PHILADELPHIA -- Back when, after Paul Holmgren first got the job as the Flyers' general manager, he was sitting in his office and talking about scouting and player development, the part of his old job that he really loved. The team's organizational philosophy is that the scouts run the draft and, as assistant general manager, that left him with a lot of say in the process. He was the guy who mediated among the scouts' competing opinions -- seeing young players, checking on conflicting assessments, offering the final seal of approval on a kid, overseeing the draft and then mother-henning the Phantoms.
Bob Clarke liked a lot of that same stuff, and grew to despise the contracts and the agents and the rest. Holmgren knew that. They are different people, but they are children of the same orange and black womb -- and when Clarke walked away in 2006 and Holmgren took over, it was with eyes wide open.
But it also was with a hope, stated in the office back that day and again Tuesday, when the Flyers extended his contract for three more years.
"I like getting out to see junior games," he said. "I like going to college games. When Clarkie stepped down, I swear I made a vow in my own mind to not get away from doing that, but the nature of the job sometimes, it's kept me from doing as much as I'd like to do. It's something I still think about. I want to get out there and do that.
"But I was perfectly happy doing that. Clarkie's still a good friend of mine. I still talk to him on a daily basis. If this never happened, I would have been very comfortable."
He is an interesting character, with a personality that is equal parts modesty and competitiveness. He has a quietly funny sense of humor, but Holmgren also can exhibit a middle-aged, suit-and-tie version of the rugged toughness that defined his playing career. Peter Luukko, the president and chief operating officer of Comcast-Spectacor, says he has had a player come up to him and ask if Holmgren ever smiled.
This was the man who was entrusted to shepherd the retooling of the franchise after Clarke resigned in 2006. Along the way, he would do the big things like acquire defenseman Chris Pronger, and he also would have to fire his friend, John Stevens, in order to hire Peter Laviolette as coach.
But back in 2006, Luukko said Holmgren was hired for his familiarity and also for his vision.
"You could see he saw the future," said Luukko, who added that he talked to Clarke, who gave Holmgren his endorsement. Luukko remembered him saying, "He's ready, he's good ... but he's a Flyer."
And then, when they talked about that future, Luukko looked at what Holmgren envisioned and said, "It was a plan, but it was also a Flyer plan."
People sometimes make fun of the way the Flyers swaddle themselves in their history -- and there have been periods when they had the wrong team for the times because of their emphasis on physicality.
But these are not those times. Today, the style works. These are times in the evolution of the NHL where an aggressive, forechecking style like Laviolette's perfectly meshes with an organization where, as Holmgren said, "Part of being a Flyer is bringing your lunch pail to work."
It is more complicated than that, though. Because while you can play Flyers hockey and win in 2011, you can only do it if you have defensemen who can handle the puck and skate. The aggression that Laviolette's style evokes is a skating aggression most of all -- the hits and the rest are just a byproduct of the fact that they have players who get to a particular spot on the ice first, and do it a high percentage of the time.
The point being: Holmgren's recognition of that defensive imperative is what has turned this into a championship-caliber team -- that and the marrying of the personnel to Laviolette's insistent style.
It hasn't all been perfect. Holmgren had a terrible time with the salary cap a couple of seasons back, and last year was an excruciating ordeal for months, before the magic run to the Stanley Cup finals. But in the general-managing business, really in every sport, it is all about the batting average -- and Holmgren's is impressive. Just look at the roster, with such balanced scoring and such a deep defense.
In the end, it really is all about knowing what a player looks like. And somewhere, you have to think at least part of the reason Paul Holmgren has proven to be so good at it is all of those hops from Oshawa to Peterborough, all of those trips to Hull and back.