VOORHEES, N.J. It was madness. People stood shoulder to shoulder, their hockey sweaters bleeding into each other to form a seamless orange and black tableau that ringed the rink. That was more than an hour before the Flyers took the ice.
On an otherwise sleepy, foggy, Sunday morning, countless fans filled the Skate Zone to watch the Flyers open training camp. One of the employees at the front desk said the parking lots in the front, side and back of the building were full by 9:30 a.m. Several longtime beat reporters swore it was the biggest turnout theyd ever seen.
It wasnt hyperbole. There were so many people wedged around the rink that they spilled out into the lobby area and had to stand on their toes to get a glimpse of their team from a distance. At one point, they stopped letting people inside because it was too crowded. It was essentially the sports equivalent of a popular nightclub. The only things missing were a bouncer and a red velvet rope at the entrance.
It was the kind of scene that would have made an agoraphobic melt down and tear up, and the fire marshal couldnt have been happy. The Flyers were thrilled, though.
Its pretty overwhelming, Comcast-Spectacor president Peter Luukko said. I think its overwhelming, not just for all of us up here watching, but for the players and the coaches. Its just been fantastic. The fans, they want to see you playing. They dont want to see us in the business page and worry about labor disputes. Really, what it says today is, were moving forward. Its time to get playing."
So much for a potential boycott.
While the lockout droned on for 113 days, fan frustration built. It was expected. The NHL lost an entire season back in 2004-05 because of a protracted and messy labor negotiation. Some people the passionate ones who sleep in bright orange footie pajamas with fuzzy Flyers logos all over were rightly upset that the league would make them suffer through something like that again, even if it was only a dim approximation by comparison.
The predictable backlash featured angry customers that swore they wouldnt return. And maybe they wont. Maybe theyll stay away. But it will be impossible to tell. Whatever physical space the disenfranchised fans would have occupied on Sunday was filled in by countless hardcore hockey heads that couldnt have appeared happier. When the Flyers took the ice, they screamed. The ones who were close enough to the glass pounded on it with excitement. As Scott Hartnell said, the crowd basically went bananas.
I think today proved that its all about the Flyers, Luukko said. Theyre Phillys team.
The turnout made for some serious symbolism. The NHL has various concerns for various reasons, but Philly isnt one of them. There are cities where hockey doesnt matter nearly as much. Phoenix. Columbus. Dallas. Its unlikely that the turnout in those and other outposts was even remotely as robust as the one the Flyers enjoyed on Sunday.
In a statement before camp opened, Chairman Ed Snider thanked the fans for staying with us and for waiting a long time, while Luukko lauded our loyal and dedicated fans who continue to show their undying support as well as their incredible amount of patience during this process." The support isnt all that surprising. Thats how Flyers supporters have always operated. No matter how many PR blunders the NHL makes, area fans always back their team. The patience part is another matter, though.
Less than a week from now, the Flyers will open their condensed 48-game season at the Wells Fargo Center against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The next day they have a game against the Sabres in Buffalo. After that its more games and more cities in what will no doubt be a blur of a season. But how will it go?
Weve had some talks about what were doing, Hartnell said when asked about the teams system. Its pretty much the same as last year. We play an up-tempo, quick game.
The Flyers are currently listed at 121 to win the Stanley Cup according to Bovada.com. That ties them with the defending champion Los Angeles Kings for the fourth best odds to host a parade. Only the Penguins (81), Rangers (172) and Canucks (91) are installed ahead of the Flyers.
After thumping the Penguins in the playoffs last year, the Flyers looked like they had a pretty good shot to win it all. The entire city seemed pretty excited after that series. Then the Flyers played the New Jersey Devils in the second round. Then people werent so excited anymore.
Thats the thing. The fans will show up. They always do. Their mood swings are less predictable.
E-mail John Gonzalez at email@example.com