Can Keith Jones Lead the Flyers Out of the Wilderness?
Pretty much everyone was surprised when the Flyers tabbed trash-talking Jones to be president of hockey operations and lead them out of the darkest decade in franchise history. Jonesey wouldn’t have it any other way.
When Keith Jones and Steve Coates, retired hockey players turned Flyers broadcasters, used to fly on the team plane, Jones liked to pull out a computer and watch games and highlights during late trips home.
“I wanted to take a nap,” laughs Coates. But instead, the two would often end up talking hockey deep into the night.
Coates had parlayed an unremarkable minor-league career into 30 years as a Flyers broadcaster, becoming a font of folksy hockey wisdom through his regular “Coatsey’s Corner” segments during intermissions. Jones, who retired as a Flyer in 2000, ground out nine seasons in the NHL, where he was best known for his ability to get under opponents’ skin. Despite Jones’s unserious reputation, Coates was always impressed with his young counterpart’s knowledge of the game and knack for evaluating hockey talent.
“He has a scary-good ability to judge a player and know all the things that make someone be successful,” says Coates.
On a few occasions, Coates told the younger man that one day, Jones would be an NHL team’s general manager — a prospect that never seemed to interest Jones. He was busy with and quite enjoying his broadcasting gig, thank you very much. But when Coates eventually said on a flight that he thought Jones would one day be the Flyers’ president, that hit differently. Jones says it did “spark something” in his imagination.
In May, that spark became a full-on conflagration. The Flyers, in the throes of perhaps the bleakest stretch in franchise history, were looking for new leadership. And after a long search shrouded in more secrecy than a CIA operation — Jones says he couldn’t even tell his closest friends about the process — Jones was tabbed as the new president of hockey operations for the Flyers. He beat out several other former Flyers, including Chris Pronger and Scott Mellanby, as well as two-time NHL GM Ray Shero (son of legendary Flyers Stanley Cup-winning coach Fred) and 16-year NHL vet Eddie Olczyk, who shared the TNT broadcast booth with Jones last year. The former Flyer best known for his sharp elbows and sharper trash-talking would be out front for a franchise that has, for more than a decade, been flailing on the ice and alienating fans off it.
To some observers, the decision seemed like, well, a joke. Local sports website Crossing Broad wrote, “This is not The Onion” in reporting on the announcement. The Delco Times’s Rob Parent wrote that some people around the league laughed, because “Jonesy” — he won’t answer to Keith — had no executive, scouting or coaching experience.
And fair enough. Yes, his local and national broadcast experience had allowed him to build quite the network in the hockey world. But closer to home, Jones was just as recognized for the 21 years he spent as part of the group that orbited Angelo Cataldi in the morning on WIP, where he often played humorous, clowning roles like “Corn Boy,” a nod to his residence on a South Jersey farm. Sure, other former players (Cam Neely, John Davidson) had ascended from the TV booth to top management. But Jonesy? He never seemed like that guy.
To others around the league, it looked like a typical Flyers move. For much of its history, the team has relied on stars of previous eras to call the shots in the next. They had already enlisted Danny Briere — who’d played for the team from 2008 to 2013 — as general manager. Now they were hiring another former player as president, continuing a lineage that includes Bobby Clarke, Bill Barber and Paul Holmgren.
But this isn’t a Groundhog Day-style reboot. The aforementioned legends, for instance, had no idea that Briere, who’s come in preaching the gospel of analytics and data, would be hired to replace former GM Chuck Fletcher. Nor were they consulted about Jones. There’s little indication the new leadership will seek advice from its elders, although Briere, Jones, and new Comcast Spectacor CEO/Flyers governor Dan Hilferty are quick to praise those Flyers legends and won’t publicly say their days as hockey influencers in this town are done.
