Scott Gordon doesn’t think anyone is going to care about this article. In fact, he said if I want to get clicks I should probably choose a different topic to write about, since he’s not that interesting. I think he’s wrong.
One year ago this upcoming week, the Flyers organization had one of the biggest shake-ups in recent NHL history. It’s not uncommon to see coaching changes in the middle of a season. It’s normal for head and assistant coaches to see their tenure come to a close when things aren’t going well. In fact, this past week, the Toronto Maple Leafs fired their head coach, Mike Babcock, after a disappointing start to their season.
What isn’t common, however, is an organization firing a general manager in the middle of a season. On November 26, 2018 the Flyers did just that when they relieved Ron Hextall of his duties as general manager, a position he had held since 2014. The change shook the entire organization.
“I’ve been part of teams where there’s been coaching changes,” Phantoms forward TJ Brennan said of the situation. “That was a first experience for me where [the] general manager has been fired. That rippled, really. You don’t know how that’s going to happen.”
Shortly after Hextall’s departure, new general manager Chuck Fletcher fired head coach Dave Hakstol and promoted Scott Gordon from the Lehigh Valley Phantoms to the Flyers as the interim head coach. The promotion of their head coach created just one of many struggles the Phantoms faced last season, which saw them finish fifth in their division and miss the playoffs.
“We went through just about everything you could as a hockey team last year – with call-ups, injuries and then losing [our] coach,” Greg Carey said. “I think Huff (Kerry Huffman) did a great job, but we didn’t really have much in terms of lineup and health and that.”
“On a day-to-day basis, obviously a head coach makes a difference in our lives,” goaltender Alex Lyon said. “But the GM holds the keys to the castle. I think a lot of the second half of last year was just trying to deal with adversity… It was so hectic, but I think we managed fine.”
“As a veteran player you’re trying to be a leader and be a role model and when things are out of your control it’s hard,” Brennan added. “It’s really stressful if things aren’t going positive and guys are not feeling great. If things are negative, it’s hard. But it’s hard on everyone so in the highest respective it’s a really good learning lesson and a lot of really good experience that people have been through that helps you appreciate what you have in the moment. Things could always be better or worse and you get real life experience with that.”
The promotion wasn’t a change that Gordon was expecting. But with over 230 career games as a head coach in the NHL, it’s a job where he has plenty of experience.
“The experience of going back up to the NHL after being away for a few years was a positive one, and that changed my perspective on the game a little bit,” he said. “Things change at all levels. But I think, from the time that I was up there, there were some things that I saw in how the game was played by different teams in the NHL that you don’t really pick up on TV.”
Of all the current players on the Phantoms roster, Lyon has the unique distinction of being the only one to have been coached by Gordon in both Lehigh Valley and Philadelphia.
“It’s [an] interesting dynamic, because you can’t necessarily be the same you are here as you are there,” he said. “This is a development league, so a lot of the coaches aspire to make the players better and that’s what they can put their name on. But when you get to the National League it’s much more results-oriented.”
Gordon noted that the experience with the Flyers changed his outlook on the game, specifically the demands he put on his players.
“Seeing how much faster the game is up there, the strength of the players, the compete of the players, puck management, and how important it is putting a larger emphasis on that down here,” he said. “There’s an expectation from a hockey sense standpoint, from a puck management standpoint, from a pace of play standpoint.”
What’s important is getting his players to understand why his demands are higher. It’s not just because he says so. He knows that’s what it takes to get to the next level and find success in the NHL. His veteran leaders, at least, understand that.
“When you’re in the NHL you’re coaching the best. And when you’re in the AHL you’re coaching players who are trying to get there,” Carey said. “I think coming down with his experience with the Flyers, he brings that knowledge and expectation of what it really takes to get to the next level.”
For that reason, among others, the players in Lehigh Valley are happy to have him back with the Phantoms. As they shift their focus away from the change and turmoil of last year and towards this season, it helps to have a head coach that they know, respect, and believe in.
For Brennan, it’s important to have coaches who challenge him and push him to be better every day.
“Sometimes it’s hard in the moment, and I think mentally they push you a lot further than you think you can be pushed,” he said. “I’m pretty grateful for that. It’s tough to keep that perspective some times and it’s always a challenge, especially for me personally where I’m at in my career. I want to be pushed as opposed to having it comfortable. I’m always searching for that. I think [Gordon is] always doing that, and that’s a constant I know I have with him.”
“Obviously his style worked for the Flyers last year, they almost made the playoffs,” Carey noted. “So it’s definitely a coaching style that we believe in and I think works.”
