Keith Jones wanted Philadelphia Flyers fans to know that the team isn’t a Stanley Cup contender.
This is not candor you hear often from a team president, especially one that was just formally hired a few months before the 2023-24 season. Teams like to keep it hyper-positive and slightly delusional when they’re trying to sell season ticket packages and sponsorships.
But that’s been the problem in Philadelphia, as Jones sees it.
“I think that there was a perception that the team was a Stanley Cup contending team — even though it wasn’t. And that’s something that I think the fans in this city can sniff out pretty quickly,” Jones told ESPN recently. “That’s a well-educated fan base, and I think disappointing them does not serve you well.”
Jones was hired in May to take over the Flyers after a lengthy career as a broadcaster for the team and for nationally televised games on NBC and Turner. Philadelphia hasn’t made the playoffs since the 2019-20 season. The Flyers have one playoff series victory since 2012.
Yet the message to fans was always that the team could contend, even when the roster might have indicated otherwise.
“I do think there were folks that believed that the team was going to be repaired each summer in a way where they were going to be a playoff team the following year,” Jones said. “But it was more just filling in one leak and then creating another. And I think that didn’t benefit anybody.”
This offseason, the Flyers traded away big-name veterans in center Kevin Hayes and defenseman Ivan Provorov. They bought out defenseman Tony DeAngelo. They had players like James van Riemsdyk leave as free agents. Hard-skating depth forward Garnet Hathaway and journeyman defenseman Marc Staal were their most prominent signings, as the team went with an internal youth movement.
There was no building the façade of a playoff contender. Jones, in no uncertain terms, didn’t want to leave Flyers fans with that impression, unlike in years past.
“The fans’ expectations weren’t being met by the team. And I think in some ways, the team played into those expectations,” he said. “They weren’t setting things up for the fans to envision where the team was supposed to land each year.”
Other teams in the Flyers’ situation might have hit the reset button earlier. But Philadelphia is not like most sports towns. There’s a ton of competition for attention and dollars from very successful teams. The Phillies just exited the MLB postseason in Game 7 of the NLCS. The Sixers have made the playoffs for six straight seasons and have the reigning NBA MVP in Joel Embiid. The Eagles lost in the Super Bowl last season and are primed for another run this season. The Union played for the MLS Cup last season.
The challenge for the Flyers is how to remain in that conversation — and sell tickets — while rebuilding.
And it’s a challenge that Jones, GM Daniel Briere and their team are meeting in interesting ways.
FORWARD OWEN TIPPETT is standing on the team’s practice rink surrounded by cameras and flood lighting. He’s been skating and posing, with equal intensity, while wearing a new Flyers sweater, which brings back “burnt orange” into the color scheme.
Someone notes that Tippett’s hair matches the tone of the jersey.
“That’s why I’m here I think,” he quips.
The end result of this filming is a promotional reel to accompany the team’s 2023-24 jersey reveal. But there’s also filming of that filming for “Liftoff: Embarking on a New Era of Flyers Hockey,” a multi-part YouTube series the team created this offseason.
It’s the result of a multi-year investment from the team into its “storytelling,” according to Christine Mina, vice president of content and digital marketing. The series was an introduction for the new leadership group to fans, as well as a way to establish the core message for the team’s marketing efforts.
“The message is: ‘We’re in good hands, they have a great plan, and this is the right group of people to take us through this rebuild,'” Mina said.
The docu-series was filmed a little earlier than other teams’ offseason digital series, which focus mainly on the draft and free agency.
“While the draft was certainly a big piece of our offseason, our story wasn’t so much about the players as it was about this trio of leadership that came in,” she said. “We wanted our fans to know that they could trust this group. That they meant everything that they’re saying.”
At the head of that group is Dan Hilferty, who in February was named CEO of Comcast Spectacor, which owns the Flyers. He put Jones in place, who in turn elevated Briere from interim GM to the permanent job.
“Dan Hilferty took his time to really build the right team of people that he thought would be right for our fan base and for this organization,” Mina said.
That included finding the right messengers.
“If you talk to Jonesy for two minutes, you just feel like, ‘Wow, this guy has got such a great warm presence about him,'” Mina said. “One of the great things about having the new leadership core that we have is that Jonesey has a broadcasting background. He understands and gets the importance of the fans getting to hear the story and peek behind the curtain.”
There is a performative element to the “Liftoff” series. For example, a casual conversation between Briere and Jones is caught on camera. The general manager says that they have to make the rink feel “alive” again. Jones, staring off at the ice, responds, “We’ve both seen it alive.”
Cut to highlights of Jones and Briere in their NHL playing days, suiting up for the Flyers.
Jones is adamant that he and Briere aren’t going to rest on the inherent nostalgia of two former Flyers coming in to turn the team around.
“I think we both recognize that it’s easy to say and harder to do,” he said. “We got to make sure that we hold each other accountable and collaborate, which has been one of the key words that Dan Hilferty kind of instilled in all of us from of the opening press conference. We want to make sure that we do that.”
