Flyers on a bonding mission

DAVID W. UNKLE -- Special to SLAM! Sports

, Last Updated: 6:04 AM ET

VOORHEES, N.J.-- When Philadelphia Flyers head coach Ken Hitchcock and his team headed for a two-day retreat to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, it wasn't the Civil War buff simply taking his team on a history lesson.

Hitchcock surrounded his players in the New York enclave where former military greats like Grant and Lee, Pershing and MacArthur, Eisenhower and Patton, Westmoreland and Schwarzkopf learned to overcome adversity and defeat.

"It's just the guys and the coaches," said goaltender Robert Esche. "It teaches you a lot about yourself and a lot about each other. I thought the last time (prior to the 2003-04 season) we did it, it was very successful."

Talent-wise, the Flyers remain deep at the forward position even with the recent losses of Sami Kapanen and Turner Stevenson to injuries. However, the recent influx of young players and established veterans has resulted in unfamiliarity on the ice.

"We haven't played very much yet, and this is a chance for us to get on the bus together, to be together, and have a couple of dinners together and just get our team to hang out with each other," Hitchcock said.

"I think that's more important than anything right now."

Hitchcock dismisses some of the unfamiliarity to "the trials and tribulations of having new players," while addressing the need for his team to establish their identity.

"In the end, you're not sacrificing for the sweater," Hitchcock told reporters after practice last week. "You are sacrificing for the person sitting next to you. You are saying to him, 'I will go into uncomfortable areas for you.' Now, easy thing to say, hard thing to do. But when you get it, it's like gold. For whatever reason, when you get that (commitment) inside the locker room, you just feel like you'll never lose.'

"When it's at the most intense time," said Hitchcock, "it comes out whether you're comfortable with people."

It was evident in the team's opening night loss to the New York Rangers, and a week later against the Toronto Maple Leafs, as both opponents took control of tightly-contested hockey games.

"The guys are going to get an experience of focus and motivation with things that are uncomfortable and they are still going to have to maintain their focus," said Hitchcock.

The lack of focus was highlighted in watching a 5-1 lead evaporate against the Pittsburgh Penguins, culminating with netminder Antero Niittymaki's blunder that allowed the game-tying goal while he watching replays of Peter Forsberg on the matrix board.

"This is a pretty big time for us," said Hitchcock. "We're going to start talking to each other about expectations and identity."

Flyers' captain Keith Primeau calls it, "Flyers' hockey," a reference to the team's gritty style of play.

As part of the second-to-last level of putting his Flyers team together, Hitchcock also wants to explore the winning experiences of players like Peter Forsberg and Stevenson.

"There are a lot of recent winners here, especially Calder Cup (winning) guys," said Hitchcock. "This is what we're going to start talking about. What it feels like to be a winner and a champion and what things were in place for that to happen."

"Upon the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that upon other fields, on other days, will bear the fruits of victory."

Those words are etched on a monument at West Point honouring General MacArthur.

In essence it's what Hitchcock hopes his young team will take away from these two days.


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