But they are. In March, not long after he was hired, Briere told 97.5 The Fanatic that the franchise wouldn’t be “the Broad Street Bullies from the ’70s and ’80s.” He also suggested that over the previous 11 seasons, in which the team posted just one playoff-series victory, hard decisions about rebuilding the roster were kicked down the road. “We were trying to do some patchwork instead of facing the truth,” Briere said.
This decade-plus in the wilderness has created problems for Jones and his GM beyond the hockey. Despite not winning the Stanley Cup since 1975, the Flyers had enjoyed steady success from their 1967 inception through the 2011-’12 season — they were almost always in the playoffs and always in the conversation. Because of that, a loyal army of Flyers fans packed the Wells Fargo nightly. They were more singularly devoted than any other local fan base, except possibly that of the Eagles. Media members referred to the Flyers as Philadelphia’s “fourth team,” but for the fans who bled orange and black, they were number one. That’s changed. Poor management decisions and a lack of player development have consigned the team to the NHL’s doldrums. They finished sixth or lower in the Metropolitan Division each of the past three seasons. In recent years, the most popular Flyer has been Gritty, and it’s not even close. The atmosphere in the Wells Fargo Center is often funereal. “Nobody cares about them in the city,” says Cataldi. “They’re in danger of moving to fifth, behind the Union.”
Winning back fan confidence is as important as fixing the product on the ice. Making Jones president is an indication that the franchise recognizes the disconnect and wants to repair it. Not only does his hiring signal a break from the Old Way; it brings a highly unconventional candidate to the job at a time when lots of sports organizations are reimagining leadership roles. Jones may not have executive experience, but his two-plus decades as a broadcast analyst mean he’s kept up with the modern game. Importantly, he knows everybody around the NHL and has gained their trust. Jones has the hockey chops but also a gregarious personality that will play well out in front.
“He gets everybody,” Briere says. “He gets the fans. He gets the players. He gets the staff. It’s so amazing the way Jonesy gets people. He understands what we’re trying to do and where we’re going.”
Jones has defied expectations at every step of his career. Now all he has to do is convince a wayward fan base to come along for the ride.
No other franchise in the city must succeed in the specific way the Flyers must. They need to embrace the legacy of former owner Ed Snider, the father of the franchise, who died in 2016. At his introductory press conference, Jones said the Flyers were still “Mr. Snider’s team.” And they have to be tough, like the Cup winners of the ’70s. The fans want the Flyers, as longtime team chronicler Al Morganti says, “to put the Philadelphia back in the Philadelphia Flyers.” At a 97.5 The Fanatic fan event in August, as Jones was being interviewed onstage by host Anthony Gargano, a member of the crowd yelled, “Broad Street Bullies!” But this is 2023, and Jones knows the Flyers must change to thrive in today’s NHL.
Toughness “is the personality of the city,” Jones, candid and forthcoming when we meet up at a Starbucks in Medford, says of how he and Briere will have to think as they rebuild the hockey operation. “It’s a different type of tough than before, but it’s still a big part of hockey. It’s still a big part of every contact sport, including football. When you think of Eagles players like Jason Kelce and Brandon Graham, who lay it on the line every time, that’s the type of tough we’re looking for. Those types of players can excel in this environment and this city.”
So maybe we call this “Bullies Lite.” Hockey remains a physical sport, and the best teams surround their star scorers with bodyguards who can also intimidate opponents’ stars. Jones calls building a roster that has both kinds of players a “balancing act.” Too much skill, and you get run over in the playoffs. Too many roughnecks, and you can’t score enough to reach the post-season. Teams that find guys who can do both often end up hoisting the Stanley Cup in June.
It’s a more measured assessment than you get from people who know Jones only from his trash-talking days or the morning shows.
“He checks every box,” Coates says. “He’s one of the best hockey men I’ve ever met.”
That certainly wasn’t always the case. When he was younger, Jones’s relationship with the game was pretty casual.
