There's only one thing wrong with the new Philadelphia Flyers: they have no one left on the roster to hate.
Out at the Spectrum, far from stately Independence Hall and all that, the scenery is mostly shipyards, mudflats and permanent floating cranes. Used to be, it was a perfect setting for the Flyers, the neighborhood bullies. These days, the only bullying is done by local roughhousers lurking in the parking lot, and even they aren't so tough any more.
The Flyers haven't become effete, but let's just say their kid coach, Mike Keenan, got up in front of a press conference the other day and actually used the word "synergy." Anybody with any sense knows that's nothing but a college-boy term for what used to be called teamwork.
Now they have skating drills. Drills? Time was, the only drilling on Broad Street was done by a jackhammer or Dave (The Hammer) Schultz, the designated goon who would throw away his stick, fling down the gloves and deck an uppity New York Ranger -- or anyone else, for that matter.
This season, they've dropped to the middle of the league in penalty minutes, a category they perennially led with Bobby Clarke, Moose Dupont, Schultz and the rest of the Broad Street Bullies. They were mean, ugly and wonderfully hateable. They also won a lot, including a couple of Stanley Cups in the mid-70s, which made it worse.
Now, Clarke wears a suit and tie and is the team's first-year general manager. A bunch of young guys with clear skin, designer jeans and enough teeth to smile are wearing the orange and black. The only thing that hasn't changed is that they're still winning. Maybe they won't break your face, but they'll outskate you and outscore you, and when it's all over, shake your hand and say "Thanks, sport."
The Flyers have disappointed all those who have been waiting a decade to see them finally get theirs after 14 straight winning seasons. In the last three seasons, they have been beaten in the first round of the playoffs, and in preseason were picked to finish no better than fourth in the Patrick Division. Instead, the Flyers are trailing the Washington Capitals by three points, in second place at 34-16-7. They are 3-1-1 against the Capitals this season and 3-0 against the defending Stanley Cup champion Edmonton Oilers. And their average age is 24, among the youngest in the league.
Obviously, some serious house cleaning has been going on, and strangely enough, the chief janitor has been Clarke. The player most representative of the old guard, who ranked among the Flyers' all-time penalty leaders, was named general manager in May at the age of 35, replacing Bob McCammon, who also was coach. He has put together a clean-cut team that includes four rookies and four second-year players, and hired Keenan, who at 34 is in his first NHL season.
The transition was not entirely intentional. Philadelphia had been unhappy with McCammon, who had been critical of some veterans. The three straight playoff losses were marked by a self-destructive bent and senseless penalties.
Clarke was a welcome change, but suddenly they found themselves with a dwindling cast of veterans when Bill Barber injured a knee and was lost for the season. Then, the four rookies unexpectedly made the lineup: Dave Brown, Peter Zezel, Rick Tocchet and Derrick Smith. Clarke decided to go with the youth movement, and when center Daryl Sittler, 34, was traded to Detroit, a new era unexpectedly was ushered in.
They'll still hit, the fans still will scream for more and the organist likes to play the theme from "Jaws" when a fight breaks out, but the new image is decidedly high-tech.
The other day, Keenan divided the Flyers up for a scrimmage into young and old. The old guys were the ones over 24. Leading scorer Tim Kerr, who has 45 goals and 37 assists, counts himself a greybeard at 26.
"It all changed last summer," Kerr said. "We have a young GM and a young coach and a lot of young guys. Everybody had us pegged for fourth or fifth, and we've played like we're second- and third-year players.
"The Bully Boys, that's pretty much all gone. We have guys who are going to take care of their teammates, but everybody does. In today's game, you can't afford it."
Clarke might have set the new look with the trade of Sittler. He also had a new look for himself, making a quick, if troubled, transition from athlete to businessman.
"My responsibility is to the club, and I felt it was the right thing to do," he said. "I didn't want to trade him, but we made a commitment to a young club. It wasn't easy to tell a man that, but my feeling was that if I couldn't do it, I couldn't be successful."
Clarke rarely visits the locker room, leaving it to Keenan and the new guard.
"I've talked to them all individually and tried to get to know them as best I can," he said. "But the dressing room belongs to the coach and the players. I'm not uncomfortable in there, but it's not a place to hang out in."
The Flyers are skating with flair, few penalties and surprising poise for so young a team. They have avoided the slumps and emotional states that usually accompany inexperience and patience has become one of their trademarks, one influence of the careful Keenan, who is disdainful of the old, fight-filled style.
"It's not the players being patient but the people working with them," he said. " . . . What they accomplish in enthusiasm makes up for their mistakes."
Keenan, an analytical -- some might say new-fangled -- fellow, came from the University of Toronto, where he coached the school to the Canadian collegiate championship. A meticulous organizer, he is the antithesis of McCammon, an informal sort who was known to hang around with the players and hold practice when he felt like it. He once called the Rangers "Smurfs."
In the locker room, a standings and scoring chart is carefully color coded. At practice, water bottles are carefully lined up, with each player's name written neatly in front. At the start of the season, each player had a personal meeting with Keenan. Certain goals or shortcomings were written out on a piece of paper, which went into a file cabinet. A disciplinarian, Keenan follows a careful reward system and never hesitates to bench offenders.
"Management style is important," he says. "You have to be well planned. If you look after details, you're better able to deal with big problems."
Keenan also prides himself on being a communicator, and reads all the self-help sociology books on how to handle authority, which is where all the synergy talk comes from. He experiments with his theories on players. Sometimes the communication gets short-circuited.
"With all those words, half the time I don't know what he's saying to me," Kerr said.
Keenan's style occasionally has grated on other players, who find him somewhat manipulative. Ed (Boxcar) Hospodar, a six-year veteran who has been with the Rangers and Hartford Whalers and is in his first season with the Flyers, has an intriguingly ambivalent relationship with his coach. The 26-year-old defenseman has a lot of brawl in him, and was picked up for his his physical play. He likes to bum cigarettes, and Keenan likes to work harder on him than others.
"He knocks you down with his right hand and picks you up with his left," Hospodar said. "Everybody has taken their turn on the pine (bench). But he knows I need it. He reads all that stuff about how to handle people. He wants to be the smart one, the intellectual."
And if the Flyers manage to catch the Capitals and win the Patrick Division, he'll also look like a genius.