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October 5, 2005 - Primeau, Hitchcock on same page

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Primeau, Hitchcock on same page

VOORHEES - In the culture of Ken Hitchcock's coaching world, where preseason team-building exercises and leadership lessons could be the X-factors that help the Flyers finally win another Stanley Cup, the line between team captain and Tupperware-party host can blur.

Already, Keith Primeau has had to introduce new teammates to each other, counsel the Flyers' seven first- and second-year players, arrange dinners among players and their spouses, and, according to Hitchcock, break up an ethnic-based exchange of fighting words between a Czech and a Slovak. And the real games haven't even started yet.

"He sure has had to do a lot of work," Hitchcock, the Flyers' head coach, said Tuesday. "I think this is about as hard as Keith's worked to get things intact here."

The last time we saw the Flyers playing a game that counted - May 22, 2004, the date of their loss to Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference Finals - there was no denying that they were Keith Primeau's team. He had scored nine goals during that playoff run, each more important than the last, and had become the living, breathing, skating embodiment of what the Flyers' coach wanted and expected out of his team and his captain.

He had been the ringleader of a group of grumpy veterans who had chased Bill Barber out of town, and here he was, leading Mark Recchi and John LeClair and Jeremy Roenick with his example. He was Hitchock's philosophy distilled into one man on the ice, and the Flyers made their longest postseason push in four years because of that. They were a better team for Primeau following Hitchcock as he did.

Now, the Flyers are different, younger, quieter. Tonight, against the New York Rangers, they begin their first season of blade-running since the NHL lockout ended, and new faces are everywhere, including Peter Forsberg's and Derian Hatcher's and Jeff Carter's.

Oh, yes, the dynamic is different. Recchi, LeClair, Roenick and Tony Amonte are gone. Carter, Mike Richards and Antero Niittymaki are here for their first full seasons in the NHL. Hatcher was the captain in Dallas under Hitchcock, and Forsberg could have been a captain in Colorado, but they and the other newly acquired veterans are still adjusting - to a new team, to new rules, to everything.

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So perhaps, it was suggested to Primeau, his role has to change.

"It doesn't," he said. "I still have responsibilities in this locker room. A guy like Peter, who's won wherever he's been, will help relieve some of that burden. So will guys like Derian, Mike Knuble and Turner Stevenson. The personnel change the dynamic. That's all."

Primeau's place in the locker room, then, is as important as it was in '04, and if there is an occasional whisper wafting among the other players that he is a yes man for Hitchcock, he insists it doesn't bother him.

"Because I play for my teammates," he said. "My role is to play for my teammates. The relationship that any player forms with a coach shouldn't precede what the role of a captain is. I don't know if you can [keep from being regarded that way]. It's never crossed my mind as far as becoming an issue. Hitch and I have a personal relationship, but I also do understand that he's the head coach of the hockey club."

Across the street from the Wachovia Center, of course, the relationship between a coach and his locker-room leader has been under more scrutiny - and has had to withstand much more in-house criticism. Remember, it wasn't long ago that Terrell Owens was blasting Donovan McNabb, accusing him of being a lackey and pet to Andy Reid, calling him a "company man," insinuating he was too close to Reid for his teammates' comfort.

To Hitchcock, T.O. had it all wrong. Reid and McNabb, just like himself and Primeau, can't be close enough.

"I think you have to embrace it, not avoid it," Hitchcock said. "The coach-captain relationship has to be paramount if you're going to have successful teams. To me, knowing Andy, if Donovan doesn't like something, he's got to knock on Andy's door and talk to him. Keith's the same way with me. You have to have that relationship because if there are problems on a team, I'm going to him right away, wanting to know how we're going to solve these problems."

After all, this isn't a Tupperware party Hitchcock is talking about. This is serious business. This is about a 30-year span in Philadelphia without a Stanley Cup, and about what he and his captain can do this season to end it.