Flyers more than optimistic a change is going to come

So acute was the embarrassment, so deep the shame, so vivid the feeling of accusing eyes boring into his failures, Derian Hatcher dreaded even going into a Starbucks.

"Well," laughed Philadelphia Flyers assistant coach Joe Mullen, "at 6-foot-5, Hatch is kind of hard to miss."

So were the Flyers. A big flop. A massive bust.

Worst in a 30-team loop. A league-low 10 home wins. A joke in futile search of a punch line.

The Broad Street Bozos.

Enough to make Dave "The Hammer" Schultz turtle or Bob "Hound Dog" Kelly coil into the fetal position and begin whimpering softly.

"We all suffered last year," said Bob Clarke, the once-and-forever symbol of the franchise who is now a senior vice president with the club. "We've missed the playoff some years, had some mediocre teams and some s----- teams. But last year …"

He stares straight ahead, gaze unwavering.

"For all the years that I've been with the Flyers, I'd never gone through anything like that. I care. We all do. That's what made it so difficult. It was tough on the organization, tough on the players, tough on the fans, tough on the city."

It got so bad, the conference points totals on the standings board entering the Flyers' dressing room at the Wachovia Center were magically erased. Hey, there's no sense rubbing your own nose in the doo-doo. The entire house of cards toppled sensationally upon itself.

Clarke stepped away as general manager and coach Ken Hitchcock walked the plank on Oct. 22 as the Flyers limped out to a 1-6-1 start to the season. Paul Holmgren assumed Clarke's job, assistant coach John Stevens took over for Hitchcock.

Nothing changed.

The losses kept compounding, the frustration kept gnawing, the deficiencies kept reaffirming themselves.

"When we got together at training camp this season," Holmgren revealed, "I only made two references to last year. One, that the two teams that played in the Stanley Cup finals were, in my opinion, the two hardest-working teams in the league. And two, that we didn't work hard enough. And that that had to change."

Holmgren doesn't merely bleed orange and black. He practically secretes it.

"People in Philadelphia are proud, hardworking people," he continued. "They'll forgive a lot, but not a lack of effort. If I had one word to describe the Flyers through the years, it'd be perseverance. We didn't persevere last year."

The persevering penance started Thursday night in Calgary, where Philly opened up a three-game Western Canadian road swing. They fought back after blowing a 2-0 lead to beat the Flames 3-2.

"It's easier to turn the page and just forget about last year," maintained longstanding left winger Simon Gagne.

Oh, but a malignancy of that sort is hard to just purge from the memory banks. The beginning of October is always the annual season for hope. False hope, in all too many cases. That wonderful time when every team's horizon resembles a multihued Tuscan sunset. No reality-check five-game losing streaks. No debilitating injuries.

Fresh slate. New start. All that jazz.

Among the bottom-feeding teams of a season ago, though, the Philadelphia Flyers can harbor believable aspirations of a quick renaissance. Don't wager a farthing against them being in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff mix come March.

"It's a different team altogether," Gagne said. "We have nine new faces from the trade deadline last year through this summer. There's a new atmosphere, a new feeling. It's an exciting time around here."

Those on the outside believe there's reason for hope, too.

"They've put a good team together over a very short period of time," Flames coach Mike Keenan, Holmgren's old boss, told The Calgary Herald. "They're a vastly improved team from a year ago."

Holmgren, allotted a little spending money to toss around, has done an admirable job in retooling the sad-sack franchise. At a stiff price -- $52 million over eight years -- the Flyers have added Daniel Briere's 95 points and quicksilver talent. Ol' Gator, Jason Smith, has been brought aboard and named team captain to remind everyone why the Watson brothers, Joe and Jim, and Moose Dupont were so vital during the glory years. Martin Biron finally gets his chance to be an authentic No. 1 goalie. Kimmo Timonen can ably lead the charge from the blue line. Joffrey Lupul, Scott Hartnell and Scottie Upshall add depth. The much-traveled Jim Dowd is one of those handy, versatile types every team needs.

"On paper, we've got more skill, more speed, more size," agreed the GM. "But you've still got to play the games. Paper's good for folding up and using as an airplane."

Clarke will be watching.
"A man of leisure? I guess that's what I am now," smiled Clarke. He nodded at his friend, Holmgren, and other Flyers brass. "These guys make the decisions now. I like watching the Flyers. I like watching any kind of hockey. NHL. Junior. Women's. I'm happy where I'm at right now. That doesn't mean I might not want to get back into it at some point.

"But right now, I just want to see the Flyers back on track. I like what's been done with the team. Holmer's done a great job."

The slogan on the Flyers' Web site is: Back with a Vengeance. Perhaps that should be pared down somewhat to, say: Back with Reservations.

Upgrade in talent. Stockpiling of depth. Front-line goaltending. And a bit of a buffer period to establish themselves as the Philadelphia Phillies grab the spotlight in the Major League Baseball playdowns.

Stranger things have happened in sport.

"What'd we have last year, 56 points?" Biron asked. "Well, we're going to need 40 more than that to make the playoffs. It's tough to make the playoffs now. Last year, we had the biggest decrease in points. This year, we're going to need the most increase. But we added guys with playoff experience, like Jason, and a great offensive player like Danny.

"We think everything is in place here to make the playoffs, and even more."

Enough, one would hope, to at least be able to walk into a Starbucks in safety and order a grande pumpkin-spiced latte without fear of reprisal.

George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.