by Clark Groome
Back in the 1930s, a Broadway show entitled “New Faces of 1934” opened. In it were future stars Imogene Coca and Henry Fonda. Future editions gave us Irwin Corey (1942); Eartha Kitt, Carol Lawrence and Paul Lynde (1952); and Maggie Smith (1956). After seven editions, the series folded its tent in 1968.
In thinking about the Philadelphia professional sports year now drawing to a close, I was struck by the number of new faces – in one case an old face in a new role – who made or are making a significant impact on our pro teams in 2011. This is only a partial list. Others who showed up in Philly during the past 12 months may go on to make an impact on our town’s sports teams. Time will tell. But here, in order of appearance, are the six folk I have cast in “New Faces of 2011.”
Doug Collins. Collins, who played for the ‘76ers from 1973 to 1981, went on to coach in college and the pros. During periods when he wasn’t coaching he worked as a much-respected analyst on NBC and TNT. When the ‘76ers called in May 2010, he returned to coaching. While his team got off to a dreary 3-13 start, his energy, passion and devotion to his players ultimately paid off. His team ended up seventh in the NBA East, and was a playoff team for the first time in several years. For all his success on the court, he was most respected for his integrity and dignity. His players love working for him. Fans love the energy he brings to the team.
Vance Worley. When Phillies starters Joe Blanton and Roy Oswalt went down with injuries, the team turned to rookie Vance Worley to pick up some of the slack. A September call-up the year before, he was viewed as about sixth or seventh on the Phillies pitching depth chart.
This was the rotation touted as one of the best in Major League history with Roy Halliday, Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and Oswalt as the “Four Aces,” and Blanton as the reliable, innings-eating number five. Not much was expected but much was delivered.
The kid with the Mohawk and the thick-framed glasses won two and lost one in spot starts in April and May. Beginning June 29, as part of the regular rotation, he won nine in a row. Those nine were followed by a couple of losses for a record of 11-3 and an ERA of 3.01 in a season that had him contending for the National League’s Rookie of the Year Award.
Wayne Simmonds. When Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren traded Mike Richards to Los Angeles and Jeff Carter to Columbus, one of the parts of that trade was Simmonds, a popular Kings’ forward. Tough and smart, Simmonds has gotten off to a good start. Recently his scoring has picked up and he’s registered five goals and two assists in the last seven games, bringing his season total to nine goals and six assists.
Sean Couturier. Part of the Carter trade to Columbus was its first-round 2011 draft pick. When the Flyers’ turn came, the eighth overall, they chose the 18-year old Couturier. The original thought was he would likely spend another year in juniors and then play for the Adirondack Phantoms before joining the big club in a year or two. Instead he had such a spectacular training camp that he was kept on the roster.
That was a pretty safe move because league rules allow him 10 games to prove his mettle before being sent back to juniors (because of his age he couldn’t go to the Phantoms). Ten games came and went. Couturier stayed. In addition to his time on the ice when the team was even handed, he was also used extensively on the power play, in penalty kills and in the final minutes of close games.
Through the season’s first 31 games he had five goals and four assists. In Saturday’s game against the Boston Bruins, he was hit in the helmet by a puck. The extent of his injury is not yet known. The extent of his contributions so far is very well known, and very impressive.
Hunter Pence. When the Phillies didn’t sign right fielder Jason Werth after the 2010 season, they tried to fill his slot with players already on the roster or in their AAA club in the Lehigh Valley. Nothing worked. Their solution was to trade some highly rated prospects to the Houston Astros for All-Star right fielder Hunter Pence.
Almost from his first day in Phillies pinstripes, he and the city began a love affair that brought life to the team and to its loyal fan base. Described by many as reacting to being on a World Series-contending club after playing for the National League’s worst team like a kid at Christmas, Pence brought an infectious energy to the clubhouse and to the park.
He ran out every hit, used his peculiar batting style effectively, and worked as hard as anyone on the club. In the 54 games he played for the Phils he batted .324 with 67 hits, including 12 doubles, two triples and 11 home runs.
Jaromir Jagr. Perhaps the most surprising new face of 2012 is the 39-year old Jagr, a former Flyers nemesis when he played 12 years for Pittsburgh followed by three for both the Washington Capitals and the New York Rangers. Three years ago he retired from the NHL to play in Russia. This past summer he decided he wanted to end his Hall of Fame Career back in the NHL. Surprisingly, he chose Philadelphia rather than Pittsburgh.
Jagr is one of the best offensive players ever to play the game. He’s currently tied for 11th on the all-time goal-scoring list with 656 goals and has recorded 1,625 points over the 1,300 games he’s played. He has become one the team’s leaders (a role he previously resisted and really wasn’t very good at). He’s having fun and setting an example for the young guys on his team by maintaining a brutal workout regimen and giving his all to a sport he clearly loves.
What’s remarkable is that the fans have taken to this long-hated player with an affection that is usually reserved for the likes of Bobby Clarke, Dr. J., Rich Ashburn and Chuck Bednarik. Who’da thunk it?
Let’s hope 2012 matches or surpasses the year now concluding. Happy New Year!
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