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Unbreakable Rod: The Hurricanes Are Surging Under Their Rookie Head Coach

A lifelong Philly fan reminisces on Flyers legend Rod Brind’Amour and his second life as a franchise cornerstone for Carolina, who are in the NHL’s final four for the first time in a decade

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After Game 4 of his team’s Eastern Conference semifinal series against the New York Islanders, Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour popped into the locker room to deliver a victory speech. He praised his players’ heart and commitment. Those intangibles, he said, allowed them to sweep a higher-seeded opponent despite not playing that well.

Brind’Amour’s speech wasn’t that different in content from the one Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella made before Columbus’s comeback in Game 1 of its first-round series against Tampa Bay, right down to the heaping tablespoon of profanity. But while Tortorella thundered exhortations at his players like Herb Brooks auditioning for the title role in Henry V, Brind’Amour praised his team in an almost inaudibly soft tenor, the kind of voice you wouldn’t expect to come from such an imposing man.

The Hurricanes’ YouTube channel has a few dozen of Brind’Amour’s victory speeches, and they’re all the same. He strides into the locker room, says he won’t talk long, and paces a lap around the space, praising his players’ effort, singling out special achievements. And then he’s gone, usually within 30 seconds.

Brind’Amour, a rookie head coach, is now off to the conference final, where the Canes will face another heavy favorite, the Boston Bruins. He isn’t a spectacular orator, but there’s something purposeful in his quiet directness. He doesn’t make you want to run through a brick wall, but he makes you want to go take care of business.

Brind’Amour first made a name for himself as a center for the Philadelphia Flyers in the 1990s. Irascible club legend Bobby Clarke, in his second tenure as the team’s GM, was tasked with building a winner around captain Eric Lindros, the Hart Trophy winner and future Hall of Fame center for whom the Flyers traded six players—including Peter Forsberg—two first-round picks, and $15 million to acquire in 1992. And Clarke was largely successful; from the lockout-shortened 1995 season through 2000, the Flyers won three division titles, reached three conference finals, and played for the Stanley Cup in 1997.

Every bit of that success was weird, chaotic, and fascinating. Clarke fought constantly with Lindros and his family, fired coaches on a whim, and traded like his phone would explode if he put it down. Every headline about the Flyers picking up two points on a trip to Washington or Ottawa was accompanied by a sidebar about some new feud or bit of drama. If it’s possible for an NHL team to dominate the media landscape of a major American market, the Flyers did. It was from this Grand Guignol that I, an elementary-school-aged kid growing up in the hockey-crazed suburb where the Flyers practiced, learned to be a sports fan.

Lindros was the be-all and end-all of those Flyers teams, one of the biggest stars in the sport. The things that make highlight reels—scoring, passing, checking, fighting—Lindros did better than anyone else on the team, some as well as any player in the world. Lindros and whichever triggerman the team paired him with—at first Hall of Famer Mark Recchi, then three-time 50-goal scorer John LeClair—generated the lion’s share of the team’s offense.

For everything else, there was Brind’Amour.

Brind’Amour arrived in Philadelphia in a four-player trade on the eve of the 1991 season, just before the Ottawa native turned 21. The ninth overall pick in the 1989 draft out of Michigan State, Brind’Amour had spent his first two years with the Blues, where he produced 110 points and a reputation for being in better shape than anyone else in hockey. In parts of nine seasons with the Flyers, Brind’Amour had three point-a-game seasons, plus three more seasons with at least 70 points, and scored 30 or more goals four times. When the Flyers went to the Stanley Cup final in 1997, he led the team with 13 goals in 19 playoff games.

But Brind’Amour was not just an offensive force—he was one of the game’s best defensive forwards, bringing a first-line center’s skill and athleticism to checking-line and penalty-kill assignments. In a 1997 playoff game, Brind’Amour scored two shorthanded goals within a minute on a single penalty kill. He was the perfect complement to Lindros, who was the best player the Flyers have had in my lifetime, but also polarizing, emotional, and frequently injured. Lindros was the team’s hunky poster boy, while Brind’Amour … well, his face looked like it had absorbed more than its share of pucks and fists, giving him a sort of post-boxing-career Mickey Rourke quality. When I was in middle school my friend claimed to have found a photo of him taken before “the nose incident,” but we never saw it.

Brind’Amour was quiet, universally beloved, and unbreakable. After missing seven games in his first two seasons with the Flyers, he played a franchise-record 484 straight games from 1993 to 1999. When Lindros was on the shelf—which happened a lot—the Flyers gave Brind’Amour the C. Lindros thrilled the fans, but Brind’Amour made us feel safe. No matter how much the rest of the roster rolled over, the Flyers’ core of Lindros, LeClair, Brind’Amour, and defenseman Eric Desjardins gave the team a comforting familiarity.

