Paul Holmgren once knew exchanging a Stanley Cup-winning coach for someone yet to stand behind an NHL bench was a bit of a gamble.
But heading into the Flyers’ 2013-14 season, the former general manager (now president) saw something in assistant coach Craig Berube that made him think he could successfully replace the highly regarded Peter Laviolette – and maybe go on to a career in NHL head coaching.
Holmgren and Laviolette went back to their time together with the 2006 U.S. men’s Olympic team in Torino, Italy, so a trust had been established.
Yet Holmgren had worked with Berube for decades, starting in the ‘80s, when Holmgren coached Philadelphia and the kid from Calahoo, Alberta made a positive impression.
So a handful of games into the 2013-14 campaign, with the Flyers struggling, Holmgren decided to reward that faith.
In turn, “Chief’’ validated the move by changing the atmosphere and attitude of the Flyers’ locker room, driving the team to the playoffs and pushing the eventual Stanley Cup Finalist New York Rangers to six games before elimination.
Ron Hextall succeeded Holmgren as GM in 2014 and decided to go with his own coaching candidate, Dave Hakstol, after the 2014-15 season ended in disappointment.
Some thought Berube might not get another chance as an NHL head coach but Holmgren wasn’t one of them.
He will be the first to tell you he isn’t surprised Berube has the St. Louis Blues poised to win the first Stanley Cup in their 52-year history.
“If you look back at the guys Chief had the opportunity to play for, he played for ‘Hitch’ (Ken Hitchcock), Mike Keenan and Darryl Sutter,’’ Holmgren said in a telephone conversation.
“He got to work with (former Flyer and Los Angeles Kings head coach) John Stevens, he got to work with ‘Lavy’ (Laviolette). So he was around guys who won.’’
Holmgren knew Berube was already a good communicator and motivator from his work as head coach (and earlier assistant coach) with the AHL Phantoms.
“I remember when I hired him, I talked about how smart he was,’’ Holmgren said. “To me, he’s one of the smartest guys I know about the game.
“He can stand there and dissect the game like quickly from behind the bench. He played over a thousand games in that role he played (fourth-line physical/energy player) but he was also someone a coach could put out late in a game if you had a lead.
“If you were defending a lead, Chief was smart enough to know to chip the puck out or make the play if it was there. . .chip it in deep if need be.’’
The ability to interact on a verbal level with players is perhaps the most valuable characteristic of all.
“Anybody who knows Chief knows that with him it’s either black or it’s white,’’ Holmgren said. “There’s never a gray area with him.
“I think he has that unique way of talking to his players, getting his point across in a no-frills, not-fancy way. It’s ‘this is what we’re going to do.’ When you are coaching and dealing with individuals, I think his one-on-one stuff is awesome.’’
It’s safe to say that just about everyone who is, or has been, associated with the Flyers is rooting for the Blues to finish the job in St. Louis on Sunday night.
In a quiet way, Berube is probably one of the most popular figures ever to ply his hockey craft in South Philadelphia.
“I’ve talked to a number of Flyers over the last couple months since the Blues have kind of taken off,’’ Holmgren said. “Everybody is happy for Chief and hoping that he can bring it across the finish line.’’
Two players brought to another level by Berube need no introduction with Flyers fans.
Ex-Flyer Brayden Schenn has been performing quite well on the Blues’ first line and journeyman Patrick Maroon, a former Philly draft pick, stunned his St. Louis hometown crowd with the Game 7 OT winner against Dallas in the Western Conference semifinals.
“His fourth line has responded and his young guys have responded,’’ Holmgren said. “Brayden is probably more consistent now and I think that comes with age.
“He’s got Patrick on a roll now, too. He’s playing to the max.’’
If people in the Flyers’ organization want to talk with Holmgren, they know better than to call him on his cellphone this Sunday night.
He’s going to be parked squarely in front of a TV set and you know what he will be watching.
“I don’t usually watch the playoffs that closely but I watched them (the Blues) beat the Sharks (in the conference finals) – they’ve had a tough road, having to beat Winnipeg, Dallas and San Jose,’’ Holmgren said.
“They’re on a hell of a run. It’s fun to watch, mostly because of Chief.’’