No professional sports franchise enjoys sitting outside the spotlight, especially not a historically successful one like the Philadelphia Flyers. However, a long period of mediocrity culminating in embarrassing 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons pushed them as far away from the focus of attention in the landscape of Philadelphia sports as they’ve been since before they won their only two Stanley Cups in 1974 and 1975.
The passion of the Philadelphia sports scene has hit a fever pitch. The Philadelphia Phillies advanced to the World Series on Sunday. The Eagles are the only undefeated team in the NFL. The Union are championship contenders, and the 76ers have just begun a season with high expectations. The Flyers continue to gear their marketing towards Philly-centric ideas intended to entrench them back into the mix in one of the largest professional sports markets in the United States.
Their social media hashtag #FueledByPhilly pushes the narrative to the fan base. They featured the homecoming of offseason addition and South Jersey native Tony DeAngelo on their training camp YouTube series. They’re looking for the fire of new head coach John Tortorella to appeal to larger pockets of the fan base. However, what is it really going to take for a team with longshot playoff odds to win back one of the most demanding fan bases in sports?
The organization hopes to rediscover its roots in a new era under Tortorella. The idea of bringing the “piss and vinegar” attitude of a hard-nosed coach aligns with the hopes to immerse themselves in the culture of a city that once fit their brand perfectly. The lure of an old-school, demanding hockey coach worked when Peter Laviolette sparked a run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2010 and earned himself countless fans with his incredible passion.
“I remember telling my wife, and I told (general manager) Chuck (Fletcher) this story, ‘Man, that )Philadelphia) is a place I would love an opportunity to be in and coach.’ The passion of the people, the building, everything about the city. It was really neat for me. I remember one of my first meetings with Chuck when we started this, he wore a shirt with the (Flyers) emblem and I said, ‘That’s where I want to be.’ That’s an opportunity that I have right now as I speak with you,” Tortorella said during his introductory press conference in June.
The two-time Jack Adams Award winner as the NHL’s coach of the year made the rounds in the Philadelphia media this summer. He emphasized the establishment of a new standard for performance and the return to prominence for a once-proud franchise that has fallen from grace. Although he knows the results will take time, he expects an immediately improved approach from the team to start moving forward.
“I want our fans to be proud of us, how we look, how we present ourselves, how we attack the game, how we handle situations in the blue paint, and if you’re talking on the ice, how we stick up for each other in certain situations. I want people to be proud of that.”-John Tortorella
The Flyers reached new lows in 2021-22. Their average attendance number, which was likely inflated because of some fans wasting tickets, was the worst in the history of the Wells Fargo Center (excluding the extenuating circumstances of 2020-21). When the team plummeted to the Metropolitan Division basement last year, fans began a trend on social media using profile photos with brown paper bags covering their heads. Their official radio partner 97.5 The Fanatic barely felt the desire to bring up the Flyers in sports radio conversations unless it was in the context of heavy criticism for their organizational failure. A former defenseman publicly blasted the organization for its treatment of alumni ahead of the Flyers Hall of Fame induction ceremony in November 2021.
Tortorella’s fire and competitive edge might make him a fit for a fan base desperate for something to latch onto. However, he has a long way to go with no major personnel additions to help him get there.
The Philadelphia Sports Landscape
Philadelphia is one of only 12 markets with professional sports franchises in each of the four North American major professional sports leagues. Local radio host Anthony Gargano has made the phrase “four for four” famous because of the tendency for Philadelphians to get behind local teams collectively. The close-knit community differentiates the city from other major markets with significant transplant populations like New York, Miami, or Los Angeles.
The famed Broad Street Bullies established the Flyers as an institution in Philadelphia just seven years after their inception by becoming the first expansion franchise to win a Stanley Cup. The toughness and intensity they showed as the most feared physical team in the history of the NHL endeared them in a city that has traditionally latched onto fearless and aggressive athletes. Their propensity for enjoying themselves in the public eye during the 1970s helped the Bullies become legends in the folklore of the City of Brotherly Love. Hall of Famers like Bobby Clarke and Bernie Parent have stayed relevant to the organization almost half a century later.
After the era of the Broad Street Bullies, the franchise advanced to three Stanley Cup Finals during the 1980s. Their exposure within the public eye grew during the 1990s when superstar talent Eric Lindros reached his prime, and it remained with 16 playoff appearances in 17 NHL seasons from 1994-95 through 2011-12. However, the Flyers have now slipped off the radar. The malaise of the past decade has allowed casual hockey fans on the Philadelphia sports scene to wander away from Flyers fandom.
