Flying into trouble

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI, EDMONTON SUN

, Last Updated: 7:34 AM ET

You'd almost think the Philadelphia Flyers swung a deal with the devil when they won back-to-back Stanley Cups all those years ago, and have been paying for it with their souls ever since.

After all, there's never been a team better suited for Satan's big screen than the two-fisted 1974-75 Broad Street Bullies. Nor has a club suffered anything close to Philadelphia's outrageous misfortune.

From car crashes and cancer to concussions, controversy and the endless run of injuries that has them struggling to escape from the fiery depths of the Eastern Conference basement, nobody knows the trouble they've seen.

FIRST TO WORST

And now, 32 years after becoming the first expansion team to win a Cup, their worst season ever.

It's only December and they've already fired Ken Hitchcock, replaced Bob Clarke, set a franchise-record losing streak, missed more man-games to injury than Custer's Army and sit dead last in the NHL, with virtually no hope of reaching .500, let alone the playoffs.

St. Louis is ahead of them, for heaven's sake.

"Nobody likes this, from ownership to management to the players," said GM Paul Holmgren, who takes over a club that won two of its first 14 games and none of its last eight. "Let's face it, we all like to win. That's the nature of our business - win, win, win. This has been very difficult for everybody around here.

"(But) we believe we're going to be better when we come out the other side."

Every time they try, though, somebody else gets hurt. No team wants to hide behind injuries, but when you can't see over the bodies it's hard not to. With as many as eight veterans out at once this season (currently seven), they have 14 players on their roster who were in the minors last year. A concussion forced Keith Primeau into retirement, Jeff Carter missed six weeks and Peter Forsberg, who missed a dozen games with a bad ankle, is out with the concussion he picked up in his first game back.

Somebody up there doesn't like this team.

"I don't know if we can explain it," said Holmgren, whose club also led the league in man-games lost to injury last season. "We're certainly looking at a lot of the things we do around here - how we train, what we do in the off-season - seeing if anything really jumps out because in the last few years we've had an inordinate amount of injuries to key people.

"We haven't come up with anything yet. Maybe it's just bad luck. Who knows, but we're trying to get through it."

It's been hard, especially for a club that - despite its woes - always hung around the upper echelon. "I know this isn't the best year for the Flyers,'' said Simon Gagne. "I've been here long enough to know what it's like to win and be part of the playoffs all the time. This, right now, that's not the Flyers."

CAPTAIN INJURED

Forsberg, their key addition after the lockout, has been a microcosm of the team. Formidable when he's on, but he can't stay out of the trainers' room.

"It's not Peter's fault," said Holmgren. "He's still one of the top players in the game when he's healthy. His first game back, he was great, our team looked good. Then he got hurt and we weren't the same."

While Holmgren admits the Flyers weren't exactly tailor-made for the new NHL, he says big men like Derian Hatcher are adapting, and once everyone is healthy - a list that includes Forsberg, Sami Kapanen, Mike Richards, Geoff Sanderson, Mike Rathje, Denis Gauthier and Robert Esche - people will see the same potential he does.

"We do believe we have a core of good young players, from Antero Niittymaki, to Joni Pitkanen, to Carter to Mike Richards to R.J. Umberger to Gagne," said Holmgren, who added Mike York and Alexei Zhitnik in the last week. "We think our future is bright, even though it looks like we're in a downturn right now - which is probably true when you look at the standings. But we feel we can get out of it.

"We've taken some steps, baby steps, maybe, in the right direction. But in order to walk you have to crawl. We need to start winning some games here, soon."


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