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Two heads better than one for Flyers, Pens

Posted: Thursday, April 27, 2000

PHILADELPHIA-- When a skater comes off the ice during the Penguins-Flyers playoff series and yells, ''Coach!'', the only question is which of many heads will turn.

The Eastern Conference semifinal, which begins Thursday night, may not be remembered necessarily for its great coaching, but its great number of coaches.

In what possibly is an NHL playoffs first, each team essentially has two head coaches, although not every one is comfortable in his unique role -- Herb Brooks and Ivan Hlinka of Pittsburgh, Craig Ramsay and Roger Neilson of Philadelphia.

Aren't doubleheaders supposed to be in baseball?

In Pittsburgh, Brooks, who coached the 1980 U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal in one of the great upsets in sports, is unquestionably the boss, with Hlinka as one of three assistants. Only for the rest of the playoffs, however.

When Brooks succeeded the fired Kevin Constantine in early December, it was with the understanding he would be the interim coach, and no more. Brooks, the former Rangers and Devils coach, has wearied of the endless traveling, the nearly year-around NHL schedule and the long separations from his family in Minnesota, and he took the job only as a favor to general manager Craig Patrick.

So, instead of waiting until June to choose his permanent head coach, Patrick took the unusual step of hiring him in-season. Once he settled on Hlinka, who coached the Czech Republic to its 1998 Olympic gold medal upset in Nagano and will become the NHL's first European-bred coach next season, he asked Hlinka to join the Penguins for the rest of the season.

Patrick wanted Hlinka to become familiar with the NHL, its teams and their various personalities, and the Penguins players, although a half-dozen are Czech and already knew him. As a result, Hlinka has been more than the average assistant coach, sometimes handling practice by himself and, several times when Brooks' back was hurting, running the game from the bench.

There was speculation in late February that Brooks would turn over the team to Hlinka within days, though Brooks now says he always wanted to finish the job he started.

''This is the playoffs, how could you not be excited?'' Brooks said. ''This is all-consuming right now, and my family understands it.''

With the Flyers, the coaching situation is far more unsettled.

Neilson, who left the team Feb. 20 to undergo a stem-cell transplant for bone marrow cancer, understood he could return as coach once he felt healthy enough, and he feels so now. But Flyers management, happy how the team is playing under Ramsay, clearly doesn't want to change.

So Neilson will return, but only as an assistant and with no promises he will be the head coach again. His contract is up after this season, and he says the Flyers haven't followed up on their promise of extending it.

''I don't think they want a cancer patient who is a friend of Eric Lindros behind the bench right now,'' Neilson told a Toronto radio station. Lindros is the deposed Flyers captain whose own return from a medical problem, persistent concussions, also is undetermined.

General manager Bob Clarke, concerned the Neilson situation is becoming a distraction during the most important time of the season, said, ''We'd like this stuff to go away. All we did was finish first (in the conference) and win the first round. Some of these distractions are getting bigger than what these kids have done.''

The crowded benches aside, the Flyers are favored to oust the seventh-seeded Penguins, who upset second-seeded Washington in five games behind a pair of game-winning goals by NHL scoring champion Jaromir Jagr.

The Penguins' speed, European flair and ability to score improbable goals could frustrate Philadelphia. But the Flyers own decided edges in size, strength and the intangibles, including a power play that produced nine of 14 goals in their first round series against Buffalo.

Also, the Penguins have lost 16 consecutive games in Philadelphia since 1994 and are 0-2 against Philadelphia in the playoffs, losing in 1989 and 1997.

''That was a different cast, and those were different teams,'' Brooks said.

Those teams had only one coach, too.



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