PHILADELPHIA -- Kevin Hayes stepped behind the bar and prepared to make his first draft pick. The lager, the golden ale, the porter, wide varieties of delicious beers were lined up, but for Hayes the perfect pint was one he could truly call his own.
So Hayes pinch-hit for the bartender, pulled the tap handle and poured a "Big Hayes-Y 13" double IPA and plopped it on the bar. He raised a glass to celebrate the hazy double IPA named in his honor at Yards Brewing Co.
"I think it's the first thing ever named after me," Hayes said. "If it's a beer, I'll take it."
The popular Philadelphia center has loftier aspirations — like perhaps drinking out of the Stanley Cup. The Flyers are streaking, a team with modest preseason playoff expectations shooting up the Eastern Conference standings and fighting for first in the division in the final weeks of the season.
Alain Vigneault, who coached two teams in the Final, has made all the right moves in his first season on the bench. Carter Hart, just 21, has played every bit like the franchise goalie the Flyers expected. And homegrown talent such as Scott Laughton, Travis Sanheim, Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny — drafted amid a franchise rebuild — have all been clutch.
The outlook is suddenly bright for a franchise going on 45 years without a championship.
Hayes has played as pivotal a role as any Flyer in the first season of his $50 million, seven-year deal. The Flyers are 19-0-1 when he scores, part of the reason the sociable 27-year-old Massachusetts native fast became a fan favorite. Former Eagle Vince Papale of "Invincible" fame wants to meet up for a beer. Hayes, a huge Boston sports fan, is even pals with Phillies slugger Bryce Harper.
"I was talking to him after the game the other day, that home run he hit, I was like, 'Dude, that ball landed in my kitchen,'" Hayes said.
The Philly sports stars have years ahead to hit pizza shops and taste-test beers. Harper has 12 years left on his contract, and Hayes is locked in for seven in a city he knew nothing about when he learned he was traded. Hayes spent the first four-plus years of his career playing for the New York Rangers and was dealt late last season to Winnipeg.
With free agency looming, Hayes was on the golf course in Minnesota when he got an urgent call from his agent. Hayes finished the round and was told he had been traded. Next stop, Philadelphia.
"When I signed here, people were like, beware of the fans there. They're crazy," Hayes said.
He's become a man of the people, and gladly chatted with fans who bellied up to the bar to meet a Flyer.
"How many goals you gonna score," one asked.
"Hopefully, 30, we'll see," Hayes said.
Hayes has 23 goals and 41 points for the Flyers (41-21-7; 89 points) headed into Thursday's game at Tampa Bay. The Flyers saw their nine-game winning streak snapped Tuesday with a 2-0 loss to Boston, but it hasn't dampened the excitement around here.
Not even the diehards could have predicted the Flyers would just be just one point behind Washington for first place in the Metropolitan Division at this point of the season.
Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Sean Couturier have been stout on the first line and the Flyers have played through the loss of former No. 2 draft pick Nolan Patrick (migraine disorder), James van Riemsdyk (broken finger) and the stunning bone cancer in blossoming forward Oskar Lindblom. Only van Riemsdyk is expected to return for the playoffs.
"I believe in our team, I believe in our players and I believe in our process," Vigneault said.
The Flyers only high point last season was Gritty's furry burst onto the scene. Ron Hextall was fired as general manager after 4 ½ seasons on the job. Chuck Fletcher was hired as GM and promptly fired coach Dave Hakstol after three-plus seasons without a playoff series win. The Flyers used an NHL-record eight goalies last season, they haven't reached the second round since 2012, the Final since 2010 or won it all since 1975.
Fletcher hired Vigneault, who led the New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks to the Stanley Cup Final. Hayes, who played under Vigneault and with Vezina winner Henrik Lundqvist in New York, has been impressed by Hart's poise and performance.
"He does remind me of Hank in his work ethic," Hayes said. "Carter's young. Hank's earned a lot of respect. But you see it in the way he plays."
Hayes, a stout 6-foot-5, 216-pounds, has hockey in his family tree; his brother, Jimmy, played 334 games in the NHL and they are cousins with former NHL players Tom Fitzgerald and Keith Tkachuk. Tkachuk has two sons in the NHL. Hayes is cousins with New Jersey Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald.
Hayes walked into Yards in a New England Patriots hat and Red Sox sweatshirt, he traded out each for brewery merch, but swears he never rooted for the Bruins - a big no-no in Philly - because he only rooted for teams his cousins played on. While his hockey bloodlines run deep, the tap lines, not so much. Yards only brewed a small of batch of the beer and it's not available beyond Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey.
The beer is fast becoming one Flyers faithful hope they can order round after round after round -- of the playoffs.
"It starts with our leadership and starts with everyone pulling the same rope," Hayes said.
Or maybe, popping the same beer tab with a Stanley Cup run on tap.
More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP—Sports