Holmgren continues to improve in third year as Flyers coach


PHILADELPHIA -- Philadelphia Flyers coach Paul Holmgren looks as if he could lace up his skates and go out there and knock a few heads right now.

His stomach is flat. His legs are strong. His hands can still make fists big enough to put the fear of a haymaker into your head. And the desire is still there. Oh, yes, the desire is still there. One look at his glazed eyes after a particularly tough loss and you know the man still has the psyche of a player.

Holmgren, 35, who ended his 10-year playing career in 1985, uses his head to play hockey these days. He does it with the same verve and energy that once made him a stick-out player in the National Hockey League. Holmgren preaches what he practiced.

And he's gotten better at it. In his three seasons behind the bench, Holmgren the player has successfully become Holmgren the coach. This season, particularly, he's taken charge. Where once he gave faltering players second and third chances, he now benches unproductive veterans. No longer just the second-year coach whose job was in jeopardy, he now gives confident orders -- and expects them to be carried out.

"It's always intrigued me, the motivation part of getting 20 guys to do what you want them to do," Holmgren said. "Everybody's different. It's kind of neat trying to get inside and push all the right buttons. It's frustrating at times, but when it works it's great and satisfying."

Holmgren is a likable man. It's probably true what Flyers staffers say, that the next unkind word they hear about him will be the first. He jokes with his players, and about them. Finding out whether one player had a concussion didn't take long, he once said -- the guy's brain isn't that big. In jest, he once threatened to search Ron Hextall's son for the gum that was missing from the locker room.

At the team's annual family Christmas skate Wednesday at the Spectrum, Holmgren skated with his young daughter Greta. After taking her down to meet Santa Claus, he circled the rink with her, cradling her lovingly in his arms, whispering the things daddies tell daughters.

His players sense that caring.

"Paul's office is always open," said winger Rick Tocchet. "If you have a problem, you can always go in and talk to him. Even if he's having a bad day, he'll always talk to you. That's the one thing about Paul I've always respected."

On the job, the only thing Holmgren cares about is hard work and winning. He's got one thing in mind: How can we win the next hockey game? And his wants are simple: players who play hard every night.

"He's an intimidating guy," Tocchet said. "He kind of looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger with that haircut. And with the way he used to play -- he liked to fight once in a while -- when he says stuff, a lot of guys do listen, especially when he has a stick in his hand."

Holmgren's empathy for his players was never more evident than last season. He wanted them to motivate themselves, but many didn't make good on the extra chances he gave them. Still, because of injuries, Holmgren often had to stick with them anyway.

This season, he has become more demanding. And since most of his roster is healthy, he's been able to bench those who haven't performed well. For the first time in their careers, Craig Berbue, Derrick Smith and Scott Mellanby have spent time in the press box.

"My first year, I was a player's coach," Holmgren said. "I gave everybody the benefit of the doubt in just about every situation. Last year, I was a little more direct and harsh in what I wanted done. This year, even more so. There's a certain way I want the team to play, and I'm less likely now to let them play differently than I want."

"Obviously, it's working," Tocchet said.

The Flyers were still good when Holmgren replaced Mike Keenan after the 1987-88 season, and those who followed the team in the 1988-89 playoffs remember Holmgren chatting insightfully about his opponents.

Last season, he didn't get much chance to enjoy himself. The Flyers missed the playoffs for the first time in 18 seasons, and Holmgren's demeanor reflected the drop-off. After games, he would slouch in his office, concern and frustration evident on his face.

This season, Holmgren has had a lot to enjoy. The Flyers have exceeded all expectations by going into Thursday night's game against the New York Islanders at the Spectrum in second place in the Patrick Division, with an 18-14-2 record. They have superstar attractions in Tocchet and goaltender Ron Hextall, and they have a solid young nucleus on both the defensive and front lines. Holmgren is coaching a team that could be competitive for a long time.

That's quite an achievement, considering that just five months ago he wasn't even sure he'd have a job in Philadelphia. When Flyers president Jay Snider fired Bob Clarke as general manager in June, he gave the new general manager, Russ Farwell, the option of firing or rehiring Holmgren. As it turned out, Farwell appreciated Holmgren's honesty and hard-work ethic, and Holmgren received a two-year extension on a contract that would have expired after this season.

He was the only member of the Flyers' coaching staff to be rehired in the same position.

Coaches are an inconsolable lot. They're never satisfied. There is always something the team can improve on, something it could have done differently. They aren't happy until they've won it all, and only one coach does that each season.

To keep his sanity, Holmgren has developed a low-key approach. He doesn't get too high after a victory or too low after a loss. Clarke, who played the game with as much emotion as anybody who ever put stick to puck, endorses Holmgren's quiet control.

"When I played, I didn't like a coach who yelled and screamed and hollered," Clarke said last week. "I never felt they were in control of themselves, and the team ends up playing that way. I always liked guys who were solid and steady. . . . Look, if the coach has to be the emotion for the hockey team, you're in trouble. It's the players who have to be emotional."

Holmgren, the Flyers' all-time leader in penalty minutes, with 1,600, was highly emotional as a player. He knows that his on-ice experience has helped him as a coach. Some players have trouble accepting criticism from a coach who they feel hasn't paid his dues.

Holmgren also knows how important the game is to those who play it. In fact, it is love of the game that drives most who seek to be coaches.

"You miss playing a lot," Holmgren said. "For the first two or three years, when I was an assistant with Mike [Keenan], I missed playing. As a coach, you still remain close. You're closer than a general manager or a scout. You're close to the action. But it's not like playing."

In 1980, Holmgren began to think he might have a future in coaching. He was playing for the Flyers under Pat Quinn, and he marveled at Quinn's ability to handle people and organize a successful operation. "I felt that was maybe something I wanted to do," he said.

So Holmgren enrolled in a coaching class at Widener University in nearby Chester under football coach Bill Manlove. One of his assignments was to spend 30 hours as a coach, and he helped Speedy Morris and his Roman Catholic High basketball team in Philadelphia. But the man who went on to become one of the most demanding coaches in the NHL never wrote his final thesis, and he got an "incomplete" on his report card.

Along the way, Holmgren has had some good mentors. In addition to Quinn, he played for Herb Brooks at the University of Minnesota and Fred Shero with the Flyers. And, of course, he worked under Keenan for three years.

"That's a pretty good group of guys to pick and choose different ideas from," he said. "You have to go the way that is best for you. But there are different ideas that you get from each of those particular people. I like what I'm doing. I enjoy it. It's a challenge every day."

Now, Holmgren is one of the veteran coaches in the NHL. Only Bob McCammon of Vancouver, who is entering his fourth season, and Al Arbour, who has had two stints with the New York Islanders, have been with the same team longer.

At some point, Holmgren knows, there probably will come a time when he won't be able to influence his players, a time when he will be asked to step down.

"It happens," he said. "It's certainly something I don't want to see happen for a long time. But there is a good chance that it will happen.

"Hopefully, it's 10 years from now."

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