During the offseason months, members of the organization took a closer look at the roots that once made the Flyers great. They clearly pinpointed the aura of the Broad Street Bullies as one thing they could work with. They will hold throwback Thursday nights at the Wells Fargo Center to celebrate their history throughout the season. Does that mean a return to enforcers and the intimidation factor of the 1970s on the ice? Not necessarily.
“They want this team to be aggressive, and they want it to be assertive. For the players that are physical and fight, that means they’ve got to be physical and fight,” Charlie O’Connor said on Broad Street Hockey Radio about a “new age Broad Street Bullies type of Flyers hockey” the organization is chasing. “The identity they want this team to coalesce around is this idea of being aggressive and being attacking. For offensive players, that’s all about going after pucks, aggressive on the forecheck.”
Sports Radio Hosts Shed Light on Philadelphia Sports
97.5 The Fanatic’s afternoon drive show host Hunter Brody commented with insight on the growing comradery of the Philadelphia sports teams and how the Flyers can fit into the mix.
“An experience we’re seeing now is (76ers guard Tyrese) Maxey at the Flyers game, (76ers center Joel) Embiid at the Phillies/Eagles, (Eagles center) Jason Kelce at the ballpark. It goes a long way. I heard Tony (DeAngelo) during intermission of the first period (on Sunday, Oct. 23) talk about how he called Bryce (Harper)’s home run when getting stretched out with the trainer. It sounds so small and silly, but when the city feels you’re just as passionate about the other teams/the city itself, the connection becomes organic and doesn’t seem forced.”
The Wells Fargo Center opened its doors early on Sunday afternoon to allow Flyers fans to watch the Phillies clinch the National League pennant at the bar areas along the arena corridors. The celebration created positive energy in the arena for an early-season matchup against the San Jose Sharks, an opponent who doesn’t traditionally bring a major draw.
Travis Konecny spoke on Oct. 15 about how the home crowd fed off the energy from a Phillies playoff game shown on the big screen for short stretches.
“It was really cool. I was on the ice during it, trying to peak a little bit. It got the crowd going. It’s just a really cool time to be a sports fan in Philly right now with the Eagles and Phillies and us starting. It’s been a good start to our year.”
Fanatic morning show host John Kincade, who formerly worked with legendary bench boss Mike Keenan doing statistical and video analysis for the Flyers during the 1980s, sees Tortorella as the type of personality that could help make the Flyers a more attractive product for Philadelphia sports fans.
“Mike Keenan and John Tortorella have some common traits as a Flyers coach. They both have tenacious personalities and have enjoyed great success. I know Mike connected well with the fan base. He was demanding and provided immediate results. John has a bigger immediate challenge to deliver results but is fully equipped to handle it. This city will find him engaging and relatable,” Kincade said.
“When you bring in a proven winner and champion who still feels he has something to offer and prove as a coach, that is to his benefit and the fan base. I loved the hire and would be floored if the product isn’t more successful and professional in approach.”
Winning Cures All
The NHL is a bottom-line business. Ultimately, wins and losses will decide whether or not fans decide to come to the Wells Fargo Center for Flyers home games and whether or not the Orange and Black will rekindle the incredible passion of Philadelphia sports fans. If Tortorella shows the fiery personality that fans have been calling for but can’t push the Flyers back into Stanley Cup contention, just the hire itself won’t satisfy the fan base.
If the team gets back on a winning track, fans will flock to the arena to see a great product. Just ask the Phillies, who played home games at Citizens Bank Park in September with less than half capacity. They now have the best home-field advantage in the MLB playoffs. If the Flyers go on a deep playoff run, people will quickly rediscover the energy that fed the team on a run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2010 and during so many memorable seasons in the past.
Right now, fans can look at a very clear bottom line. The Flyers lack the type of top-end talent needed to compete with the loaded rosters of teams like the Colorado Avalanche and the Tampa Bay Lightning. They’ll look to change their position in the Philadelphia sports landscape with drastic steps forward to reclaim their status as a Philadelphia institution and a prominent NHL franchise.
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Colin Newby is a freelance writer from Delaware County, PA covering the Philadelphia Flyers for The Hockey Writers. He is an encyclopedia of useless sports knowledge with an uncanny ability to rattle off Flyers goaltending stats from 2004 and every Stanley Cup winner during his lifetime. The depths of his knowledge stem from spending his entire life following the Flyers and the NHL, from fan favorites like the “Legion of Doom” and Claude Giroux to forgotten journeymen like Andy Delmore and Branko Radivojevič. He joined the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association (PHWA) in 2022.
Colin also covers the Philadelphia Eagles and works for 97.5 The Fanatic in Philadelphia.