As trying as last season was for the entire organization, the past is in the past. For Gordon, the focus is now on the future of his team. Part of that is getting to know over a dozen new faces that have joined the Phantoms since last December. The roster has undergone a massive change since last season, and continues to change every week.
“All of the top defense prospects have now graduated and that required a lot of signing of defensemen from different organizations, so that was new.” Gordon said of the offseason roster changes. “And then this year we had an influx of drafted forwards that we haven’t had since I’ve been here. To get the quantity and quality of forwards that we have this year, combined with the new [defense], usually it’s just been in one area that we’ve had an influx of different personnel. This year we’ve had it up front and on defense.”
“We’re at the mercy of what happens in Philadelphia,” he added. “We’re at the mercy of our own injuries, Philly’s injuries, Philly’s decisions to make a trade or to call up somebody. Right now we have eleven players that have played for us that aren’t here between injuries and call-ups. We basically have a second new lineup for this year. It’s hard to say we want to do X, Y and Z throughout the season. The reality is you’re dealing with a different roster now than we were three weeks ago. The biggest focus is more on getting better every day and when you start to get towards the end of the season, you start looking at the standings.”
In addition to Joel Farabee and Morgan Frost, who both started the season with the Phantoms before being promoted to the NHL, Gordon has five players on his current roster who are in their first full season of professional hockey: Matt Strome, German Rubtsov, Isaac Ratcliffe, Maxim Sushko and Pascal Laberge. His goal, of course, is to prepare every single one of them for a career in the NHL. But first he has to start with getting them used to playing against American League competition.
“Those guys, every player is different in how they manage the puck as a pro, which is usually the most difficult part of being pro,” he said. “The players are faster, the players are stronger, the players are smarter, their sticks are more effective. And the things that gave these players success in juniors – they’re not always going to be readily available for them to do as a pro.”
Helping players – rookies and veterans alike – take the next step in their careers to reach the National Hockey League isn’t an easy job. But Gordon is up for the challenge. It’s one of the reasons why he chose to return to the Phantoms this season, instead of taking an assistant coaching position at the NHL level.
When talking about his favorite things about coaching in the AHL, Gordon noted the joy in being able to help players reach their goals.
“Seeing the development of the players, being able to get them to make improvements in their game, being able to make the phone call that [they’re] going up. They’ll always remember that. I remember just about every kid that I’ve called, the conversation. That’s something you don’t get to do when you’re coaching in the NHL.”
“For me, you get the best of both worlds. It’s not the Stanley Cup, but there’s more gratification that comes to me than the bigger check or the shinier trophy. I fully enjoy what I do here.”
Being a good coach, just like being a good player, requires a lot of work and the ability to constantly learn and adapt to the changes in the sport.
“With coaching, every day you’re trying to get better,” he said. “Whether it’s the system you play, the way you’re teaching the system, new drills, new ways to motivate, new ways to try to get your message through to a player. A lot of that stuff, people on the outside don’t know what you go home with after you leave the rink. Your wheels are turning non-stop, you’re always trying to fix things, make things better, get through to people. That’s the part of coaching that I enjoy and makes me want to do it all the time.”
His work ethic, his coaching style and his dedication to his job don’t go unnoticed by his players. Those are all qualities that were independently brought up as some of his best traits.
“I think he is always trying extremely hard to improve the tiny details. He works hard to improve the minutiae,” Lyon said. “You want a coach that’s going to match your intensity and I think that he does that.”
“Gordo has always been one to be hard on guys and make the most and get the most out of guys,” Brennan said. “I think the best way to describe it is he’s a guy that you appreciate with time. You look back and you’re really thankful you have him because he really pushes you and sometimes that’s really challenging. After he left I think some guys actually gained that perspective.”
“I think he’s original,” Brennan continued. “I think he’s always trying to learn from different coaches and he’s trying to find the most efficient way to be successful and to teach guys and help them learn. I think it’s easy to fall in line and do what you think might be the easiest thing or the safest thing. He’s showing different things that are a little unorthodox at times, but I think it’s his own version and it’s genuine so I respect that. He’s just trying to be the best that he can, too.”
“I’ve been with him for four years now,” Carey added. “I feel like I’ve gotten better with him every year… He also runs some pretty good meetings. I think his ‘mixed bag’ is definitely one of our favorite things that he throws up on the board. We never really know what’s going to come up, if it’s a chance against or a power play clip. I think he kinda keeps us on our toes in meetings and we all kinda get a kick out of it.”
Chances are, one day Scott Gordon will get another shot at being a head coach in the NHL. But until then, the Phantoms and Flyers organizations are lucky to have him as the head coach in Lehigh Valley.