THEY HAVE to do it now, don't they? Even if they want Mike Richards to remain captain, even if their internal discussions conclude that this team's fading finishes in two of the last three seasons were no fault of his, haven't the Flyers introduced a virus into their system with their tepid endorsements of the man over the last 10 days?

Haven't they put themselves in the position to either trade him or strip his captaincy?

First, head coach Peter Laviolette was all over the place during a prolonged discussion with the media about what went wrong. At first, he termed questions about Richards' captaincy "a witch hunt," asserting that he took the team to within two wins of a Stanley Cup the year before. (Of course, Chris Pronger was playing more than 25 minutes a game during that stretch, too, tormenting teams on and off the ice, front and center when the dressing room doors opened, too - but I digress.)

Later, asked about their relationship, Laviolette said: "All relationships are built. You don't come in and put your hip on somebody's hip and say, 'You and I are best friends.' Mike and I continue to work on our relationship. I respect him. I like Mike as a person and we continue to work on that."

A day later, general manager Paul Holmgren, who also seemed surprised at the line of questioning, blurted out this unforgettable line: "He's a quiet kid, a reserved kid. I think we all in our own way, I don't want to say have communication issues, but he's a hard guy to talk to sometimes for anyone, probably even his closest friends."

Finally, there was Ed Snider, to me, when asked whether he was sure his team had the right captain: "I'm the last guy in the world to ask that. I don't know any more than you do. I really don't. I'm not there every day. I'm not in the locker room. You've been around hockey enough to know there's an inner sanctum there. In that locker room, you don't know what's going on. It's up to the coach who probably has a handle on it by now."