Flyers return to London

RYAN PYETTE -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:59 AM ET

So what have the Philadelphia Flyers been up to since last fall's preseason visit to London?

Well, they rocketed out of the NHL cellar and returned to the Eastern Conference final -- with top scorer Simon Gagne out for much of the year.

They made their unproven coach John Stevens -- who endured the worst season in team history in 2005-06 -- and green GM Paul Holmgren look like a couple of puck geniuses.

They even restored their Broadstreet Bullies image with a series of controversial on-ice hits that many onlookers and some opponents felt were "dirty."

Now, they're coming back to the John Labatt Centre for another exhibition game -- making this nearly an annual occurrence since the arena opened in 2002 -- against Ted Nolan's New York Islanders on Sept. 25. Tickets for the lower bowl are expected to top out at $71.75.

The Flyers are a different breed. They authored an incredible story of redemption and resurrection last season, but fire up their website and there's one prominent theme: "Vengeance."

They didn't want anyone feeling sorry for them when they were getting beat on and they certainly don't feel any remorse for the way they rapidly corrected the losing ways.

"It's hard-nosed hockey," said forward Steve Downie. "It's a great fit for the way I play. We have a good young nucleus here and everyone saw that this (past) year. Absolutely, I think it means a lot how far we went in the playoffs. We're going to learn from that and move forward.

"It's exciting to be a part of this."

Downie, of course, wasn't around for all of it. He became the lightning rod for the Flyers' string of questionable conduct after sending Ottawa's Dean McAmmond to concussion central by nailing him in an exhibition game last fall.

Stevens had his back: "I thought the media was pretty hard on him," he said.

The former OHL pest, who helped Peterborough sweep the London Knights in the 2006 final and scrapped with Akim Aliu in practice when both were in Windsor, was suspended for 20 games, delaying his rookie year.

He began the season in the American Hockey League, served his time and appeared in 32 games with the Flyers, scoring six times and setting up six others.

"It went OK -- I scored on some chances and had a few I missed," said the 21-year-old, who is splitting his time working out in Jersey and back in Ontario (his hometown is Queensville). "I think I can (be a scorer in the NHL). I learned a lot (from the McAmmond incident) about how to handle different things.

"I learned a lot from (defenceman) Jason Smith. We had a lot of young guys and he made a real difference in the room and on the ice. He's a great leader, a great captain."

"You could tell right from the start it wasn't going to be the same team as the year before," Downie said.

Stevens deserves credit for that, too. He never backed down or apologized for the way his team approached the game. He wanted a crew that was hard on the puck, but he also knew the ship would sink or swim with the likes of young stars Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and Braydon Coburn.

Carter, a Londoner, scored 29 goals and re-signed with the team for a long-term deal. Richards scored 28 goals and had a tremendous playoff run.

"We were able to get those guys into the same situations that they played in junior and they flourished," Stevens said. "We know how important the young guys are to the success of this team and we're growing with this group. You always have to earn your ice time on this team but we were able to put guys into situations where they could succeed."

Because of the salary cap, there's a belief the NHL has started on a trend toward younger players. The London Knights' Sam Gagner and Pat Kane made the quick jump last year and everyone's waiting to see if Sarnia's Steve Stamkos and Guelph's Drew Doughty, from London, do the same this year after being drafted 1-2.

When Richards, Carter and Downie are sitting together, there are a lot of world junior gold medals in the room.

"We've talked about it, where we played and who we played against," said Downie, who won with Canada in '06 and '07. "Those are great players."

Players have options now with some heading to Russia and the new Continental league. It remains to be seen if NHL coaching authority is in jeopardy because skaters can simply threaten to join the rival league.

"I've always seen playing and coaching in the NHL as a great privilege and I don't see that changing," Stevens said.

It's a privilege he may extend some day to guys with ties to the Knights. Josh Beaulieu played with the AHL Phantoms and remains in the Philly organization. The Flyers traded with Edmonton for defenceman Danny Syvret this summer and also signed Knights leading scorer Pat Maroon, coming off a disappointing OHL playoff, to a three-year deal last season.


Videos

Photos