He first entered a weight room in 1988 as a 19-year-old freshman at Western Michigan University, which he winkingly calls “the Harvard of the Midwest.” He settled under a bar loaded with 135 pounds — warm-up work for the rest of the team. He could barely budge it.
“I was watching, and I thought, ‘That doesn’t look too tough,’” Jones says. “I got underneath there, and I couldn’t get one up. Everyone else was warming up with it, and I couldn’t do it once.”
During his youth and junior hockey careers, Jones might run a mile or spend an occasional hour in the gym and then grab a burger. That was his “training.” “I will say, if I had to go through the combine like the kids do today, I probably would have quit hockey,” he tells me. “At that age, I had never lifted a weight. If I had to take my shirt off in front of people, I would have had a heart attack. Guaranteed.”
Jones’s journey to Kalamazoo was an unlikely one. He was born in Brantford, Ontario, on November 8, 1968. His father, Denys, had come over from Wales at 16 and became an educator. His mother, Beverly, stayed home with the kids. When Jones was 14, his 20-year-old brother, Greig — he also has two sisters, Barbara and Carolyn — died when he was hit by a train. The family never knew whether it was an accident or suicide. Jones says Greig’s death helped him develop toughness and an ability to fight past pain and adversity.
“It supplied me with a real strength, a human quality that I didn’t have before,” he wrote in his autobiography, Jonesy: Put Your Head Down & Skate, written with ESPN’s John Buccigross. “It gave me the ability to try things that didn’t seem possible.”
Jones started skating as soon as he could walk and was highly successful until he was about 10. That’s when the other kids started growing as big as, or bigger than, he was. “The dream of playing in the NHL started to dissipate around 13, until, quite honestly, I was drafted,” he says.
Though Jones eventually filled out to six feet and about 200 pounds when he played for the Flyers, he was underdeveloped physically as a youth player. As a result, the highest level of play he reached as a teenager in Canada was Junior B — still two steps away from the top amateur leagues, which replace high-school and college hockey for many Canadian players. For Jones, hockey was fun. He wasn’t on anyone’s radar in the winter of 1988, when Washington Capitals scout Sam McMaster visited Niagara Falls to check out one of Jones’s teammates. McMaster wasn’t too impressed with that player, but he says Jones “jumped out at him” during the game. He mentioned this to Caps GM Jack Button, who was skeptical and told McMaster to find a college where Jones could develop for a few years should the Caps draft him. McMaster made a few calls, and eventually Jones landed a scholarship offer from Western Michigan.
That June, the Caps drafted him in the seventh round, with the 141st overall pick. Button had followed up on McMaster’s recommendation and scouted Jones himself. He liked his potential, but when he submitted Jones’s name at the draft in June of ’88, the NHL stopped the proceedings. No one knew who Jones was, and the league’s Central Scouting agency had to determine if he was even eligible to be drafted. He was, and he headed to Western to develop his game.
“He was a tall, lanky kid with a lot of ability,” McMaster says. “He was the best player on the ice that night I scouted him, and that’s all I needed.”
Even Jones was a little surprised at being chosen. “I never completely knew if I could play in the National Hockey League,” he says.
Jones managed nine goals his first year at WMU, but he scored 30 as a junior. Still, the Caps showed no interest in having him leave the Broncos early to join the organization. “There was no rush [for Washington] to get me out of school, I can tell you that,” he says. (Unlike in MLB, if an NHL team drafts a player who goes to college, the team retains draft rights for four years.)
After he left Western Michigan, Jones took part in his first Washington training camp, which taught him that if he was going to play NHL hockey, it wasn’t going to be as a big goal scorer. So he chose another path. “It was my way of getting my foot in the door — becoming a more aggressive player,” he says. It worked. The veteran players accepted him because of his toughness, and after just 14 games in the minors, Jones joined the big club.
He played four-plus seasons with the Caps before he was traded to the then-defending Stanley Cup champion Avalanche in ’96. Upon arriving in Colorado, Jones walked into the locker room and informed the successful veteran team, “Don’t worry, boys. Everything is good. Jonesy is here to save the day.”
