Flyers fire head coach Bill Barber; G.M. Bob Clarke gets vote of confidence

By Al Alven

The Philadelphia Flyers called a 2 p.m. press conference this afternoon to announce the firing of head coach Bill Barber.

Team President and general manager Bob Clarke announced that Barber will be offered another job within the organization. Assistant coaches Mike Stothers and E.J. McGuire were let go.

“This was not an easy decision, given all that Bill Barber has meant to the Flyers organization over the years,” said Clarke. “Billy was a teammate, and he is a friend, and when we extended his contract last summer, we all hoped and expected that it would be a long-term relationship.

“We’re all deeply disappointed that it didn’t turn out that way.”

Barber’s dismissal comes one day after the coach’s players viciously lashed out at him while cleaning out their lockers for the final time this season. Several players – most notably captain Keith Primeau, Mark Recchi, Rick Tocchet, Chris Therien and goaltender Brian Boucher – blasted Barber’s handling of the team, his coaching decisions and his perceived refusal to communicate with veteran players.

There had been some speculation that Clarke’s job was in jeopardy as well, but team chairman Ed Snider snuffed potential rumors by giving his G.M. a vote of confidence at the press conference.

“What I’m looking for in a general manager is someone to put a team together that I think can win the Stanley Cup, and that’s what he did,” Snider said. “Now because we didn’t win it, do I change my mind? None of our players lived up to expectations.”

Barber’s firing comes as no surprise after what was a disastrous season for his team. The Flyers – considered a strong Stanley Cup contender at the start of the campaign – fizzled late in the season and bowed out in the first round of the playoffs for the fourth time in five years. Along the way, the team set new marks for offensive futility by notching only two goals in five games against the Ottawa Senators in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.

Snider’s tone at the press conference was quite morose. He claimed that the Flyers organization let down the team’s fans, the city, the players, and — to an extent — Barber himself this season. “I don’t think it’s all Bill’s fault,” he said. “Unfortunately, you can’t trade all the players.”

Added Clarke: “We just felt that there was no way of being able to heal the wounds that had developed between the coach and the players.”

There had been reports and hints throughout the season that major friction existed between Barber and the players. A mini-mutiny erupted within the team after the Senators whipped the Flyers, 3-0, in Game 3 of their playoff series. Several players publicly bashed the coach after game, questioning his leadership skills and his ability to adjust to adversity. Barber’s fate seemed predetermined when he did not receive a vote of confidence from either Clarke or Snider at that time.

There was some speculation that Barber might return next season, but his fate was officially sealed after the players’ targeted him almost exclusively on Monday afternoon. Most Flyers admitted that the players must shoulder some of the blame for the team’s meltdown, but insisted that the coaching staff offered no solutions to the team’s problems.

“All he ever said was ‘work harder,’” Boucher said, referring to Barber’s playoff strategy. “We needed a game plan to somehow counter what [the Senators] were doing. There’s always a way to come up with a counter.”

According the Primeau, a rift between Barber and players began to develop during the early part of the season. The captain said that the players were weary of talking to upper management about the problems because they didn’t want to disrupt the harmony that has existed between the two sides since the Eric Lindros debacle ended. The situation became even touchier after Barber’s wife, Jenny, died of cancer on December 8.

The players did not hold back yesterday, though. According to several veterans, Barber often blew off suggestions made by players to improve the team. Not long into the season, they claimed, Barber became almost completely unreceptive to his players. His answer to everything, they said, was to simply “work harder.”

Primeau went on to say that, despite the Flyers’ powerplay struggles, Barber would have the team practice man-advantage drills only on gamedays. Philadelphia wound up finishing the season ranked 28th (out of 30) in the NHL on the powerplay. Apparently, Barber refused to practice 5-on-4 drills because his former Flyers coach, Fred Shero, never did it. Much to the chagrin of the players, Barber believed that talent and hard work would prevail over tactical planning in such situations.

“We had the worst power play in the league, why are we not practicing it?” Primeau said. “All season long we said if someone makes a mistake, they’re getting yelled at.

“We say when we come to the bench, make that adjustment. He wants the player to make the adjustment. Our job is to play. I felt like I was having to make the adjustments on the bench. I don’t feel that’s part of my job description.”

Overall, Barber’s defense-first, dump-and-chase system frustrated the players. At least one player – Jeremy Roenick – vocally aired his displeasure with the system throughout the season. He felt that the coaching staff held its offensive stars back by refusing to “open it up” when the team was having trouble scoring. Roenick contended that speedy players such as Recchi, Simon Gagne, Justin Williams and himself would have benefited from a more wide-open style of play.

Whatever the exact reason for his dismissal, Barber is now the Flyers’ fifth coaching casualty in the last six seasons. He initially became coach after Craig Ramsey was fired in December 2000. Barber guided an injury-plagued Flyer team to a 31-16-7 record after he took over. He was awarded the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s coach of year, but his team was dumped in the first round of the playoffs by the Buffalo Sabres, four games to two.

The Flyers made numerous changes in the offseason, but Barber eventually lost the respect of his $55.8 million roster. The realistic possibility of his return was essentially lost along with the first round series to the Senators. In the end, a 42-27-10-3 record and an Atlantic Division title was not nearly enough to save Barber’s job.

In 136 regular season games with the Flyers, Barber posted a 73-46-17 record. In 11 career playoff games, however, his team posted just three wins.

Scapegoat or not, Barber now becomes the first of what may turn out to be many victims of change by the Flyers this summer. Whether or not Barber takes another job with the organization remains to be seen.

“Billy asked for some time to think about it, but we let him know that we want him to remain with the organization,” said Clarke. “He’s been a Flyer for his entire career, and we want him to remain a Flyer forever.”

In the meantime, the Flyers will shift their attention toward the search for a new bench boss. Already, former Dallas coach Ken Hitchcock, Pat Burns, Ted Nolan, Larry Robinson, and even former Flyer captain Dave Poulin, have been mentioned as possible successors to Barber.

Recently, the name of soon-to-be-retired Rick Tocchet has also come up. Though that hiring is unlikely, history has taught us that anything is possible where the Philadelphia Flyers are concerned.