Thursday, October 04, 2018
Once the Flyers’ by-example leader, Rod Brind’Amour set to begin head-coaching career
Soon after Chris Therien arrived in Philadelphia as a rookie in early 1995, he walked into a gym.
"And there was Rod Brind'Amour," he said. "Where I saw him that day is where he was every day."
That's hardly hyperbole. The legendary Flyers center, a key factor in the Flyers' 1990s ascendance, had already long since developed his reputation as a workout fiend by the time that lockout-shortened season — the first in which he led Flyers to the playoffs — came around.
It was a reputation that would last throughout his 20-year NHL career, an epic tale of fitness and dedication that featured one Stanley Cup and two Selke Trophies with Carolina and almost 1,200 total points across his tenures with the St. Louis Blues, Flyers, and Hurricanes.
And it endures even now, going on two decades since his last appearance in the Orange and Black and entering the first months of his time as an NHL head coach, having taken over for Bill Peters in Raleigh this offseason.
There was, of course, more to Rod "The Bod" Brind'Amour than just, well, his bod — even if his ultra-serious public persona never displayed much of it. Keith Jones, who played alongside Brind'Amour in his last two seasons in Philly, remembers him as the guy who dressed up with him as Kiss rockers for Halloween, not just as the stoic leader he was on the ice.
Few realized he would find a second career in coaching after his playing days ended, if only because that's not something one really considers during the daily grind and Brind'Amour's playing days seemed somewhat endless anyway. As Ron Hextall, a teammate for seven years, put it, "When you're a young guy yourself and you're looking at your teammates, you're not thinking of guys as coaches."
But now as Brind'Amour begins his first season — his first game, his first introduction, his first shift as the behind-the-bench caller of shots rather than on-the-ice shot-taker — as the boss in Carolina, the fact that the now-48-year-old's hockey career has led him to this new challenge surprises no one in the Flyers organization.
"He's got a lot of the intangibles that give you instant respect from your players," Hextall said. "I think he's going to do a good job — I really do."
The mentality: No down days
The big numbers and big profiles — and big controversies — of the likes of Eric Lindros, Mark Recchi, and John LeClair throughout the 1990s kept Brind'Amour consistently relegated to a second-tier (and second-line) role.
He didn't mind, and he churned out big numbers anyway. Six years of 74 or more points; a career-high 97-point campaign in 1993-94; 21 points in 19 games during the 1997 playoff run to the Stanley Cup Finals. That Finals run, Brind'Amour's first long drink of the postseason water he would thrive on later in his career, was the undeniable high point of his nine-year Flyers tenure.
"We basically blew through everybody," Brind'Amour told the Inquirer recently. "It's fun to go into a game or a season where you know if you play well, you're going to win — it doesn't matter what the other team does. That was the feeling we had that year."
As respected as Brind'Amour was for his offensive output, though, he was more respected for his play as a forward in the defensive and neutral zones, and respected most of all for his durability. His ironman streak of 484 consecutive games played, including six full seasons in a row, remains the Flyers' all-time record.
That was possible only because of his steadfast commitment to training, a commitment that dated back to his college hockey days at Michigan State. The story of the Spartans coaching staff padlocking the arena doors to make sure Brind'Amour couldn't work out on off-days has been told and retold so many times that it's become the centerpiece of all-time Brind'Amour lore.
His behavior in Philadelphia wasn't much different.
"His work ethic every day, quite frankly, was mind-boggling," Hextall said. "Everybody would occasionally, just like on the ice, have a down day in the gym. Rod Brind'Amour just didn't have the mentality of having a down day."
Brind'Amour himself concedes he was a bit ahead of his time in his workout routines, the equivalent of a LaVar Ball boast for a man so humble.
His daily cycle of weightlifting, skating, and everything in between was not so much overwhelming in a single instance, but rather was in its regularity: With the exception of a "couple days" at the end of each season, he did it for 20 straight years. He claims he recorded his best physical testing numbers of his career in his very last season, at age 39.
"You're getting paid to play, but it's a year-round job and I really took that to heart, back when it wasn't so in vogue," he said. "I felt, in my mind, like I was leaving everything I could not to chance."
That mentality and regimen soon rubbed off on the rest of the Flyers.
"When another player sees that in a teammate, their challenge is to try to match it," Therien said. "He made every other person in the locker room accountable to himself to be in as good a shape as possible. He taught them how to work."
When Jones arrived in the fall of 1998, he also felt that accountability emanate from Brind'Amour, the most intense man he ever met. Yet he also saw another side of No. 17: a leader who had grown more vocal as he developed his veteran status, an amicable motivator and friend with more angles than the single-sided workout robot he was often framed as.