He used his sharp humor to win over teammates and agitate opponents. “He’s the biggest smart-ass in the world,” Buccigross says. “He could stir the pot like nobody could,” says Coates. Jones understood his job was to rattle the other team with words and physical play. It made him incredibly popular in the locker room and kept him in the league for nine years, which ultimately gave him the credibility to launch a broadcasting career.
“It was effective,” says John LeClair, who played with and against Jones and is now the team’s special adviser to hockey operations. “Some guys aren’t tough, so [the talking] throws them off their game. They’re thinking about Jonesy more than the game.”
During the Flyers’ 1999 playoff series with Toronto, Jones so successfully badgered Maple Leafs right wing Steve Thomas that during the traditional post-game handshake line, Jones says, Thomas said to him, “I swear on my kid’s head, I’m going to kill you in the first game between us next year.”
Olczyk, who played against Jones in the 1990s and worked with him as a broadcaster for more than a decade, appreciated Jones’s “hard-nosed, in-your-face approach” and championship trash-talking. “He had the ability to run you into the third or fifth row,” he recalls, “and then stand over you and tell you what he did.”
Jones scored a career-high 23 goals for Colorado during the 1996-’97 season, but during the playoffs, he tore his ACL. Instead of using a cadaver tendon to repair the tear, the surgeon harvested the middle third of Jones’s patellar tendon, a fairly common procedure. In most cases, the section of the tendon regenerates. In Jones’s case, it didn’t. He lost mobility and strength and had to brace his leg tightly just to skate.
Jones played two-plus years with the Flyers, to whom he was traded in 1998. He was often in pain, but he kept going, thanks to the brace and sheer grit. Jones wasn’t making big money, so he needed to stay in the league to earn a living. He didn’t get a multi-year deal until his final contract — a three-year agreement. “It was survival,” he says. If he had earned more money to that point, he acknowledges, he likely would have quit.
Still, he was chosen to skate on the Flyers’ top line, with stars Eric Lindros and LeClair. The odd alliance worked because Jones knew his place in the grouping. Lindros and LeClair would handle the scoring, while Jones would provide protection.
“You obviously have to be a good hockey player to play with players of that ilk, but you also have to realize that you’re not as good as they are, but you’re important to making them play to their highest potential,” Jones says. “It’s about making others excel and gelling and recognizing that you can be an important part of the line, but you’re not making the line.”
It’s a lesson he’ll be employing in his new role. He’s back on the “top line,” working with Briere and Hilferty — “No-bullshit guys,” according to former Flyers player and broadcaster Bill Clement. Jones’s number one job will be making others excel, to bring cohesion to an organization and its fan base. But this time, he may very well be the guy “making the line.”
Jones’s first day as a national broadcaster was a disaster. Brought on the set at ESPN with Buccigross, he could barely form words.
“He was as white as a ghost,” Buccigross remembers. “We went on break, and he said, ‘This is harder than I thought it would be.’”
Jones had been a communications major at WMU. When he played, he loved talking to the media. But this was new, and it was scary.
“I knew I was terrible, and I just couldn’t figure out a way to make it come across more naturally,” Jones says. “It was a humbling experience, to say the least.”
Jones headed back to Philadelphia, where he worked as a TV analyst for the Flyers and as part of Cataldi’s WIP show. That allowed him to “get the reps” and begin to let his gregarious personality come through. He was learning the business, and it was no problem for him to play a supporting role until he was ready to step forward.
The following spring, he was back on ESPN. “He was a whole different person,” Buccigross says. “Six months before, he was a sweating wreck. He figured it out.” Jones’s broadcasting career became a two-decade audition for his current job. He made contacts and displayed his knowledge of the sport without sacrificing his trademark humor. He was introducing himself to the fans in another role, just as he will as president. He did Flyers games for NBC Sports Philadelphia and national analysis for NBC, Versus and Turner Broadcasting. All the while, he appeared twice weekly on WIP, no matter what time he finished his TV gig. For Jones, it was again about being a good teammate.
