I’m not sure we got a straight, honest answer as to why Ron Hextall was fired as the Flyers general manager.
But I spoke to a lot of people today, and it’s quite apparent that this was a multi-faceted decision that went all the way to the top with Comcast chairman Brian Roberts weighing in.
Was Hextall fired because the team has underperformed?
Was Hextall fired because he died on the hill about changing the coach?
Maybe. President Paul Holmgren said no, but CEO Dave Scott said there was some discussion about Joel Quenneville. So, if you’re talking about another coach, then it can’t be that everyone is happy with the current coach, right?
Was Hextall fired because of the growing apathy in the Flyers’ fanbase, as evidenced by decreasing attendance and television ratings?
Here’s what Scott said when I asked him that directly:
CB: Dave, just kind of piggybacking off of that. We’ve heard Paul talk about it from the hockey perspective and we’ve heard him mention talking to you and Brian Roberts. We also hear that you want to win now as opposed to two, three, four years from now. How much of this decision then is based on the business side of the organization? As opposed to the hockey side of the organization. When you see a reduction in attendance for example.
“Yeah, I mean to me they go hand in hand. It’s all about winning whether it’s in business or in the hockey team and getting deep in the playoffs and winning the cup. I mean that’s what we’re all after. I personally feel our fans deserve better. I think we have great fans, and they’ve been patient. My vision is, we’ll invest everything we have to, and we’ll look at every opportunity to make it better. But this is about winning hockey games.”
But that wasn’t the main reason.
Nope, the main reason was something you didn’t really hear at the press conference.
Hextall was fired because his relationships with a lot of people in the organization soured and he was difficult to work with. He was a micromanager of the highest order. He refused input from others – including his bosses. He kept his cards close to the vest and everyone had a hard time penetrating his well-guarded castle for one.
Sure, you heard Holmgren use words like “unyielding” and “stubborn” to describe Hextall, and he qualified them in a positive light – saying that Hextall never wavered on what he thought was best for the team.
But, the underlying feeling is that his reign as general manager was oppressive – and it was felt that way from the locker room, to the coaches’ offices, to the management team, to the executive offices of the Wells Fargo Center, to the alumni, to the employees of the organization.
You name it, Hextall tried to control it. And eventually, that’s going to bring bad feelings.
Hextall wanted everyone to step in line, and if they didn’t, he was a bit surly with them. Rehabbing players were not allowed to talk to the media. Nor were assistant coaches.
Want to know what Ian Laperriere thinks about his terrible penalty kill or Kris Knoblauch thinks about his struggling power play? Sorry. You can’t ask.
All of this control would have been fine if there was a modicum of success on the ice or at the turnstiles.
But the Flyers were the most mediocre team and bereft of an identity throughout Hextall’s tenure. Finally, the impatient owners who are seeing less and less revenue and less and less interest had enough.
This is why Dave Scott was in the GM’s Box a couple times recently. It wasn’t just to stop by for pleasantries. And from what I’m told, there weren’t many pleasantries between the two. Hextall felt like Scott was meddling in hockey, something he knows nothing about.
And while Scott isn’t the most prolific expert of the sport, he was Hextall’s boss. Being a bit insubordinate is probably not a good play by the GM.
Simply put, whether he realized it or not – and more likely not because Hextall tends to be more insular, he was creating a toxic environment.
That toxic environment is what had to be eradicated.
Yeah, all those other things came into play – the team’s struggles, the coach’s future, the fan apathy – but Scott and Holmgren likely could have dealt with this a little longer if it wasn’t in such an iron-fisted environment created by the GM.
It’s why they were willing to make the change now, and not wait for a new GM to be in place. Likely, if Holmgren had the time to get a new GM locked up, we could have seen a major change that included the coach as well- a la Bob Clarke and Ken Hitchcock getting canned together in 2006.
But, Hextall had created such a Draconian environment, that there was no more time to wait.
So, the GM search begins. It won’t be anyone currently employed by the Flyers, so no dice for Dean Lombardi, Chris Pryor or Danny Briere, nor is Chris Pronger a candidate.
Holmgren said he most certainly will look outside the organization.
The top choices appear to be former Minnesota Wild GM Chuck Fletcher (who now works for the New Jersey Devils), New Jersey assistant GM Tom Fitzgerald, and former Carolina GM Ron Francis.
The Flyers would need permission from the Devils and Hurricanes to speak to these guys, but that’s a formality. Interestingly enough, Francis has begun divesting his financial interests in the ‘Canes, but that could be for any reason – not necessarily for the Flyers GM position.
Fitzgerald seems like the kind of guy they’re looking for – young, eager, and willing to make a mark. However, Fletcher is more of a reliable veteran guy who could bring instant stability.
Either way, the expectation is to win now. Scott said so. Which means, the new GM isn’t likely to get the same leeway Hextall was given from a time element.
Consider how Holmgren answered these questions from Mike Sielski of the Philadelphia Inquirer today:
You talked about keeping things close to the vest, but he [Ron] was upfront about what his approach was; that he was going to be patient. So, given that, what timeline did the people above you or you have in your mind that this should be progressing forward on the ice?
Well, we’re in the fifth year, Mike. I don’t know. That’s a long time in hockey, in hockey years, in my mind.
He came from an organization that had gone six years without playoffs.
Yup. That’s a long time in hockey years. I’ll leave it at that.
The thing is, he won’t leave it at that. He will hire a new GM, who will likely replace a lame duck coach now, and who likely will trade a player or two or even from the crop of prospects as well in an effort to help the team win post haste.
Is that the right decision? Who knows. Time will tell if getting back to the old-school Flyers philosophy of winning now is the right choice. If bringing in a new coach, a new goalie, a new star, will help jump start this moribund team.
Or, will it all crumble beneath them and the plan will be to start all over from scratch?
Either way, the pursuit of the future will be done with a lot of sighs of relief around the organization – because the toxic environment no longer exists.