PRAGUE — Czech this out, Flyers fans. The orange and black opened their 2019-20 campaign in the Czech Republic Friday afternoon - and their die-hard fans - including lots of Delco zealots - went along for the ride.
Technically, it was the Flyers "home" opener, but it was quite a distance from the sports complex in South Philly, with the puck drop taking place at the O2 Arena in Prague, Czech Republic, against the Chicago Blackhawks as part of the NHL Global Series. Following the team’s 4-3 win, Flyers captain Claude Giroux said, “Last night we went out to dinner, and there were Flyers fans everywhere.”
A good chunk of orange and black devotees traveled across the Atlantic for the game from right here in Delco, eager to see their hometown heroes take the ice in their inaugural European regular season game for the NHL. It’s been a long wait for the Flyers to get their chance to shine in the international spotlight in what was dubbed the NHL Premiere when it debuted in 2007 before being rebranded as the Global Series in 2017.
“Maybe because [the league] is looking at youth and the Flyers are getting more exposure trying to build everything back up with the younger guys we have,” said Matt Holmes of Aston, speculating as to why teams like the Ottawa Senators, Anaheim Ducks and Buffalo Sabres were tapped by the NHL before the Flyers to play outside North America.
None of the past slights mattered though, because when the game began in front of a sold-out crowd at 8 p.m. local time (2 o'clock in the afternoon here in Philly), all that was the focus was the here and now, and the grandeur at being in one of the most beautiful cities in all of Europe to watch some hockey.
“It’s been awesome, everybody’s been friendly, nice, we’ve had a great time hanging out, doing things around Prague – it’s been great,” said Cheryl Smith, who came from Boothwyn along with her friend Brandy Beauchamp.
The pair were part of the group “Phans of Philly,” run by Joe DiBaggio, who puts together travel packages for road trips to see Philly sports teams in cities where they’re the visitor. This is the first time a Flyers game required a passport, with an estimated 200 members of his band of Philly fans getting stamped to see the big season-opening win in what was technically a home game.
Despite those promising numbers, the crowd in Prague looked to be woefully in favor of Blackhawks fans, a veritable sea of red in spots, but the Fly-guys definitely had the more vocal legions on their side. “Go Hawks!” chants were lacking in volume as each “Let’s Go Flyers!” shook the O2. And as for those pesky Chicago supporters? There wasn’t any serious trouble to be seen between the factions rooting for opposing sides.
“Their fans aren’t bad, but there’s the competitiveness,” Broomall’s Ally Stevens said. “They definitely had a little more strength in numbers, but I think we’re holding our own. All the diehards are here. Nobody’s gonna travel to Europe if they don’t love the sport and their team – you know?”
One of the secret weapons the Flyers brought with them was Gritty. The Flyers mascot spent the week taking in the sites in Western Europe, as a quick look at the official Instagram of the lovable orange beast saw him embracing tourist stops in Switzerland, where he also donned lederhosen and stopped by a chocolatier and attempted to design a Flyers-shaped cookie before coming to Prague. Gritty made a special trip up to the upper level, where everyone knows is often home to the most hardcore fans.
“That was a great experience, an incredible atmosphere – really pumped the crowd up,” Holmes said about the googly-eyed miscreant making an appearance.
Gritty seemed drawn like a magnet was pulling him to that particular section of Flyers fans, which may have had something to do with the strong Delco contingent.
“The Delco spirit – we bring the good times!” Stevens enthused. “Like [Smith] said, everybody’s super friendly, you meet a lot of new people, everyone is here with a common interest and we’re all here for the same purpose.”
“Being that it’s in Prague; incredible country … for a lifetime Flyers fan, it’s a once in a lifetime experience,” Holmes added, before he accurately predicted a victory for Philly going into the third period.
But what about the rest of the season? After all, the last time the Blackhawks were featured in a regular season European matchup, having split a 2009 two-game series against the Florida Panthers in Helsinki, Finland, they went on to win the Stanley Cup.
“I’m just hoping we make the playoffs and I don’t wanna jinx anything,” Holmes said laughing.