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May 12, 2004 - Flyers follow Hitchcock's system

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Flyers follow Hitchcock's system

VOORHEES, N.J. (AP) - Ken Hitchcock was a few days into his job as the Philadelphia Flyers' coach when he saw captain Keith Primeau walk by his office several times.


The problem? Primeau was giving the new boss the silent treatment.


``He wouldn't talk to me for seven days,'' Hitchcock recalled while preparing his team for Thursday's game against the Tampa Bay Lightning. ``Finally, we went and had lunch together. I just told him that after talking it over with some people who I trusted here, I felt he was the best choice for captain.''


The perception was that Primeau wasn't going to fit in with Hitchcock, a taskmaster who previously persuaded the veteran-laden Dallas Stars to buy into his two-way system. Hitchcock helped the Stars win the Stanley Cup in 1999 and led them back to the finals a year later.


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Dallas lost in the second round in 2001, and Hitchcock was done in Texas 50 games into the following season.


Primeau was coming off his first season as Flyers' captain in 2002 - but that was under coach Bill Barber, fired after a players' revolt after a first-round loss.


``I was in a situation where I was confrontational with the former coach, so for a new coach it's a dangerous situation,'' Primeau said Wednesday.


The feeling was that Hitchcock would start rebuilding the fractured team by getting rid of Primeau and finding players who would be willing to follow the coach.


Little did Primeau know, Hitchcock already considered him one of those guys.


``When Hitch first arrived here he allowed himself to form his own opinion,'' Primeau said. ``He didn't rush to any judgments. That allowed me to form a relationship with him, and ever since then it's grown.''


Hitchcock gave Primeau plenty to learn, providing books and other reading material about leadership.


``I've always said I'm not going to change the way I play, the way I approach the game, the way I approach my teammates,'' Primeau said. ``But to see those things in writing, to see things said by former players, former captains, former leaders, it just helped me and inspired me.''


Primeau might just be the Flyers' MVP so far in the playoffs.


When they lost a 2-0 lead against Toronto in the second round, Hitchcock called out his leaders to pick up their play.


Primeau responded at the start of Game 5, throwing his body around to set the tone and scoring three goals to pace a 7-2 victory. The series was over two nights later in Toronto.


Hitchcock's first season with the Flyers ended with a second straight playoff loss to Ottawa. It was during end-of-year interviews that the coach realized the team hadn't totally accepted his message.


``If it's not being sold within the room, I have no impact on what happens on the ice because I am ... selling to somebody that's not buying,'' Hitchcock said. ``This is a group that buys.''


In Dallas, a first-round ouster by Edmonton in 1997 helped him sell his message to Mike Modano and captain Derian Hatcher.


After Philadelphia's loss to Ottawa in 2003, Hitchcock needed veterans such as Primeau, John LeClair and Mark Recchi to realize that they weren't the players who scored at least 30 goals in a season anymore. If they wanted to stay, they had to reinvent themselves and play to the strengths they had now.


``They had to become two-way players,'' said Hitchcock, adding that Recchi is now on a checking line. ``If you were a 100-point guy five, six, eight years ago, or a 50- or 60-goal scorer, too bad. You are what you are today.''


Primeau had to be the first to say OK.


``I just felt that if I bought into whatever Hitch asked me to, there could be no complaints in the locker room,'' Primeau said.


Hitchcock already had an ally in Recchi, an overachieving, undersized player he coached in juniors.


``It's not just an individual, it's a number of guys who have to buy into a message and keep that message going on,'' the 36-year-old Recchi said. ``Keith's our captain, and he's got to be No. 1 to want to believe in that, and after that, it does filter.''


And when Primeau was lost for most of the final quarter of the regular season with a concussion, Hitchcock had a handle on the rest of the locker room.


When numerous defencemen went down, including former captain Eric Desjardins, Danny Markov and Vladimir Malakhov were brought into the mix successfully.


It took last year's playoff disappointment to get things moving in the right direction. Now, tied 1-1 with the Lightning, the Flyers are three wins from the Stanley Cup finals.


And Hitchcock's players are starting to sound like him.


``I take that as a compliment,'' Recchi said, laughing. ``He's a pretty smart hockey man.''