“The number one thing was, I was there for [Cataldi] when he needed me, no matter what time of night I arrived or how little sleep I had the night before,” Jones says. “I performed for him.”
As the host’s career wound down toward its February 2023 conclusion, Cataldi struggled at times to summon the energy necessary to host the show. Jones recognized Cataldi’s predicament and encouraged him. He had graduated from bit player to a key motivating force by making sure Cataldi was ready to go.
“He would tell me, ‘You realize you’re still the best, right? You haven’t lost anything. You’re just as good as you were 10 years ago,’” Cataldi says. “I started to believe it.”
This summer, Jones quickly started getting his reps in his new role. On June 11th, members of the Flyers’ social media team forgot to hit the mute button on a Zoom press conference to introduce new forward Garnet Hathaway and were heard ridiculing then-Inquirer reporter Giana Han after she asked Hathaway why he’d decided to join a rebuilding team. That evening, Jones issued an unequivocal apology on social media, and Briere said the team was “completely embarrassed” by the comments.
In March, Briere’s son, Carson, was seen on videotape pushing an unoccupied wheelchair down the steps at a bar near the campus of Mercyhurst University, where he’s a student. Briere classified the act as “inexcusable” and said it ran “completely counter to our family’s values of treating people with respect.” Both responses were refreshing changes from a team not known for openness and transparency.
“It was accountability,” Morganti says. “Danny had to stand there and answer questions when his kid got into trouble.”
Jones says hiding from problems builds the kind of animosity that now prevails among many former Flyers fans. “As uncomfortable as things can be, we gotta be up-front, and we have to do the right thing,” he says.
“For a while, fans looked at the Flyers as a corporation rather than as people they could put a name and face to. Now, if the team loses, there’s a feeling Jonesy and Danny will really hurt. There’s a face to the organization.” — Al Morganti
Cataldi approves of the franchise’s new attitude.
“There was a wall there,” Cataldi says. “Jonesy wants to knock down that wall. For too many years, the Flyers employed people in top management positions who didn’t give a damn about the fan base.”
Jones must convince Flyers fans the organization cares about them. Winning hockey will help, but organizational arrogance can temper even the good times. When the Phillies reached the World Series last year, the city delighted not just in “Red October,” but in owner John Middleton’s constant presence at the ballpark as he enthusiastically interacted with fans. Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie isn’t drinking beers with rowdies at games, but he’s highly visible. And the members of the Sixers ownership group, from Josh Harris and David Adelman to former minority owner Michael Rubin, have been front-row regulars for home games — something fans appreciate.
“For a while,” says Morganti, who’s covered the Flyers since 1979, “fans looked at the Flyers as a corporation rather than as people they could put a name and face to.” He’s referring to Comcast’s ownership of the franchise; Comcast merged with Ed Snider’s Spectacor in 1996 and has owned the team since. Now, “If the team loses, there’s a feeling Jonesy and Danny will really hurt. There’s a face to the organization.”
Comcast still owns the Flyers, but there’s a sense the new executive team wants to change perception away from a monolithic leadership group. Jones wants fans to feel like the franchise’s partners. No one who understands professional sports is naive enough to think teams don’t exist to make money and increase a franchise’s value. But the best ones work to create a shared purpose with their supporters. Winning is the biggest part of that. Yet there has to be a human side, too.
“It’s about fixing the team first and foremost but doing the other things along the way to make sure we keep fans interested and also continue to communicate to them in an honest way what we’re trying to accomplish,” says Jones. “And when the curveballs arrive, we’re there to face it. When we start getting some fastballs, we’ll enjoy that part of it. We realize it’s going to be a process. It’s going to be a while.”
