New Flyer back in the 'C'

ERIC FRANCIS -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:02 AM ET

On the eve of his 14th NHL season, Jason Smith found himself in familiar territory.

Although he took his family to California for the summer before relocating the bunch in Philadelphia, the 33-year-old Calgary native practiced yesterday in a rink he grew up in.

Not only was he at home practicing with the Flyers at Father David Bauer Arena, but he also found himself wearing a captain's 'C' he wore for five years in Edmonton. He was adorned with it Monday.

"Yeah, I was surprised," said the humble blueliner who played his minor hockey in Calgary before parlaying a stint in Regina into a first-round selection by New Jersey.

"Obviously, there's a great leadership group here and a lot of guys have been here for a while who they could have named."

While citing a long list of candidates who garnered consideration for the honour of leading the rebuilding Broad Street bunch, including Daniel Briere, Kimmo Timonen, Sami Kapanen, Simon Gagne, Mike Knuble and even Mike Richards, Smith pointed out one of his chief responsibilities now is to ensure things don't go awry like last year when the Flyers finished dead last.

"When you have a difficult season there's a lot of room to go forward here," said Smith, who endured a horrific campaign in Edmonton last year before the surprising summer trade landed him even lower in the standings.

"The guys here are excited -- the work ethic and excitement is there. There's a great core of veteran guys and the young guys who will be here for a long time. But the work ethic has to be there every night because things can snowball quickly in this league."

Snowball is a brilliant way to explain what happened last year in Philly when the Flyers had the NHL's most surprising freefall.

"We had a lot of things in play," explained GM Paul Holmgren of last year's 22-win season. "It started in training camp. Our team was in bad condition, we had a poor preseason record and we looked bad doing it.

"Obviously you don't want to get in a situation where losing snowballs but the leadership guys we brought in like Jason, Daniel and Kimmo will help in that regard. We also upgraded the skill department and on paper we're a better team. Now comes the hard part -- proving it."

Gagne, who turned down the captaincy several years ago because he "wasn't ready," said there's a whole new attitude in the dressing room that has the team talking playoffs again. And a lot of that's possible because of the $52-million deal that lured Briere and the trade that landed Kimonen.

"I was looking for a team that was going to be good not just in the following year, but for a while," said Briere of his decision to join the league's worst team.

"I like this mix of young players and leaders. Also the chance to play with Gagne and Knuble was exciting.

"I also liked that management wasn't going to sit back four or five years but they wanted to turn it around right away."

Coach John Stevens made it clear yesterday his team plans on challenging for a playoff spot and said the leadership of guys like Smith will be key.

"We wanted to see how it played out and the feeling as camp went along was that Jason was a guy who had the respect of everyone in the room," added Holmgren of the decision to make Smith captain. He's a vocal guy who plays with intensity. He's an old pro who gets the most out of his guys."

He's going to have to if the Flyers have a chance of climbing back to respectability.


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