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The Rookies
The new kids on the block are getting Flyers fan excited for the future
By Chuck Darrow

Thanks to a Stanley Cup drought of more than 40 years, Philadelphia Flyers fans have earned the right to be called “long-suffering.” But that’s a condition that may finally end sooner than later, thanks to the team’s new youth-oriented strategy.

Historically, the orange and black have primarily relied on veteran players to get another shot at the Stanley Cup. But the current season has three rookies on the roster: center Nolan Patrick, forward Taylor Leier and defensemen Robert Hagg.

“It is unusual, especially in Philadelphia, where we’re used to every year adding a veteran,” says Medford’s Al Morganti, the long-time morning-shift co-host on 94.1 WIP-FM and Flyers TV analyst for NBC Sports Philadelphia. According to Morganti, that makes sense in context of what is happening in the sports world in general.

“In all of sports, you’ve seen teams rely more on youth,” he notes. “Kids are more efficient when they come up – they get there quicker. The Flyers have a terrific bundle of young kids.”

Morganti acknowledges that Flyers General Manager Ron Hextall generally prefers more experienced players, but he believes “these kids are getting some good seasoning here.”

While Morganti praises the group’s on-ice contributions, Flyers’ head coach Dave Hakstol looks at their collective value in ways that don’t show up on stat sheets.

“They all bring something different in terms of their style of play and their abilities, but what young players bring is a lot of energy and a lot of enthusiasm. That has added a lot to our dressing room,” says Hakstol, who is in his third season with the team.

He adds that though they may be young, “These guys have earned their way here. They’re NHL players. They have a lot of room to grow as young players, but they’re all responsible guys who work hard at their game every day.”
For all these reasons – and because their minor-league system is, by all accounts, bursting with even more talent, the future looks bright for the Flyers.

“You knew coming in to the season they were going to be touch-and-go to make the playoffs,” says Morganti. “But the upside of it for the future – not distant future, I’m talking near-future – is really high.”

Another Philly sports team to get excited about…

 

Taylor Leier, 24

Coming in as the elder of the rookies when he turns 24 this month, Taylor Leier is, as far as it can be ascertained, the only NHL player whose brother is a professional ballet dancer. Although he and Keaton, 21, who performs with the Atlanta Ballet, both deal in physical activities that require excellent conditioning, it’s unlikely they will ever follow the same regimen.

“We do a lot of different things,” says Leier, a Saskatoon, Saskatchewan native who the Flyers drafted in 2012 with the 26th pick of the fourth round. “He does a lot of body weight and stretching, a lot of balance-type things and a lot of core work,” says Leier. “There are definitely certain things we do that could help each other – I probably need to stretch a little bit more.”

Of the four rookies, Leier, who played in the Saskatchewan Midget AAA Hockey League and for Oregon’s Portland Winterhawks of the WHA and the Phantoms, is the one who most avails himself of the many pleasures of his new hometown, especially those of a culinary nature.

“I love the restaurants,” he says. “I’m a big food guy, and I’m always down to try a new, healthy type of food.”
Though he’s a long way from home, he and roommate Travis Sanheim (another rookie until last month when he was sent down to the AHL) have a shared geography.

“We’re both from Western Canada, so we don’t have any family around,” he says. “It’s always nice to have a buddy around; it gets lonely sometimes. And Nolan Patrick and Robert Hagg live just across the street from us. A lot of the older guys are busy with their families and their wives and stuff; having a couple younger guys around is nice.”

Nonetheless, Saskatoon remains home.

“I feel like in the big city, everything is magnified,” he says. “When I go home in the summer, there’s no pressure. My city has like 250,000 people. Everything is much less under-the-microscope. That’s where I go to get my mind away from the game. It’s definitely a breath of fresh air I think every athlete needs in the off-season.”

 

Nolan Patrick, 19

It’s not surprising that Winnipeg, Manitoba, native Nolan Patrick is the youngest member of the Flyers and the sixth youngest in the NHL – hockey has been the family business for years.

His father, Stephen Patrick, played eight seasons with the Buffalo Sabres, New York Rangers and Quebec Nordiques, while his uncle, James Patrick, played 22 years with four different NHL teams. His 1,280 games-played ranks 22nd all-time among defensemen.

Thanks to that impressive bloodline, it would be easy to think the kid lives with more pressure to succeed than any teenager should. But he says nothing could be further from the truth.

“I don’t read media that much. I try to avoid that and just focus on trying to improve every day and trying to contribute as much as I can to the team,” he says. “So I don’t feel that much pressure.”

Despite his familiarity with the NHL, Patrick says he never had a particularly strong allegiance to a team. “I really didn’t have one team I loved growing up,” he says. “I had a few teams I didn’t like, but I liked the Flyers.”

He was, however, a fan of Danny Briere, who spent six seasons in Philly beginning in 2007. “My uncle James coached him for a couple years. I thought he was a really good player and fun to watch.”

Patrick lives in Cherry Hill with teammate and fellow rookie Robert Hagg. (Their nearby neighbors are roommates Travis Sanheim and Taylor Leier.) The pair share a townhouse together. “The neighborhood we’re in is pretty quiet,” he says.

And despite still being a teenager, living on his own is going well. “I’ve been living away from home for four years now,” he says, “so I’m pretty used to it. I don’t miss much.”

 

Robert Hagg, 23

Hailing from Uppsala, Sweden, Robert Hagg, who turns 23 this month, was drafted in 2013 by the Flyers with the 11th pick of the second round. Before joining the Flyers, he spent several seasons with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, the team’s AHL affiliate.

He made his NHL debut last October against the Sharks in San Jose, Calif.

“I was happy and proud of myself that I made the team, but at the same time I was kind of nervous,” he says. “I knew I had to play my best hockey to stay up there.”

“The first thing I thought when I stepped on the ice was, ‘Just keep it simple. Don’t do anything stupid. Just play simple, play hard.’” The Flyers earned a 5-3 victory for Hagg’s debut.

Off the ice, Hagg thinks he has it good living with Nolan Patrick in Cherry Hill. “We have 15 minutes to the practice rink,” he notes, referring to the team’s Voorhees training facility, “and 15 minutes to the game, so we really can’t complain.”

Hagg says life in Cherry Hill is fairly mellow, probably more sedate than most people would think. He says the two roommates spend most of their time “just trying to relax. Nolan is a big Xbox fan. I’m more of a TV show guy,” he says, naming “Designated Survivor” as his favorite.

As for living in South Jersey, Hagg has figured out how much the area has to offer. “You can get everything,” he says. “If you want nightlife you can go downtown. If you want to relax you can stay at home and not be bothered.”
He’s even found his favorite foods from home. However, he claims, they aren’t quite the same as they are in Sweden. “I can get everything I get at home here,” he says, “but it’s made in different ways.”

 

February 2018
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