Brind'Amour was not always "Mr. Serious," as Therien terms his image, but a real character with a "great hidden sense of humor," said Jones. He was certainly usually quiet — that was no mirage — but he was not always. That personality has come to the forefront more in Brind'Amour's post-retirement speeches, but it remains a relatively undiscovered aspect of the Flyer great.
Lasting Philadelphia legacy
In the end, Brind'Amour theorizes that his iron man streak — not exactly the streak itself, but the mindset behind it — became his undoing in Philadelphia. Attempting to push through an ankle fracture to play in the 1999-00 season opener, he "ended up displacing a whole bunch of bones, and probably took a two-week injury and turned it into three, four, five months."
Sidelined for a while, he was "out of sight, out of mind," Brind'Amour said, and general manager Bobby Clarke traded him to the Hurricanes midseason for Keith Primeau.
Clarke still today says he doesn't regret the trade: "Sometimes you make deals where you don't like giving up the player you are giving up, but you have to," he said.
Brind'Amour still ranks 10th in Flyers history in goals (235), eighth in assists (366), and — less officially yet more notably — pretty close to first in popularity. For a man born in Ottawa, raised in British Columbia, and drafted by St. Louis, Brind'Amour came to symbolize Philly as much as an non-Philadelphian ever could.
"He's beloved by the fans still," Therien said. "I still see Rod Brind'Amour jerseys in the stands at every same game, you'll see them popping around, and that speaks for the blue-collarness of the city of Philadelphia. … They like to root for that hardworking type of guy that never gives up, and I think Rod Brind'Amour personified that type of player."
And not just popular with fans, either.
Former Flyers winger Bob Kelly, now a Flyers Alumni Association board member, remembers Brind'Amour as one of the few players who actively reached out to and engaged the alumni. "He really typified the meaning behind the Flyers' logo," said Kelly, echoing Therien.
Brind'Amour was also close with late Flyers owner Ed Snider, whose influence he spoke about at length during his 2015 Flyers Hall of Fame induction speech. That was a speech that even Clarke, who said he saw only the quiet side of Brind'Amour in his role, described as "very, very impressive."
"I was the one guy, back there when I was playing, that lived there year-round. And I worked out with the young kids and did everything to be a Flyer and do it right," Brind'Amour said in a rare moment of self-praise. "I loved every day that I was there."
As head coach, a new challenge
For all of his accomplishments in Philadelphia, Brind'Amour will always be most remembered around the league for his time in Raleigh, where he finally reached the NHL's mountaintop in 2006 and has spent all of his coaching days since retiring in 2010.
In early May, culminating a spring of fast-and-furious front office and coaching staff turnover in Carolina, Brind'Amour was named the Hurricanes' new head coach. He inherits a team that has missed the playoffs for nine consecutive seasons, the last seven with Brind'Amour as an assistant under Paul Maurice, Kirk Muller, and Bill Peters.
"When you play for a long time, you think you know everything. Then you get on the other side of it, get into coaching, get behind the scenes, and you learn this is a whole different animal," Brind'Amour said. "I feel like I've taken a pretty good apprenticeship the past seven years on how to do it, and now you take that and put your own spin on everything."
With Peters resigning to take the Calgary job after the season, Brind'Amour realized he was ready to "put my name in the hat to try to do it for real." As far as what his "own spin" will be, he said he'll attempt to bridge the great stylistic gap between what he sees as the two main categories of NHL head coaches: career coaches like Peters and Maurice, and players-turned-coaches such as him and Muller.
It understandably won't be an easy task. The turnover rate for NHL head coaches is remarkably high; Out of the 31 in the league, only one has been with his current team for more than five years. And Brind'Amour gets that.
"When you sign up for it, you know the ending," he said. "You're not taking this job for security. You're taking it for the opportunity to bring [Carolina] back to the top, where it was for a while, and that's really my goal."
For the record, though, his old friends and teammates are steadfast in their belief that if anyone can buck that trend, it's a man as knowledgeable, as hardworking, and as likeable as Brind'Amour.
"The way that he approached the game, loved the game, [coaching is] a natural fit for him," Kelly said.
"When you're looking at a guy that you know played the game at a high level, that hoisted the Stanley Cup as a captain, it's built-in respect immediately, and I think that's really what Rod's big gift for the team is," Therien said. "He can say, 'I've been here, I've done this, and I'm now going to show you guys how to do that.'"
Jones, though, perhaps put it best of all.
"There's no doubt that he was going to be, if he decided to … one of the coaches in the National Hockey League," he said. "Rod didn't have to say [things] a lot, but when he spoke, it really hit home in the way that he was able to pinpoint exactly what it was that needed to be done."
Flyers position previews: Left wing now a strength • Competitive group of centers • If Wayne Simmonds is right, so is that side of the ice • Power play looks improved, but penalty kill has questions • Defense has strength and experience, but is it enough? • Goalie injuries wreak havoc on depth chart