Quick Craig Berube story: In November 2003, he joined the Philadelphia Flyers for the third time by signing with their American Hockey League affiliate, the Philadelphia Phantoms. After 17 seasons as an NHL enforcer, he wasn’t trying to hang on. He was trying to move on.
He was supposed to help the coaching staff when he wasn’t playing, and by January 2004 he was named player/assistant coach. Toward the end of the season, he wasn’t playing at all. He was just coaching. He was fine with that. He was 38.
Then came the season finale. The Phantoms had suffered injuries, and they were facing the Hershey Bears, a tough team. Suddenly, they needed him on the ice again. He had to step out from behind the bench and take on 20-somethings who might have wanted a piece of an old NHL heavyweight.
“It was just hilarious,” chuckled Paul Holmgren, the Flyers’ general manager, who was their assistant GM then. “Just the look on his face when we told him he was playing …”
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Holmgren isn’t laughing much these days. He fired coach Peter Laviolette after an 0-3-0 start, then promoted Berube from assistant coach and watched him go 1-2-0 in his first three games. The Flyers are taking too many penalties, sputtering on special teams and aren’t scoring, with only eight goals in six games. Two of their top forwards – Scott Hartnell and Vincent Lecavalier – are injured now, too.
But it’s funny to think of that story for two reasons:
One, Berube will do whatever the Flyers need, whenever they need it, no matter the circumstances. Since that transition season in 2003-04, he has kept bouncing from role to role, rising in the ranks, adapting amid turmoil – AHL assistant coach (for two seasons), AHL head coach (for six games), NHL assistant coach (for almost a season), AHL head coach (for one season), NHL assistant coach (until now).
“I look forward to the challenge all the time,” Berube said.
Two, Berube, 47, has paid his dues with the Flyers and prepared for this for a decade. He started coaching before he even finished playing. Again, this isn’t about holding on. It’s about moving on.
The Flyers are most famous for the Broad Street Bullies, the blood-and-guts guys who won the Stanley Cup in 1974 and ’75. Berube is most famous for fighting 241 times in 1,054 NHL games from 1986 to 2003. His 3,149 penalty minutes rank seventh all time – behind Tiger Williams, Dale Hunter, Tie Domi, Marty McSorley, Bob Probert and Rob Ray. Meanwhile, as a winger, he produced 61 goals and 159 points.
But this is a new era, and Berube is no knuckle-dragger. Holmgren coached the Flyers early in Berube’s NHL career, and he felt comfortable putting him on the ice to protect leads, not just to protect teammates. Though Berube’s pugilistic reputation and hard demeanor give him presence – they call him Chief, and “he definitely makes you listen,” said defenseman Braydon Coburn – don’t underestimate his mind.
“That’s probably where the disconnect is with a lot of people,” Holmgren said. “You don’t play 1,000 games in the NHL – I don’t care where you are in the lineup – without being a smart player. I think as a coach today he will command respect from his players, and his knowledge of the game, I think, is impeccable.
“Let’s face it: The game’s changed. We’re not necessarily the Broad Street Bullies. You need skill in your lineup. I think we have skill players. I think we also have some role players like a lot of teams do, but Craig gets it. He knows it’s 2013. When you listen to him talk about some of these other teams in the league, he’s thinking along the right track.”
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What other teams does Berube talk about? What does he want the Flyers to be? Holmgren said Berube likes the Boston Bruins and Detroit Red Wings. The Bruins fight; the Wings don’t. The Bruins are known for defense, the Wings for skill. But they have a lot in common. “Both those teams don’t beat themselves,” Holmgren said. They skate. When they don’t have the puck, they’re strong positionally and get it back. When they have the puck, they keep it and make plays. They win.
“I want to be real good without the puck,” Berube said. “I want to be a good defensive hockey team, but also I want to be a hockey team that can manage the puck and score goals and be a hard-forechecking, hard-working team. Just a hard team to play against every single night, with and without the puck.”
The biggest difference is in the neutral zone: Laviolette used to play a left-wing lock, meaning one man would hang back. Berube wants to be more aggressive. Like a lot of teams these days, the Flyers want two men hounding the puck with another in support, reading the play, rotating the triangle.
“We just pressure more, and we try not to allow them to get the red line,” said forward Wayne Simmonds. “I think it’s easier for the D to keep the gaps. It’s easier for our forwards to get back and help out.”
It is not Berube’s job to worry about the big picture. Is this Laviolette’s fault, or Holmgren’s, or Ed Snider’s? Should the Flyers have fired Laviolette after last season? Should they have hired someone from the outside? Would they have been better off keeping Sergei Bobrovsky, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and James van Riemsdyk? How big of a disaster was Ilya Bryzgalov? Should they have fired Holmgren, too? Will they eventually replace him with assistant GM Ron Hextall, the old goalie who just came back to Philly, and if so, what then?
All Berube can do is the best with what he has, without the luxury of a training camp. “Once we become that team that I know we can become,” Berube said, “we’ll be a dangerous hockey team.” Maybe, maybe not. But it isn’t as bleak as it looks.
As questionable as the goaltending is again, Steve Mason has been good so far, and Ray Emery was 17-1 with the Chicago Blackhawks last season. The defense isn’t decimated by injuries like last season, at least, and veterans Mark Streit and Kimmo Timonen can move the puck. There is enough talent up front to score more five-on-five, especially when Hartnell and Lecavalier return. The special teams were strong last season, and you’d think they will return to form in time.
Except for the Pittsburgh Penguins (4-1-0 entering Tuesday’s games), no one in the Metropolitan Division is off to a great start, either. The Carolina Hurricanes are 2-2-2, the New York Islanders 2-2-1, the Columbus Blue Jackets 2-2-0, the Washington Capitals 2-4-0, the New Jersey Devils 0-3-3, the New York Rangers 1-4-0. The season is young. Let’s see if Berube can come to the rescue and stay behind the bench this time.