As he lay in a local Bucks County hospital bed with electrodes strapped to his chest and nervous nurses pacing around his room, Paul Holmgren already knew what this feeling was like.
Back in the ‘70s, the Flyers’ former player was rushed to Massachusetts General after suffering a horrible eye injury in a game against the Bruins, then nearly died when he had an allergic reaction to surgery anesthesia.
He was even given last rites.
After three or four jolts of electric shock treatment, doctors got his heart started again and he managed to not only survive but have an outstanding NHL career.
Then, just a few years ago, Holmgren felt a burning sensation in his chest area. At first he thought it was just heartburn but then the discomfort worsened.
“I sat around all morning trying to do stuff,” he recalled during a conversation at the Wells Fargo Center prior to Thursday night’s Flyers-Minnesota Wild game. “Finally I called (former Flyers head trainer) Jim McCrossin.
“I told him exactly what was going on. I asked him what I should do. He said, ‘I think you should go to the ER (emergency room).’+”
Holmgren then let out a laugh.
“My wife (Doreen) had been telling me that for like two hours,” he said.
The couple, who had moved their residence to Bucks County, headed for the nearest medical facility, which was Jefferson Bucks Hospital in Langhorne.
“A nurse hooked me up to an EKG (electrocardiogram) machine,” said the 67-year-old Holmgren. “She leaves the room, says ‘I’ll be right back.’ Within 30 seconds, there were 10 people in my room.
“They said things are going to be happening quickly. You’re having a heart attack.”
Well, those are words you certainly don’t want to hear.
But, as mentioned, Holmgren had been through this sort of do-or-die medical crisis before, so he was hoping for the best but prepared for the worst.
“The guy who put the stents in my arm looked concerned,” Holmgren said. “He said, ‘you were close to going into cardiac arrest.’ +” Holmgren insists this latest incident had nothing to do with his rough-and-tumble playing career in the NHL. In his day, he was one of the game’s most feared fighters, right up there with the Tocchets, Schultzes, Browns and Wilsons.
“No,” Holmgren said, “but there has been some heart stuff with my family. Oddly, my cholesterol levels have always been low.”
Doctors informed him there had been some significant plaque buildup in his arteries and that can have a profound effect on blood flow.
“Both were closed off,” Holmgren said. “They said, ‘You’re lucky!’ My wife freaked out a little bit. I do want to go back sometime and see how the blood is flowing.”
With the incident a few years behind him, Holmgren is back to staying active with a variety of things. It might not be quite as hectic as his days as either a Flyers player, assistant coach, head coach, assistant GM, general manager or team president, but it’s the next best thing.
The Holmgrens reside in a “55” residence community in Yardley and Paul stays active by playing the somewhat new craze, “pickleball,” and taking long walks.
“Bucks County is a beautiful area,” he said.
“I love pickleball. I play with a competitive group and I also play for fun, like with my wife. There are probably 50 people in our group that play all through the winter on indoor courts. I have a blast. It gets the competitive juices going.”
No. 17 has a lot to live for including four children and nine grandchildren.
Paul’s older daughter, Kirsten, lives in Minnesota. The family includes daughter Hanna, 20, a sophomore at the University of Minnesota; son Noah, 17, a high school senior, and son Luke, who is eight.
Holmgren’s son, Wes, resides in Yardley. His daughter, Mackenzie, nine, is joined by son Brayden, seven, and son Ryan, five. Brayden is already chasing pucks around local rinks.
The younger Holmgren daughter, Greta, lives on Long Island. The brood includes daughter Nora, eight; son Cam and daughter Emma, three.
Holmgren does make an occasional appearance at the WFC where he and fellow senior advisors Bob Clarke and Bill Barber get a chance to catch up.
The feeling among the three seems to be that the Flyers are headed in the right direction by fully embracing a pretty comprehensive rebuild. The team has had as many as four rookies in the lineup this season and there are several more promising prospects down in Lehigh Valley and in the development system (such as Boston College’s Cutter Gauthier).
“I’m a big fan of ‘Jonesy’ (new president of hockey operations Keith Jones),” Holmgren said. “And likewise (new GM) Danny Briere. I’m excited about what’s going on. I’ve been asked to come back from time-to-time.
“(New CEO) Dan Hilferty, if he asks me something hockey-related, I’ll probably talk to him. He wants to know. Danny and Jonesy, they’re aware of what’s going on.”
Holmgren is an advocate of getting younger and perhaps more energized.
“I see a difference,” he said. “Feel a difference. I think what Danny did in the summertime with free agency (acquiring Garnet Hathaway, Marc Staal and Ryan Poehling among others) were great additions to a team, along with the trade to get (defenseman Sean) Walker.”
The Flyers’ future looks bright and so does Holmgren’s. It looks like he’s finally found a place in his life with a perfect balance of health, comfort, family and a dash of hockey on the side.