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April 18, 2006 - Flyers need players to assume leadership roles

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WHEN HE HIT the ice for practice yesterday, Ken Hitchcock made a beeline toward a familiar figure stretching along the boards. He started yapping, the player started shaking his head, and the two continued what seemed to be an animated conversation while they skated around the SkateZone rink.

"He's not looking for my opinion,'' Keith Primeau would say later. "He knows what to fix and how to fix it when something isn't working. He was more expressing that than asking my opinion. And I was just agreeing with him.''

Primeau is a believer. There was a time when he wasn't, or at least a point when he thought his coach was more salesman than savant, but that incredible playoff run of 2004 changed all that, as it changed Philadelphia's impression of Primeau as well.

Primeau, therefore, would be the perfect conduit between the coach and "the room'' in this season of transition, a season where injuries (like his concussion) have catapulted younger players into more prominent roles and pushed newcomers into purported leadership roles.

But you can't do it from the press box and you can't do it from your living room. Those are the two places you will find Primeau during Flyers games. "Hitch and I have a good working relationship, coach to player,'' Primeau said. "I like to believe I understand what he's trying to express. But it's not my place. It can't be a part-time job. You've got to find the voices in there.''

"In there'' has been a foggy place for much of this season, and particularly this win-one-lose-one second half. When he was healthy, Peter Forsberg did his part by example, the best player busting his butt, banging around, making second efforts. But as Primeau says, you can't do it part time, and Forsberg's recurring injuries have reduced his ability to lead. When he is in the lineup even now, the Flyers usually have more than 40 minutes of fight in them. When he's sitting with Primeau, though, this is a team that looks like it was slapped together that day.

It is stunning to see in a Hitchcock team. As Primeau says, he's a fix-it guy, and for most of this season, he has been proud of his work. But he might have used up all his motivational bullets in getting the team this far. Yesterday, he spoke hopefully of his team processing this season's adversity in time to use it for an all-out playoff run, the way that '04 team did.

"We've shown the ability to do it,'' he said of his current team. "We know it's there. We've just got to pull it out.

"The process for me is you play and act like champions and you're 2-0 and then 4-0. Now next night, you're down 2-0. How are you going to play? Where are you going to go? You've got to keep going. Great teams are not easily discouraged. It can't be manufactured, it can't be bought, it's got to be created. Sometimes you have to run into a ton of walls. We have already run into those walls and come out. We've already lost the captain, lost the star player, blah, blah, blah. Who cares? All those lessons. Now what we're trying to create is a fighting spirit. This is an opportunity that I don't want us to pass up.''

He sounded tired when he finished, not fired up. He has told his team this. He has preached it for more than a month now. As is the case with all listless-looking teams, there is at least the suggestion that they have tuned him out.

If so, they would do well to listen to Primeau one last time.

He's been there. If this was 2003 and not 2006, no one around here would have the gall to suggest that the loss of Primeau back in late October is the biggest reason this team is still more slush than substance on the eve of the postseason. If this was 2003 and not 2006, there would even be the suggestion that the well-quoted captain was part of a dressing-room malaise, not the coaching conduit he is seen as today.

He has failed miserably and succeeded spectacularly and he has felt the range of our emotions, both good and bad. He can tell them, the rookies and the big-money free agents, what it's like around here after one of our teams goes out with a whimper and not a bang.

It's not nice. It's not pretty. And if they think they've faced adversity, well...

They just have no idea how ugly it can get around here.