By Kevin Durso, Sports Talk Philly editor
On Tuesday night, Wells Fargo Center was jam-packed with one of the largest crowds of the season to watch the Flyers take on the Boston Bruins. The team was going for their 10th straight win and the Metro Division lead in this game, though it wasn’t meant to be in a 2-0 loss to the NHL’s leading team in points.
At the time, it hardly felt like that would be where this journey stopped. But within 48 hours, the Flyers season was on hold. The NHL joined the likes of the other major sports and put their season on pause due to the Coronavirus crisis that has since become a global pandemic and caused the United States to declare a national state of emergency.
In the moment, it was only natural to look at what this has done to not just the NHL and the Flyers season, but all sports in general, and feel a sense of disappointment. For so many people, sports is the escape from the rest of the world. It served as a healer during some of our most trying times as a nation. After 9/11, the sports world stopped for a week, then came back and helped the country heal from an attack that left us all shaken. At a Phillies-Mets game in 2011, it served as a unifier as news of Osama Bin Laden’s death spread around the ballpark during a nationally televised game.
So if you think sports don’t matter, you are now seeing first-hand the effects that this has had on a pastime of so many people. Whether they are frequent visitors to the arena or ballpark or stadium, or just enjoy the game on television at home, this is a hit to one of the greatest recreations that people have in life.
It was only natural, then, to look at Thursday night in the wake of the announcement that all major leagues were making suspending play and feel a little disappointed, especially if you are a Flyers fan.
Look, you have to go back to the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs to find a Flyers team that really generated some serious playoff buzz — not the team coached by Craig Berube in 2014 that only rallied into the playoffs after the early-season coaching change, not Dave Hakstol’s two playoff teams that crept into the playoffs and, fairly, were given no real shot to win the first round.
In 2012, the Flyers dismantled the Penguins through the first three games of a series that featured an abundance of goals and fisticuffs, truly playoff hockey at its finest. Call it controlled chaos, if you will. The Flyers advanced in that series in six games and then claimed Game 1 of the second round against the New Jersey Devils before losing the next four games and being eliminated from the playoffs.
At the time, it was the Flyers third straight postseason advancing past the first round, claiming a seven-game series win over Buffalo in the first round of the 2011 Playoffs and reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 2010. Who would have known that it would be the last time the Flyers even won a playoff series over the next eight years.
So finally — finally — this city had a hockey team that was worth all the attention. They had a team that was not just on the way to making the playoffs, but playing at such a high level that there were even thoughts of something bigger. There was a special quality about this team. And even in defeat in their last game on Tuesday to the Bruins, most walked away thinking that it was an honest effort that wins on most nights and had thoughts of what a great playoff series it would be if the same two teams met down the road.
It is only natural, then, to look at the last three or four weeks of the Flyers season, all the successes in February and into March, and think that it is a huge disappointment that something like this derails the season. You have almost certainly seen someone crack a joke about it.
On the other side of this perspective is one of the driving forces behind this season. No, it’s not having Carter Hart in goal for a full season or the addition of Kevin Hayes or Matt Niskanen to the lineup or Alain Vigneault behind the bench, though all have been important.
It’s Oskar Lindblom.
Part of what made this team so special was the unity they showed. This is a tight locker room. It could potentially be a tight locker room for many years to come as some of the same faces remain with several years on their contracts remaining. When Oskar Lindblom was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma in early December and saw his season abruptly come to an end, many were left speechless briefly and then became instant supporters. You can’t go to a game or go on Twitter during a game without seeing some form of the #OskarStrong movement somewhere. It is most especially present in that locker room. You will seldom see a player do his postgame interview without wearing one of the Oskar Strong t-shirts that have become top sellers for the Flyers players, players around the league and the fans.
And that is a big reason why this had to happen.
For many people in this country, the Coronavirus is not going to be life-threatening, especially for the athletes that play and are in top physical condition. The people at the highest risk are the elderly and people with compromised immune systems. And that’s where Lindblom comes into play. As Lindblom continues the battle of his life against Ewing’s sarcoma, he’s at high risk when it comes to Coronavirus. In his case, this would definitely be life-threatening should he not only contract the virus, but also struggle to be tested as so many in this country have.
In a season where the banner has been waived for Lindblom and the support for him has been on display from not just players, but fans too, isn’t it only appropriate that we take a step back and look at something else that’s bigger than hockey? That was what GM Chuck Fletcher said back in December when Lindblom was diagnosed. For a lot of players, this was perspective. It’s just a game, and while we all want to be excited about something like this, while we all have dreams of our teams winning the championship, it isn’t something nearly as significant as watching a 23-year-old have to go through the fight of his life.
In that sense, this is what will hopefully be a small sacrifice. As disappointing as it is to abruptly stop the season and have to wait to see if there will even be more of a season left to play, it’s worth thinking about Oskar Lindblom in this time.
For the sake of his health, this needed to happen, even in the middle of what was becoming the best Flyers season in the last 10 years. For the sake of Flyers fans who have longed to see it, especially the ones who would be considered high-risk cases as well, it’s also a fair sacrifice to just take a break and get this under control so we can all go back to enjoying hockey the way it was intended. It will be a lot sweeter if the Flyers can finally win a Stanley Cup if we can enjoy it the way we dreamed it.