It is hard to find hockey fans more biased, blatant and rude than those who cheer for the Philadelphia Flyers.
It is even harder to find a player on a rival team that Flyers fans will admit they actually like.
The Flyers have been building rivalries since they came into the league in 1967, and in 2011-12, mentioning Eastern Conference foes like the Penguins, Rangers, Devils and Bruins will unleash a slew of “That guy sucks,” “He’s overrated,” and “I’d never want him playing in Philly!”
However, some opponents play a style of hockey that even the most vicious Flyers’ fan will begrudgingly admit he respects.
For all the hate to be found in the stands of the Wells Fargo Center, these are 10 rival players that we secretly like.
The more the Toronto Maple Leafs improve, the more likely we are to see a return to the vicious matchups between the Flyers and Leafs that grabbed the attention of the NHL in the early 2000s. With passionate fans in the stands and firecrackers like Zac Rinaldo and Colton Orr on the ice, bad blood will be brewing soon.
But Toronto’s biggest breakout star not named Phil Kessel will still bring a feeling of nostalgia for Flyers’ fans. Joffrey Lupul spent two seasons in Philly and played extremely effectively with Jeff Carter and Scott Hartnell, and his party-boy ways made him a moderate celebrity on a team on the rise.
Flyers fans still remember his overtime goal in Game 7 against the Washington Capitals, eliminating the Caps and sending the Flyers to the second round of the 2008 Stanley Cup playoffs.
As long as Lupul doesn’t do the same sort of thing in a potential Leafs-Flyers playoff series, the fanbase will always have a soft spot for Joffrey.
Should Zach Parise become an unrestricted free agent this offseason, he will likely find himself with long-term job security and a nice, heavy paycheck.
Not including his injury-plagued 2010-11 campaign, Parise has been a lock to score 30 goals per season, topping out at 45 goals during his 94-point season in 2008-09.
His 17 points this year are underwhelming, but Parise will undoubtedly find himself back on track in the coming months. When he reaches that stride again, his skill will be tough to match.
As an American-born player perfectly designed for today’s NHL, it’s hard to watch him play and not be in awe, no matter how much you hate the uniform he is wearing.
Admittedly, Bobby Ryan does not play for a Flyers’ rival, and it’s difficult to imagine anyone not liking this guy (former coach Randy Carlyle notwithstanding).
But recent (now debunked) trade rumors had Ryan going to a city like New York, where the Cherry Hill, New Jersey native would have been suiting up for the hated Rangers.
Even if this happened, South Jersey’s Flyer-loving population would have trouble hating their hometown hero. The boyish charm and Garden-State roots would be enough to stomach the image of Ryan as a blueshirt.
Such a scenario would probably prompt Ryan-for-van Riemsdyk trade speculation, allowing a couple Jersey boys to play for their childhood teams instead of the hated rivals.
In the 2009 offseason, there were rumors that Boston tried to trade Tim Thomas to the Flyers in exchange for Jeff Carter.
If this is true, the city of Philadelphia may as well pull out its collective hair.
Carter would play one more low-energy, uninspired season for the Flyers before being traded to Columbus, while Tim Thomas would steal back the starting role from up-and-comer Tuukaa Rask and go on to set a record for save percentage in a season.
Philadelphia’s struggles with goaltending are well-documented, and as a result, the city gets especially jealous of teams with a franchise goaltender. Not only does Thomas have enviable skill, but his tough-guy style is reminiscent of Ron Hextall, Neil Little and Ray Emery.
Blue-collar, badass and built to win. The only thing about Tim Thomas that doesn’t scream “Philadelphia Flyer” is the fact that he’s a goaltender who doesn’t seem to struggle.
Thanks to a seven-game playoff series and plenty of personal attacks between Mike Richards, Ryan Miller, Danny Briere and Patrick Kaleta, the Flyers and Sabres have more tension between them than most non-divisional teams do.
But no matter how frustrating the Sabres can be for Flyers’ fans, it’s impossible not to like Nathan Gerbe.
With a frame that seems less like an athlete and more like a cheerleader, Gerbe simply does not look like he belongs on the ice at an NHL arena, unless he were playing the pee-wee game between periods. Yet he plays a skilled, tough game that is difficult to find in players who have six inches and 40 pounds on him.
