In a hockey-mad city with a history of riding standout young goalies to Stanley Cup Finals, former Everett Silvertips netminder Carter Hart has Philadelphia Flyers fans dreaming anew. But the bar of expectations is sure to rise on Hart after an impressive start.
Inside the NHL
Parker Fowlds had just arrived back home in Everett from Philadelphia and the Brotherly Love circus surrounding one Carter Hart.
At age 78, the former office-supplies store owner has billeted Everett Silvertips junior players for 16 years, including a recent 3½ spent hosting all-star goaltender Hart, who won his first two Philadelphia Flyers debut games last week. Edmonton native Hart made sure Fowlds — whom he has affectionately dubbed “Gramps” — was on hand, putting him up with his parents at a suburban New Jersey hotel and giving him VIP access to the hottest hockey show in town.
“The crowd just went nuts for him,’’ Fowlds said of Hart’s debut 3-2 victory Tuesday over the Detroit Red Wings. “By the end of the game, they were screaming and shouting. I haven’t heard that kind of response from a crowd at a hockey game in a long, long time. It was just a big circus.’’
Tough to believe a guy ‘Tips fans could see for discounted weeknight tickets last winter is now the biggest thing in Philadelphia hockey since mascot Gritty sprang from his mother’s orange womb. “After that first game, they had him so high up,’’ Fowlds said. “They were saying ‘We finally have a goalie!’ ’’
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And that’s part of the blessing and curse Hart, all of age 20, will face in a hockey city that has seen young netminders before. The Flyers for the longest time used to produce seeming generational goalie talents every few years.
Bernie Parent was 29 when he backstopped the Flyers to the first of two Stanley Cup titles in 1974 and 1975, but was a grizzled veteran compared with what came next. Rookie Pete Peeters went 29-5-5 in 1980, helping the Flyers to the league’s best overall record and a Cup Final trip where they narrowly lost in six games to the New York Islanders.
Next, it was Pelle Lindbergh by his third season in 1985 winning the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goalie and taking the Flyers to the Final, where Edmonton beat them in five. And then, in 1987, it was rookie Ron Hextall winning the Vezina and guiding the Flyers to the Final against Edmonton again before losing in seven and getting named the Conn Smythe Trophy playoff MVP.
Hextall would serve two stints with the Flyers, returning them to the Final in 1997.
Hart was born the following year as Hextall prepared for his final NHL season and Flyers fans have awaited the next chapter ever since; their team having lost six straight championship series since those two mid-1970s titles.
It’s a 44-year title drought that haunts an otherwise marquee franchise, spawning some desperation behind the Hart mania. Flyers fans know they haven’t had one of those generational goalies since Hextall hung up his blocker and pads for good.
So, they were giddy when Hextall, by then the team’s general manager, selected Hart with his second round, 48thoverall pick in 2016 — figuring a onetime standout goalie could spot another future NHL star.
Hart fueled their optimism by leading Canada to gold at the World Junior Hockey Championships in January. Last spring, he carried his Silvertips to the Western Hockey League final.
He was named Canadian Hockey League Goaltender of the Year for an unprecedented second straight season. A strong showing in Flyers training camp, followed by the team’s stumbling start — and Hextall’s firing last month — had fans clamoring for the Hart era to begin.
The firing last week of coach Dave Hakstol, with the Flyers last in the Eastern Conference, made Hart’s ensuing debut a needed lifeline for the floundering franchise to grasp. Hart practically got a standing ovation after his first save.
“Yeah, that was kind of funny,” Hart told reporters afterward. “It was just like a toe save and they’re going nuts.”
By the time he’d vanquished the Nashville Predators 2-1 last Thursday, Flyers fans everywhere were convinced Hart was the second coming of Lindbergh and Hextall combined.
“They had billboards that were all saying ‘We’ve got Hart!’,’’ Fowlds said. “You just go down the street. There was one doughnut shop with a sign that said ‘We’ve got dough. And we’ve got Hart!’ ’’
While dining at “a fancy restaurant’’ in New Jersey, staff members spotted Hart and posed for photographs. At coffee shops, random strangers approached — one of them even recognizing Fowlds from the scores of interviews in which Hart mentioned him. “One guy came up and said, ‘You’re Gramps, right?’ And I said ‘Yeah,’ ’’ Fowlds said, chuckling.
Still, for all the historical comparisons, it’s worth remembering Hextall and Peeters were two years older than Hart as rookies, while Lindbergh was three. All had better teams in front of them, too, and even then, their NHL futures weren’t always secure.
Peeters never regained his rookie form for Philadelphia, though he enjoyed a subsequent Vezina Trophy season in Boston before fading out there and in Washington. Lindbergh, as many know, died shortly after a single-car, alcohol-impaired crash just months removed from his 1985 Cup Final appearance.
And Hextall never quite repeated his rookie exploits, though he remained above average before being traded to Quebec in the 1992 Eric Lindros blockbuster swap and later had a career-ending flourish upon returning to Philadelphia.
It gets tougher from here for Hart, who, with some unlucky bounces, could easily have started 0-2 instead of 2-0. Those bounces didn’t go his way Saturday, when Hart allowed four goals on 23 shots in a 4-3 home defeat to Columbus.
Let’s face it: Hart isn’t taking these rebuilding Flyers to the Cup Final as a rookie like Hextall or Peeters; indeed, he’d probably get thrown a parade just for making the playoffs.
But Fowlds said Hart has the modesty and composure to handle Philadelphia pressure; his confidence maturing from the reclusive teenager who initially had to be prodded from his bedroom to the family dinner table in Everett to socialize. “There’s always pressure,’’ Fowlds said. “But as he likes to say, he just concentrates on the game and forces himself to do his job.’’
For now, that job well done has enabled Hart to achieve his NHL dream. And reminded legions of Flyers fans what it’s like to once again dream as well.