Even though tonight’s game is just like any other December NHL contest on its surface, this is a big one for me personally, because it marks the first time that I’ve set foot in the building (for a Flyers game or for any other reason) since February 1, 2020. Their opponent that night? Also the Colorado Avalanche. And my oh my, how things have diverged for these two clubs since then.
In a game that I wrote up a piece for on this site, Alex Lyon got the start in net for the Flyers, as Carter Hart was out with an injury and Brian Elliott had played the night before in an overtime loss at Pittsburgh (Sidney Crosby scored that winner, so I suppose some things haven’t changed). But on this particular Saturday night, the Wells Fargo Center was hopping, a party atmosphere with 19,745 in attendance on the night before the Super Bowl. Gritty even dressed like Andy Reid for the occasion. Lyon played very well, the Flyers got a pair of goals from Joel Farabee and Kevin Hayes, and they won the game 6-3.
The Philadelphia Flyers and Colorado Avalanche have gone in vastly different directions over the past three years.
It was all part of a months-long excellent stretch of hockey by the Flyers, one that reinvigorated the club and its fans. The Flyers were outplaying teams on a nightly basis, and they were even getting luck to go their way in the form of good players on good teams screwing up in the shootout. Their fine play saw them surge up the Eastern Conference standings and ride a 9-game winning streak into the first week of March. We were all gearing up for an exciting playoff run.
And then the world stopped.
The NHL did its best to throw together the “playoff bubbles” when hockey returned almost five months later in the wake of the Covid pandemic. But it felt as fake as anything I used to stage in my basement with those old hockey pencils or Sport Brat keychains when I was nine years old.
It’s precisely because of this that I was convinced that the Flyers would actually win the Stanley Cup that summer, as it seemed fitting that they would finally end a 45-year drought in front of zero fans and when parades weren’t even allowed. I honestly wasn’t even upset when they were eliminated in a Game 7 loss to the New York Islanders in the second round. Even though the playoffs were artificial, the Flyers looked like a tenacious young club that would be prepared for the next step once things came back for real.
We’re still waiting.
Sadly, those 16 games that the Flyers played in the bubble constitute most of the NHL “playoff experience” ever garnered by the likes of Ivan Provorov, Travis Konecny, and Travis Sanheim, and ALL of the “playoff experience” that Carter Hart and Joel Farabee have to date.
On the flip side, the Avalanche also reached the second round of those bubble playoffs but then remained strong the following year by capturing the President’s Trophy after posting the league’s best record during the regular season. They did get bounced in the second round of the playoffs once again, but they were, of course, finally able to slay the dragon by winning the Stanley Cup last season.
Along the way, Colorado saw defenseman Cale Makar (taken two picks after the Flyers selected Nolan Patrick in 2017) turn into a bona fide superstar, the kind of player that the Flyers haven’t come close to developing in a long time or perhaps ever. Throw in the likes of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and others, and Colorado remains set for years to come. I would say that it’s unfair for some teams to have an embarrassment of riches while others have such a paucity of talent, but I have no sympathy for the situation that the Flyers have put themselves in. They truly earned this.
During the 2019-20 season, the Flyers topped 19,000 fans 13 times, and only once did they draw fewer than 16,000 for any of their 35 home games. People were legitimately excited. Thus far in 2022-23, the Flyers have eclipsed 19,000 fans only twice (the home opener and the Black Friday game), and they’ve had an attendance below 16,000 fans five times in their 12 home games to date. I’d say that’s less than ideal. And it’s because of fans like me. We just haven’t been showing up.
To be fair, part of the reason that I didn’t attend a Flyers home game in almost three years was that I literally couldn’t for a chunk of that. All of the empty building/social distance rules that saw such a slow return to normalcy for the NHL made it more trouble than it was worth. I may have felt differently if the team were showing any signs of life, the organizational brain trust any semblance of a plan.
The truth is, however, they have been so bad, so unwatchable, and so hopelessly inept since the start of the 2020-21 season that there has been no real draw to go. And I’m far from alone in that regard, as even the diehards have become numb to the team at this point in time. We have been robbed even of the ability to get mad when our team loses, because that sort of reaction indicates that you at least had some expectation to win. I long for that feeling to return.
All of this serves as a way for me to announce my return to “The Well”, “The Big House”, or whatever you want to call it. I’m back, Wells Fargo Center. And I hope that the Flyers will, at some point, start giving me a reason to want to show up before another three years pass. I don’t expect a win tonight, but I at least expect the kind of effort and a few sparks of excitement to show fans like myself that there is hope for something better around the corner eventually.