It will be a process, but not a “Process.”
“We will never tank a game,” Jones says. “We will try to win every time our guys step on the ice.”
Some people believe the Flyers could make the playoffs soon. Injuries to key players Cam Atkinson and Sean Couturier hurt the team last year, but they’re both back. Winger Owen Tippett has plenty of potential. So does Morgan Frost. Joel Farabee, Travis Konecny and Scott Laughton are solid pieces. And coach John Tortorella may be prickly with the media, but his teams play hard. There have been some quick NHL turnarounds in the past decade: In 2013-’14, the New York Islanders finished last in the Metropolitan Division, with 79 points. A year later, they had 101 and a spot in the playoffs. In 2021-’22, the Seattle Kraken managed just 60 points — third fewest in the league. Last year, they registered 100 and won a first-round series. “I don’t think the Flyers are too far away,” broadcaster Clement says. For the Flyers to effect that kind of turnaround, the players returning from injury must rebound in big ways, and the young defense has to tighten up a lot.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if they hang in through the season,” Morganti says.
While Briere handles day-to-day team management and Hilferty works on big-picture issues including the continued renovation of the Wells Fargo Center (and the Sixers’ desire to leave for a new arena), Jones will be doing a bit of everything, all the time. Hilferty says Jones will provide a “big picture” sense of the hockey operations. “I wanted someone who had the charisma and the external chops and experience to really connect with the fans,” Hilferty explains. “But I was blown away by his hockey knowledge, his relationships, and how he’s respected throughout the NHL and his personality that isn’t about ‘me, me, me.’”
Briere will oversee all hockey decisions, such as signings, trades, the draft, scouting and player development, with input from Jones and Tortorella. Jones will share his opinions regarding player personnel, but Briere has the final call.
“When he was a broadcaster, GMs would talk to him about players,” says Morganti. “Broadcasters are like scouts, traveling around and seeing every team.”
“I don’t think we could find someone better than him in that role,” Briere says. “It really helps me. I’m still doing a little bit [of fan relations], but he helps me focus a little more on the day-to-day hockey stuff.”
But Jones will have a role in the hockey stuff. For example, he was an integral part of the complicated off-season trade that sent defenseman Ivan Provorov to Columbus. Because Jones basically grew up with L.A. Kings general manager Rob Blake — they’re from neighboring Ontario towns — he was able to work with Blake to bring the Kings in as a third team on the deal. But it’s not just Blake. Colorado president of hockey operations Joe Sakic was Jones’s roommate on the road when they played for the Avalanche. Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald was a teammate in Colorado, as was Rangers GM Chris Drury. Jones doesn’t know everybody in the NHL, but his contact list is loaded. That’s vital in the close-knit NHL world.
Being busy will be nothing new for him. “His schedule was nightmarish,” Coates says about Jones’s life as a broadcaster. “I don’t know how he did it. He was the Energizer Bunny.” Coates says Jones “has no time for hobbies,” although he did own Thoroughbreds at one point. Until recently, he lived on that farm in Jersey — a necessity since his wife, Laura, and daughter, Adrian, are equestrians. The family moved to Ocala, Florida, last year to support those equine pursuits, but Jones’s new job has brought him back.
“I’ve been on a horse,” he says. “It’s absolutely terrifying to me.” What doesn’t frighten him is communing with fans and staff. He can “get along with everybody,” according to Cataldi. Buccigross says he’ll “be able to connect with the Zamboni driver” — something other NHL presidents can’t.
“I think accessibility is a huge part of it — crossing paths with people and making them seem like they are part of something important, whether it’s a fan of any age or an employee,” Jones says. “I want everyone to feel like we’re doing it together.”
Jones’s style may be less polished than that of the typical executive, but there’s no denying his hockey knowledge and appeal to fans. The ultimate teammate is now the Flyers’ leader.
Woe to those who underestimate him.
Published as “Oval Office” in the November 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.