Accountability is one way to earn the fans’ trust during a rebuild.
Changing the optics was also important.
Welcome to the “New Era of Orange.”
THE FLYERS HADN’T materially changed their uniforms since 2010. Around two years ago, the team started formulating internal plans to return to a “burnt orange” color scheme. It had been used by Flyers teams in the 1980s and 1990s, and fans clamored for it whenever the team would release a third jersey or outdoor game sweater.
The new Flyers jerseys are unique in their nostalgia, incorporating colors and aesthetics from several different eras from the franchise’s history. The single-color design of the numbers harkens back to the 1967 expansion season. The black bar on the bottom recalls the early 1980s. The nameplate design was a more recent innovation.
Jones said the attention put into the jersey’s creation was a message to the fans in itself.
“Every little thing is going to matter as far as trying to do this right,” he said. “And the little things do matter in Philadelphia.”
Something else that matters in Philadelphia: effort.
The city loves a champion. But it falls in love with an underdog. The Flyers’ easiest path to relevance is success on the ice. To the surprise of many, they’re off to an impressive start: 3-2-1.
They’ve looked good in defeat, too, having recently given the undefeated Vegas Golden Knights a tough game on the road. “These are the lessons we’re going to have to go through,” coach John Tortorella said after the Golden Knights game. “I just wish we could have gotten a point.”
Jones said Tortorella deserves credit for getting them prepared for the season.
“We really felt the effects of him being the head coach this training camp, which was a second opportunity for some of our players to come into one of Torts’ legendary camps. And they embraced it,” Jones said. “They were there for their teammates on some of the tougher days, physically cheering each other on. And I think they’ve really taken a sense of pride out of doing it together and kind of fighting through one of the more physically demanding camps.”
To that end, the coach plays a role in the Flyers’ messaging, too.
“The team is competitive on the ice. Torts is never going to let anybody sit back,” Mina said. “That, for us, is really fun because there’s still a story here for us to tell.”
Are the fans buying this new story?
KELLY HINKLE IS a writer for Broad Street Hockey, a Flyers fan site, who has been amused with the concept of a “New Era” of Flyers hockey.
“The ‘New Era’ seems to include a lot of throwbacks. They’ve changed the goal song back to Van Halen’s ‘Ain’t Talkin’ ’bout Love,’ which was the goal song in the late 1990s. They’ve changed the jersey color back to the correct shade of orange. They’ve hired a bunch of guys who have played here before and, in some cases, been here a really long time,” she said.
“But oddly enough, for a fan base that has been complaining for a long time about how this franchise needs to start looking forward this feels … good?”
Hinkle notes that the Flyers have openly used the word “rebuild” to describe the current state of things, which is different. She admits that the selection of dynamic winger Matvei Michkov with the seventh overall pick in June helps add focus to that rebuild — even if he’s presumably stuck in the KHL until the 2026-27 season.
She contends that Jones is “impossible to hate” as team president and that Briere’s moves have been “creative, forward-thinking, and generally wins” for the Flyers. “Whatever it is, the vibes around this team are the best they’ve been in years — and no one expects them to be good,” Hinkle said.
As far as the messaging from the team goes, Hinkle appreciates the communication but would like to see the Flyers cut loose a little more.
“You know that goofy speed dating thing the Sabres just did? The Flyers don’t do a ton of that. Outside of Gritty, there is precious little goofiness,” she said, referencing the team’s ubiquitous mascot. “The Flyers still have a long way to go getting back into the hearts and minds of Philadelphia, and turning the players into humans with personalities who do fun things might help them get a little closer.”
Hinkle notes that the Phillies have charmed the city by being “a bunch of lovable goofballs” and having the team lean into that.
The Phillies are, in fact, fun. Being a Phillies fan — aside from the occasional heartbreak at the hands of some Arizona desert snakes — is also fun.
Jones has noticed this, too. And he’s taking notes.
“The fans and everything that they’re doing at the Phillies games are exactly what we want to have occur at the Flyers games,” he said. “We want to be them at some point. And we’re really focused on becoming them through drafting well and developing our players, and then eventually signing some of those free agents that can put us over the top.”
In other words, convincing potential players that it’s not always scary in Philadelphia?
“Exactly,” Jones said, “but it’s also about finding players that fit the city. Like Bryce Harper and Brandon Graham and Jason Kelce. Players like that who have excelled in Philadelphia. The Flyers brand was built on players like that. So we want to make sure we continue to increase those type of players in our city.”
Eventually, it’ll be impactful free agents that hear Jones’ sales pitch. For now, he’s focused on letting the fans know that that Flyers will get back to that point with focus and patience.
“We’re not trying to sell them that we’re where we want to be. We’re making it clear that we’re going to build together to get where this team’s not just a playoff team one year that misses the next year,” he said.
“We want to be a consistent playoff team that eventually is going to be contending for Stanley Cups. And we’re making sure that we convey that to our fan base every opportunity that we get.”