's drop our gloves and duke it out in the middle of the ice, I have to earn my living," stuff.
It did not bother me one bit that Colton Orr and Eager or Riley Cote didn't stop play at center ice Saturday and have the big revenge battle. Oh, and by the way, did anyone see how much protection Jaromir Jagr needed scoring those two goals?
I didn't say ban fighting.
I said don't tell me it's necessary, or that it can't be stopped.
Till next season, thanks for reading. *