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October 14, 2005 - Sam Donnellon | Postlockout NHL may miss sentimental factor

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Sam Donnellon | Postlockout NHL may miss sentimental factor

THEY CALL it "playing for the sweater.'' It would sound corny out of the mouth of most professional athletes, but when an NHL player says it - usually with a scar somewhere visible on his face and sometimes a stain of blood on the brand - you never doubt the sincerity.

So, at a time when Terrell Owens walks out of an Eagles locker room after a lopsided loss in a Michael Irvin jersey, at a time when it is fashionable for NBA players of one team to wear the shirts of another, at a time when Billy Wagner is about to run the Phillies' contract offer up against those of the Yankees, Mets and Red Sox, and at a time when John LeClair and Mark Recchi return to a town they bled and broke down wearing Penguins sweaters, it seems timely to ask:

Is "playing for the sweater'' going the way of the neutral-zone trap?

Will "playing for the sweater'' soon sound as corny, feigned and insincere coming from the mouth of a hockey player as it now would coming from the players of those other sports?

"Unfortunately, this lockout has changed things,'' new Flyer and former Devil Turner Stevenson was saying after practice yesterday. "It used to be where our sport was one in which you could build a team and hold onto it. Now there won't be any more of that. When kids are 25 or 26, they're going to try to go to a good team, sure, but if they have to go play in Carolina or Anaheim because they can get $2 million more, they're not staying in Philadelphia. I don't care who you are. That's life.''

Life in the prelockout NHL consisted of haves and have-nots. Playing for one of the original six, or for a tradition-rich club like the Flyers, was the best of both worlds. You got a little more coin than you might have received in a place like Carolina, you got a few more perks, too.

And you felt the tradition.

There is still that among the more tradition-rich teams. As Flyers captain Keith Primeau, who has played for three clubs, said yesterday, "I want people, when they think of me, to think of me as a Philadelphia Flyer. I take great pride on being a member of the Philadelphia Flyers and I take great pride being the captain of the Philadelphia Flyers. And I would never want that understated.''

No understatement intended. Just the recognition that the contentious lockout that killed one season of these players' lives, and now limits what they can get financially, might taper enthusiasm.

At least in some places.

"I think that on a lot of the teams it probably is lost,'' said Flyers goalie Robert Esche, who was traded here from Phoenix in 2002.

Just not here, says Esche, echoing Primeau's sentiment.

"I made the comment when I first came here that every player should experience playing for the Flyers,'' he said. "The pressure is built up so much to win and succeed. Mr. [Ed] Snider comes in and shakes your hand after a win or loss. When you lose, you can sense that he feels it. That he just went through what you did. Maybe not physically, but definitely emotionally and mentally.''

Is it worth money? It probably depends on the individual. More than any other area pro team, perhaps, the Flyers have former players who have remained in the area and have embraced it.

So when Primeau says, "I know when I pull the jersey on now, there's kids everywhere I go who want to grow up to be a Philadelphia Flyer,'' you realize he has seen the other side of that, where there was no adulation or emulation in a place like Raleigh.

"There's community pride in this team,'' he said. "I'm pulling that sweater on for them, too.''

Says coach Ken Hitchcock, who has served two stints in the Flyers' organization and also in the Edmonton and Dallas organizations: "There's a tradition that organizations have where that stuff is very important. Because of [Bob Clarke] here, when you lace 'em up here you know you better be prepared to make sacrifices or you won't be around. That's the attitude that he has, and that's the attitude that he brings forth in us as coaches.''

As Esche said, it is double-edged. It creates pressure. It creates expectation. The question in this new age of cost containment is, does it still create desire.

"In the end you're not sacrificing for the sweater,'' Hitchcock says. "You are sacrificing for the person sitting next to you. You are saying to him, 'I will go into uncomfortable areas for you.' Now, easy thing to say, hard thing to do. But when you get it, it's like gold. For whatever reason, when you get that inside the locker room, you just feel like you'll never lose.''