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Original Issue

Inside The NHL

The Flyers seek professional help after falling on hard times

The NHL's most dysfunctional family is going for therapy. This
week the Flyers planned to spend two days with the Matishak
Group, a Calgary performance-enhancing service that has a
program designed to build unity in sports teams. Exercises
include players' helping one another negotiate obstacle courses
blindfolded and falling backward off tabletops into teammates'
arms. "We'll be paying attention," Flyers goalie John
Vanbiesbrouck said last Friday. "We have to find a way to deal
with adversity."

On Feb. 6 the Flyers were 28-10-12 and appeared ready to run
away with the Eastern Conference title. Since then, Philadelphia
had gone 3-12-5 through Sunday and dropped to sixth place in the
East. Flyers chairman Ed Snider attributed the fall to "a
complete mental collapse."

A glint of madness was certainly discernible in the eyes of
coach Roger Neilson during a 5-2 loss to the Blues on March 16.
Irate that referee Bill McCreary had failed to call a blatant
penalty on St. Louis, Neilson stood on the Flyers' bench and
hurled a stick onto the ice. Neilson nearly harpooned linesman
Lonnie Cameron and was suspended for two games by the NHL. In
another sign of Philadelphia's questionable mental state,
Neilson's boss, general manager Bob Clarke, says, "Roger was
right [to throw the stick]."

In his five-year stint at the helm in Philadelphia, Clarke has
pursued the Stanley Cup as obsessively as Ahab did the white
whale, and his unchecked zeal seems to be undermining that
pursuit. Led by star forwards Eric Lindros and John LeClair,
Philadelphia entered the season as one of the favorites for the
Stanley Cup. Yet Clarke has made so many roster changes--nine
new players have arrived through trades--that this week's group
therapy should begin with player introductions: Hello, my name
is...and I'm a Philadelphia Flyer.

"It takes time for players to get accustomed to one another,"
says Neilson, "but the guys we've traded for have helped us."

One thing that didn't help was Clarke's panicked decision to
call up 21-year-old rookie goalie Jean-Marc Pelletier to start
against Ottawa on March 4, ahead of Vanbiesbrouck and veteran
backup Ron Hextall. The Flyers lost 5-0, and Lindros called the
move "a slap in the face to everybody in this room."

Philly's players lament their recent lack of hitting and the
mental lapses that continually plague them. "We're so tight,"
says Neilson, "we've forgotten how to execute. We have to come
out of this as a team."

Low Scoring

Have you seen how the Flames have gotten into the playoff race
with their (yawn) new passive forechecking scheme? Have you
noticed how twice this season the Senators have so successfully
clogged the neutral zone (zzzzz) that they have held an opponent
without a shot on goal for a period? Apparently this constitutes
progress in the NHL. "Coaching is much more advanced than it was
20 years ago," says Panthers coach Terry Murray, echoing an
opinion held leaguewide.

Better coaching, however, doesn't necessarily make for exciting
hockey. Despite off-season rule changes intended to increase
scoring, through Sunday the NHL's goals-per-game average (5.3)
was unchanged from last year, and shots on goal, 55.9 per game,
were much closer to last season's 54.7 than to the 60 or so that
were the norm over the past two decades. Yes, the addition of six
expansion teams in seven years has diluted the number of talented
scorers (INSIDE THE NHL, Nov. 9, 1998), but the curse on hockey
comes from today's film-studying, scouting-aided, strategy-mad

A sophisticated defensive system can make a winner out of a
modestly talented club. Thus, teams have increasingly hired
career coaches to guide them rather than former players, who
tend to coach more viscerally than nonplayers. "NHL coaches are
better today because they're usually professional coaches,"
observes Boston University coach Jack Parker, who was courted
for the Bruins' job in 1997. "You see a lot more Scotty Bowman
types than [former player and recently dismissed Blackhawks
coach] Dirk Graham types." Six of the top eight teams as of
Sunday, including Bowman's Red Wings, have coaches who never
played in the league.

Designing a throttling defense has become even more important
with the close of the regular season approaching and playoff
berths at a premium. Coaches are mindful that failing to reach
the revenue-generating postseason could cost them their jobs.
"Some teams are so defensive-minded that even when they get the
puck, they want to get back," says Maple Leafs coach Pat Quinn,
whose team is one of the few that plays a wide-open style. "You
have a mental framework built in that almost takes the adventure
out of the players."

One immutable trait of NHL coaches, no matter how well schooled
they've become, is their eagerness to follow a successful trend.
"Everybody's playing the trap because that's what's winning,"
says Flames defenseman Derek Morris. "The straight offense ain't
winning." No, but it sure would be fun to watch.

Chess-Playing Sharks

The Sharks' most avid checkers are more likely to do damage with
their rooks than with their forearms. "We're total chess
freaks," says forward Joe Murphy. "Either we're playing it, or
we're talking about it."

Murphy and his fellow pawn stars--winger Owen Nolan, defenseman
Bob Rouse and goalie Steve Shields--have been battling for the
title of team grandmaster since Rouse brought a chess set on San
Jose's 17-day road trip last month. Shrugging off taunts from
card-playing teammates, the foursome play on every flight and
refine their skills at a cafe in nearby Los Gatos where chess
players gather.

One recent evening Shields became so upset at losing a
best-of-five showdown to Murphy (who promptly went into a
victory dance) that he stormed from the cafe. "The better you
are, the more fun chess is," says Shields. "Some of the guys in
the cafe are awesome. Of course, they don't know who we are.
Chess players aren't big hockey fans."

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO Not even Lindros, the league's No. 2 scorer, has been able to get the Flyers back on their feet.




G Jeff Hackett
1998-99 salary: $950,000
Playing for a bad team, he had a 3.78 goals-against average and
an .871 save percentage in 10 games before being traded to
Montreal in November.

G Jeff Hackett
1998-99 salary: $950,000
Playing for a bad team, he had a 2.29 goals-against average and a
.914 save percentage in 46 games with Montreal through Sunday.