History now best remembers Brind’Amour as a Carolina Hurricane. On January 23, 2000, Clarke traded Brind’Amour, limited by injury for the first time in his Flyers career, to the Hurricanes for center Keith Primeau, who’d sat out the season because of a contract dispute. It was in Carolina that Brind’Amour achieved the honors that eluded him in the first decade of his career. He won two Selke Trophies as the league’s best defensive forward and won the franchise’s first Stanley Cup as the Hurricanes’ captain, alongside Recchi and former Flyers first-round pick Justin Williams. Brind’Amour is a franchise legend, one of three players to have his number retired after the move from Hartford. And in his first season as an NHL head coach, Brind’Amour has brought the Canes back to the conference final for the first time since 2009, his second-to-last season as a player.

Brind’Amour shouldn’t have worked as a coach. The biggest sucker’s move in hockey is to hand the team over to a former superstar, either as coach or GM; sometimes the best person for the job just so happens to be a franchise legend, but most of the time you just end up with proof of how different playing hockey is from managing a hockey team. The Hurricanes, who just last April cashiered GM Ron Francis—a Hall of Fame center and Brind’Amour’s predecessor as Hurricanes captain—should know this better than most. But the team’s egomaniac billionaire owner, Tom Dundon, put his trust in Brind’Amour, and the team has responded.

Under Brind’Amour and Williams, now 37 years old and serving as captain in his second stint with the team, the Hurricanes have built an identity for hard forechecking, aggressive blue-line play, and—at least in the regular season—outlandish postgame celebrations.

Brind’Amour plays his tactical cards close to his vest. During the first round he told Steve Whyno of the Associated Press: “The coaching thing is fun. I think it’s a little overrated. You open the door and you say, ‘Go play.’”

But the Hurricanes do have a style. They press relentlessly, and deep into their offensive zone, nullifying opponents’ attacks. When opposing forwards do escape the zone with the puck, Carolina’s defensemen, led by Justin Faulk, Dougie Hamilton, and Jaccob Slavin, get it back quickly and send it right back up the ice. In the regular season, Carolina had the second-highest percentage of shot attempts behind San Jose, the highest percentage of scoring chances, and the highest percentage of high-danger chances in the league.

They ended up as the seventh seed, however, because they had trouble turning that much possession into goals; Carolina finished 29 goals worse than their expected goal differential, the third-worst mark in the league. But once the Hurricanes sneaked into the playoffs for the first time in 10 years, everything clicked. They upset the defending champion Capitals in seven games in the first round, and swept the Islanders in the second round to earn a matchup with the Bruins in the conference final. After that could be the Cup final, where Brind’Amour might face his former Flyers teammate Craig Berube, now coach of the St. Louis Blues.

Everything unraveled for Philly after the Brind’Amour deal. Two months later, Lindros criticized Flyers training staff for failing to diagnose a concussion, and in response Clarke handed the captaincy to Desjardins. The Flyers made a run to the Eastern Conference final, where they built a 3-1 lead against the hated New Jersey Devils. Lindros, after a two-month absence, returned to the lineup for Game 6 and scored the Flyers’ only goal in a 2-1 loss before a Scott Stevens head shot in Game 7 knocked him out of the game. Another 2-1 loss took the Flyers out of the playoffs. Lindros, through a combination of injury and the irrevocable deterioration of his relationship with Clarke, sat out the entire 2000-01 season. He never played for the Flyers again.

To this day, the 2000 Eastern Conference final is the biggest heartbreak I’ve ever experienced as a sports fan, and whether this is rational or not, it’s inextricably linked to the Brind’Amour trade. He was the thread that held the Legion of Doom–era Flyers together, and when Clarke pulled that thread out the whole tapestry unraveled. Primeau, LeClair, Desjardins, Recchi (who returned to the Flyers for a second tour in 1999), and a revolving door of disappointing ring-chasing veterans—Adam Oates, Alexei Zhamnov, Tony Amonte, Jeremy Roenick—kept the Flyers competitive until the 2004-05 lockout, even returning to the conference final in 2004. But rather than a cohesive championship core, it felt more like a collection of desperate last efforts. The Flyers are still looking for their first Cup since 1975.

The definitive image of Brind’Amour’s career came after Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup final, when he snatched the Cup off the table before commissioner Gary Bettman’s speech even ended, closed his eyes, shouted, and thrust it into the air, 30-odd pounds of silver weighing nothing to Rod the Bod.

Edmonton Oilers v Carolina Hurricanes: Game 7

I remember watching this moment, which is different from remembering the moment itself. I was sitting in a friend’s living room, having just come home from my freshman year of college. Thanks to the 2004-05 lockout, and going to school in South Carolina—nominally Hurricanes country, though in four years I met only one person who gave a damn about the Canes—I was as disconnected from the NHL as I’d been since I picked up the sport as an 8-year-old. Watching Brind’Amour lift the Cup was a deeply weird experience. There was unreserved joy for such a foundational athlete of my childhood, who’d left Philadelphia on good terms, reach the pinnacle of his sport. But all the time there was a nagging disappointment that he was lifting the Cup while wearing red, and not orange and black.

The 49-year-old Brind’Amour who stands behind the Carolina bench isn’t the 26-year-old center who took the Flyers to the Stanley Cup final in 1997. His hair is shorter, his face is an even more detailed topographical map of the world, and in a suit and tie he looks less like the playground tough guy than the playground tough guy’s father. But his presence is the same. Even in a game as chaotic as hockey, this is a safe pair of hands.