Even for a franchise that has valued big, tough enforcers, it’s impossible not to appreciate the attitude and enthusiasm exhibited by Gerbe every time his tiny skates hit the ice.
The rivalries with the Devils, Rangers and Penguins can be enough to make Flyers fans forget their fourth opponent in the soon-to-be-extinct Atlantic Division, the New York Islanders.
However, the Islanders have targeted the Flyers for years now, and the young, up-and-coming group from Long Island has to be taken more seriously every season.
New York’s Michael Grabner burst onto the scene last season as one of the quickest forwards in the league, and his breakaway speed netted him six shorthanded goals.
Grabner may not have the toughness Flyers’ fans famously respect, but his PK skills and two-way reliability make him the type of player who makes fans wish he was wearing orange and black instead of…whatever those Islanders alternates are.
Once again, half the reason Philly has to secretly love Henrik Lundqvist is because he is exactly what we always seem to need: a goalie who can be relied on.
Specifically, Lundqvist has been masterful in shootouts, stealing valuable points for the Rangers every season by tipping the post-overtime contest to New York’s advantage. The Flyers, on the other hand, have famously struggled in the shootout since its inception.
Calm, collected and experienced, Lundqvist is consistently the biggest obstacle the Flyers face when they play the Rangers, and the blueshirts’ goalie has stolen more than a few head-to-head matchups for the MSG crowd.
On top of it all, Lundqvist is famously humble and mild-mannered. No matter how much you want to hate him, he’s too damn nice.
The Staal family is not only building its own hockey dynasty, but it's doing it in unique fashion.
Eric has found his place in Carolina as the team’s captain and perennial top scorer; no name is more synonymous with Carolina hockey than his. Brother Marc, on the other hand, has found his niche in New York as a stay-at-home defenseman, providing stability on the blue line.
The third in line, Jordan, has established himself as an effective player as well, and has his own distinct style in Pittsburgh. Instead of being the superstar like Eric, Jordan plays in the shadow of two of them, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
While Crosby and Malkin regularly light the lamp, Staal has spent time as a center on the second and third lines, rounding out the offense, backchecking in the Pittsburgh zone, and getting significant time on special teams.
He has become a jack-of-all-trades, a player of great versatility who commands respect from all opposing fanbases.
For all of Philly’s hatred for Pittsburgh—from the announcers to the fanbase to the playoff struggles to Sidney Crosby—it’s just impossible not to like Jordan Staal. Just a little.
In the oft-quoted film Anchorman, Vince Vaughn plays a rival news anchor who famously tells Will Ferrell “I hate you Ron Burgundy, but damnit, do I respect you.”
Ditto that line for Ryan Callahan.
As a Flyers rival, Callahan is exactly the kind of player the Flyers would love to see wearing their logo. He plays strong hockey on both ends of the ice, he isn’t afraid to mix it up with opponents and he can score important goals for his team.
All of those traits made Callahan a natural choice for captain when Chris Drury retired.
Callahan embodies all the things Flyers’ fans loved about Mike Richards, save the binge drinking at college parties.
At this year’s Winter Classic, Callahan will undoubtedly get under the skin of Flyers’ defenders, but there will be no one more deserving of a handshake at the end of the game.
Martin Brodeur is the anti-Flyer.
When the Flyers were going through goalies like Brian Boucher, Garth Snow, Ray Emery and Antero Niittymaki, the Devils had one constant: Martin Brodeur.
When the Flyers and Devils found themselves constantly battling for the Atlantic Division title, the deciding factor always seemed to come down to the reliable nature of Martin Brodeur.
When the Flyers found themselves constantly striving for Lord Stanley’s Cup but never attaining it, the Devils won three championships thanks to their star netminder: Martin Brodeur.
Let’s face it, no Flyers fan can think about the Flyers-Devils rivalry of the 90s and 2000s without wondering how it would be different if Brodeur had found his way down the Jersey Turnpike and into a Flyers uniform.
He’s had our number for most of his career. He’s played some of his biggest games against the Flyers. He’s achieved all the success that Flyers’ netminders never could.
I can’t tell if that makes me really, really hate Martin Brodeur—or really, really like him.
He’s just that damn good.