Clarke promises real hockey

Jim Kernaghan -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 2:21 PM ET

Up until the time exhibition games became "preseason" games in the sports vernacular -- about the same time used cars took on the more benign "pre-owned" -- their purpose was pretty straightforward.

It was for players to get into condition while showing team colours to the faithful. And turning a few bucks at the gate and the souvenir stand.

You might even see a star now and then. Mostly, you saw the upper echelon of players taking a few shifts while each team's hopefuls and rookies had it out.

However you want to term what the Brits call friendlies, the Philadelphia Flyers-Atlanta Thrashers game at the John Labatt Centre Sept. 17 will be deadly serious, promises Philly general manager Bob Clarke. It can hardly be anything else under the circumstances.

"We have to accomplish a lot of things in seven (exhibition) games," Clarke said. "We have half a team that has never played together and we have the kids so we've got a lot of work to do in a short period of time under new rules. It's really got to be full speed ahead."

The days are long gone when players turned up for a long training camp to sweat off a summer's inactivity by working toward game fitness in a long barnstorming tour.

They have to be physically ready coming into camp now to devote all their attention to timing and other fine points. It'll be all hands on deck for the game here, Clarke says.

"Everybody," he said. "The only reason somebody wouldn't be with the team would be because of an injury."

That means the man Clarke says caps off the Flyers' lightning post-lockout moves to add quality free agents under the new bargaining agreement will be here. He's the guy who looks like a wolf and plays like one, too, Peter Forsberg.

There's no doubt Philly is going to be a handful with the addition of guys such as giant defencemen Derien Hatcher, Mike Rathje and Chris Therien, along with two of the best from junior hockey, London's Jeff Carter (Soo Greyhounds) and Mike Richards (Kitchener Rangers).

All are slated to play here, as are Atlanta's new names, Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk.

Clarke touched on other reasons it's important to get road games in hot hockey markets, especially going into the most unusual season the NHL has ever experienced. With so many newcomers, road games provide a better opportunity for them to get to know one another.

London is the perfect stop from a number of perspectives. Global Spectrum Facility Management, operators of the JLC, is a subsidiary of the Flyers' parent company, Comcast-Spectacor.

It's a sort of home game. And playing to a full house in true hockey country provides fire.

"There's nothing worse than going into a building and there's only a couple of thousand people," Clarke said. "It'll be a full house in London, a great building, and players always want to perform for a lot of excited hockey fans."

Along with a lot of players getting acquainted, there's the important issue of them getting acquainted with the new rules. Clarke likes the return of the tag-up rule that cuts down offside whistles.

"It's the most important because it helps maintain the flow of the game," he reasoned. "That's what the fans want and that's what the players want. It ought to provide more scoring chances."

Like everyone else, he's waiting to see how the on-ice officials are permitted to call games under the new rules.

"If there are going to be calls for every little nick and hold, it's going to be a broken game again," he warned.

That would make it a sort of pre-owned game, wouldn't it?


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