The 10 Best Philadelphia Sports Stories of 2020

all photos via USA Today Sports

2020 was very likely the worst year of all time, unless you’re old enough to remember 1942 or 1347.

We suffered through a global pandemic, saw the entirety of the sports world shut down, and stayed at home, isolated from friends and family while trying to keep our mental health at a somewhat tenable level.

The good thing is that there appears to be a light at the end of the tunnel. We’ve got a COVID vaccine being administered to doctors, nurses, and essential personnel. Maybe we emerge from the winter somewhere over the hump and life begins to return to normal.

Fingers crossed!

On New Year’s Eve, let’s go out on a positive note and recap the 10 best stories in Philadelphia sports. It was a down year for the Eagles, Phillies, and Sixers, but the Flyers and Union did incredibly well and there were some individual and franchise-wide accomplishments worth noting.

10. Coots wins the Selke

Cooooooooooooooooooots!

Flyers forward Sean Couturier beat out Patrice Bergeron and Ryan O’Reilly to win the Frank J. Selke Trophy, awarded annually to the NHL’s best two-way forward. O’Reilly was the previous year’s winner and Bergeron a multiple-time winner, so Coots edged a couple of excellent players to claim the prize.

Don’t sleep on the Selke, which is a pretty big deal. Past winners include Anze Kopitar, Jonathan Toews, and Pavel Datsyuk, so Coots winning the trophy puts him in some elite company.

He became the third Flyer to win the Selke, joining Dave Poulin (1987) and Bobby Clarke (1983).

9. Brenden Aaronson’s European transfer

A great local sports story, the Philadelphia Union successfully brought Medford native Brenden Aaronson through their academy, into the first team, and then transferred him to Austria’s RB Salzburg for a fee that could go as high as nine million dollars.

It was a symbolic moment for a franchise that decided to shirk highly-paid foreign superstars and invest heavily in homegrown talent, pulling in the best kids from the Delaware Valley to learn and grow at the YSC Academy. Aaronson’s move to Salzburg marked the first time that the Union were able to develop a player here, place him into the starting lineup, and then complete a multi-million dollar European transfer.

Oh, and the good thing is that Brenden’s brother, Paxten, is in the Union pipeline and looks like a natural replacement.

8. Phillies move on from Matt Klentak

After five mostly feckless years, Philadelphia Phillies General Manager Matt Klentak “stepped down” into a lesser role, ceding player-personnel decisions to the newly-hired Dave Dombrowski, who won the World Series with the Boston Red Sox and Florida Marlins.

During Klentak’s tenure, the Phillies went through three managers and failed to finish above .500, compiling a record of 326 wins and 382 losses.

With Dombrowski and Joe Girardi in place, the Phillies have a pair of respected veterans calling the shots. The question is whether owner John Middleton will do his part and spend money moving forward.

7. Flyers find their goaltender of the future

This Flyers season was far and away more successful than any of their “four for four” counterparts.

And after a time period that feels like eternity, the local hockey team found their goaltender of the future in Carter Hart, who played 43 games and achieved the following marks:

  • youngest Flyers goaltender to record regular season and playoff shut outs
  • youngest Flyers goaltender to win a playoff game
  • youngest Flyers goaltender to post back-to-back postseason shut outs

Hart dealt with an abdominal strain this season and missed nine straight games, but went on to allow just 2.42 goals per game and finished with a .914 save percentage. Those numbers won’t jump off the page and slap you in the face, but for a 22-year-old playing his first full NHL season, that’s a foundation for which we can finally build on.

6. the Sixers fail upward

After watching a truncated season of failed “bully ball” that resulted in a first-round playoff sweep, the Sixers fired longtime head coach Brett Brown.

With Doc Rivers’ Los Angeles departure coming a few weeks later, the stars aligned to bring in a title-winning coach, but the Sixers didn’t stop there. They went out and added Daryl Morey, who left the Houston Rockets after 13 years as the club’s chief player-personnel executive and de facto decision maker.

Morey immediately jettisoned Al Horford and Josh Richardson, made the salary cap situation more flexible, and added shooters around Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. The result through four games is a 3-1 record and a team composition that makes a lot more sense.

The Sixers failed upward, into a better situation.

5. Alec Bohm’s MLB debut

If there was a positive on-field takeaway from this otherwise forgettable Phillies season, it was the big-league debut of 24-year-old Alec Bohm.

The third overall pick in the 2018 draft, Bohm debuted for the Phils on August 13th, ripping a two-out double down the left field line in his first professional at-bat.

Bohm went on to play 44 games in this shortened season, logging 54 hits, four homers, 23 runs batted in, and a .881 OPS. That OPS number was third on the team, behind only Rhys Hoskins and Bryce Harper. His .338 batting average led the Phils.

4. Brandon Graham makes the Pro Bowl

After ten seasons and a Super Bowl ring, Brandon Graham earned his first Pro Bowl nod.

It’s the cherry on top for a first round draft pick who was slow to start, suffered an early-career injury, and was labeled a bust by some people who wanted Earl Thomas instead. Ironically, both players would go on to win championships with their teams.

Through 15 games, Graham has eight sacks, 13 tackles for loss, and 16 quarterback hits. He’s forced two fumbles and logged 23 QB pressures while playing 68% of the defensive snaps at age 32.

3. Union claim first trophy in franchise history

After ten underwhelming seasons featuring three U.S. Open Cup final losses and a grand total of one playoff win, the Philadelphia Union claimed the Supporters’ Shield as the best regular season team in 2020.

Awarded annually to the team with the top point total, the Shield is generally harder to win than MLS Cup, which sometimes goes to clubs that get hot in the playoffs and string together a couple of wins.

In the Union’s case, they won 14 of their 23 games during this COVID-affected campaign. They conceded a league-low 20 goals, finished 9-0-0 at home, and scored 44 goals, which was tied for second in Major League Soccer. The Union additionally went 4-1-1 in the ‘MLS is Back’ tournament and finished as a semifinalist in the one-off Orlando competition.

2. COVID-19 and social justice

Our local teams and players stepped up to the plate during the spring and summer, which saw COVID-19 charitable efforts expand to include a renewed push for social justice.

The Sixers bought computers for the Philadelphia School District and made a half-dozen donations for various causes. Jeffrey Lurie and the Eagles made a one million dollar donation. Kevin Hayes bought pizza and cheesesteaks for frontline medical workers. Bryce Harper, Tobias Harris, and other local athletes donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to relief efforts here and in their home towns. Many joined Ben Simmons’ “Philly Pledge” to steer money towards Philabundance and local non-profit groups.

The list is long and expansive, but the takeaway is that our teams and our players really stepped up and did their part to help out during…. these uncertain times.

1. Oskar Lindblom beats cancer, returns to the ice

A no-brainer for positive Philadelphia sports story of the year.

It was mid-December, 2019, when the Flyers forward was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, which is a form of bone cancer. Lindblom underwent chemotherapy treatment and completed his regimen in July, then got himself back into playing form to rejoin the team, on the ice, on September 3rd.

The timeline from diagnosis to full recovery spanned just about nine months.

Lindblom finished as a runner-up for the Masterton Trophy, and the part that people seem to forget is that he was having a breakout year, pre-diagnosis. He contributed 18 points through 30 games and paced the Flyers for the early part of the season, before the team began to click and string together wins.

Now they’ve got a healthy 24-year-old back in the fold and ready to go for this upcoming season.

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