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Hall of Famer Fred Shero helped shift hockey into modern era

Photo: SI

Hall of Fame coach Fred Shero won two Stanley Cups with the Flyers and had a major impact on the modern NHL.

He may have been best known for orchestrating the mayhem his colorful and pugnacious Broad Street Bullies imposed, but the late Fred Shero, elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in the builder's category last week, helped change the old Original Six style of hockey and usher in the game as we know it today. His contributions to the modern NHL surpass being the father to Rejean, his second son, who is the well-respected general manager of the Penguins.

Fred Shero coached the Flyers for seven seasons starting in 1971, leading them to their two Stanley Cup-winning seasons and a third consecutive trip to the Cup final, which ended in a sweep by Montreal in '76. He then coached and was GM of a Rangers team for three years, guiding it to the Finals in 1979, again losing to the Canadiens. He was perceived by some observers as a goon coach for Philadelphia -- with good reason, and some suspect that kept him out of the Hall of Fame for so long.

But that wasn't the approach he took in New York, nor was it his reputation as a highly successful minor league coach for 10 seasons, during which time he won four league championships prior to being hired by the Flyers. Calm and expressionless behind the bench -- his face sometimes hidden by a Fu Manchu mustache and tinted glasses -- the soft-spoken Shero was always hard to categorize, in part because he was as cerebral a man who has ever coached pro hockey and always seemed in search of new methods to improve his teams.

A handful of innovative coaches along with Shero helped put the Original Six era in the past during the 1970s, most notably Scotty Bowman and Roger Nielson. As a player, Bobby Orr also played a huge role in transforming the game through his dynamic skating, becoming the ultimate rushing defenseman.

What was Shero's contribution? He was an innovative man known for, among other things, his system. One didn't hear much talk about teams playing "systems" in the early '70s, and that has led many who reported on Shero's selection to the Hall to mistakenly say he was the first to bring systems to hockey. But if he were alive today, Shero would scoff at that idea.

Anyone who watched hockey in that era recognized different teams had different styles of play and Shero knew that better than anyone."Everybody in pro hockey has a pretty good system," Shero said in lectures at the Tam O'Shanter international hockey coaching symposium (published in a rare 1977 book Total Hockey Volume One), and he elaborated on a few of them, especially those used by the Rangers, Canadiens and Blackhawks, adding he had tried them all. "But I feel execution is the deciding factor," he said and maintained the Flyers system had been so successful because it was the simplest and easiest for the players to understand.

And in discussing various aspects of the way he had the Flyers play at the symposium, he referenced systems as old as those used in the 1950s by Eddie Shore's AHL Springfield Indians, who Shero faced while playing defense for the Cleveland Barons. Freddie would likely add that the godfather of Soviet hockey, Anatoli Tarasov, developed a masterful and mesmerizing system of play, one that Shero began studying in 1967. So Shero didn't invent hockey systems at all.

What he did was establish rules for his team to follow in all sorts of situations and formulate daily practice drills for his players to learn them, to the point where they became automatic in their execution. Among his famous sayings, written on the blackboard in the Flyers dressing room, was, "Perfection consists not in doing extraordinary things, but in doing ordinary things extraordinarily well."

He often said games were won and lost in six places, the four corners and the two slots (the same approach Darryl Sutter now uses with the L.A. Kings), but he was also especially concerned with breakout plays, believing they were the key to winning. He'd practice breakouts perhaps more than any aspect of the game. Today's top hockey minds often say that the strength of any team is its defense corps, not just in its ability to shut down other teams but in making the transition from defense to offense and the skill in moving the puck out of its zone. It's no accident that this year's Stanley Cup finalists -- the Blackhawks and Bruins -- had two of the deepest, most talented defense corps in the league.

Photo: Melchior DiGiacomo/SI

Despite perception, Shero was much more than just a goon coach.

To old-school coaches, Shero's attention to the smallest details of the game would probably reek of micro-management. He'd dig into the situational minutia and preach it to his players endlessly, but Shero's system anticipated the direction the NHL would take in the years to come. As fast as the game is today, it is also incredibly detailed and structured. Shero's system, part of which was what he called "The Flyers' Bible," amounted to a series of rules for his guys to follow. They were the rudiments of the modern game.

Those rules were seldom listed publicly, much less elaborated upon, but he did divulge them at the symposium. They are very much a product of their time, considering the playing rules and habits of the mid-'70s NHL game, but they moved the sport forward. In explaining each one, Shero added some additional rules, but the main 16 were:

1. Never go offside on a 3-on-1 or a 2-on-1.

2. Never carry the puck backwards in your own end except on a power play.

3. Never throw the puck out blindly from behind your opponent's net.

4. Never pass diagonally in your own zone unless 100 percent certain.

5. Wings on wings between the blue lines except when better able to intercept a stray pass.

6. The second man must go all the way for the rebound.

7. When the defense has the puck at the opponent's blue line, they should look four places before shooting (he positioned the other four skaters in spots where they would be able to receive a pass).

8. When waiting in front of the net, face the puck at all times and lean on the stick.

9. When the puck carrier is over the center line with no one to pass to and no skating room, he must shoot it in.

10. No forward must ever turn their back to the puck at any time.

11. No player is allowed to position himself more than two zones away from the puck.

12. Never allow men in our defensive zone to be outnumbered.

13. When delayed penalties occur, puck carrier is to look for the extra man at center ice. The extra man is responsible for covering the opponent's goalie (i.e., going directly to the net).

14. When the opponent's penalty is almost up, every player should know who is his responsibility.

15. Backchecking, two-on-two or one-on-one, even on power plays, your man must pick up the trailer. If there is no trailer, he is to come in behind the defense.

16. When two men are forechecking, specify the responsibility of the third man.

In some of this, you can see the broad outlines of today's strategy, limiting odd man rushes, preventing turnovers, gap control, establishing backside pressure on the puck carrier. He also advocated shorter shifts for his forwards than the usual one minute plus, which was standard, so they would skate at maximum energy levels and keep the pace of the game high. That's another feature of today's game. For the mid-70s, it's pretty ingenious stuff.

His real wisdom was in keeping an open mind to everything connected to the game. His interest in Soviet hockey was just one example -- and not being tradition-bound, as many of the game's leading figures were. "It's what you learn after you know it all that counts," was one of his favorite sayings. "I don't believe you can perform today's business with yesterday's methods and be in business tomorrow," was another.

He studied other sports to find parallel lessons in hockey. He was among the first to have assistant coaches (again, Shero is mistakenly credited for that innovation, but other clubs had staff members who acted as assistants -- like director of player development Claude Ruel in Montreal, who began working with future superstar Guy Lafleur before Shero was hired in Philly. Ruel and others did not have the actual title that Shero gave to Mike Nykoluk and, later Barry Ashbee, but they functioned in that capacity).

Shero's practices were legendary for their freshness, never being the same one day to the next, for always incorporating new and unique drills, but still managing to reinforce the same basic tenants of the way he wanted his team to play. He even changed what teams did in the pregame warm-up. Rather than letting players merely bomb slapshots at the goaltenders -- which every NHL team did up until then -- he created pregame drills that incorporated backward skating and prohibited slapping the puck, believing it better replicated actual game conditions.

Shero himself believed that as important as a system of play may be for teams, the mental aspects of the game -- motivation, chief among them -- were even more important. "Nowadays the balance of hockey knowledge and motivational techniques has significantly changed," observed author Rhoda Rapparort in her 1977 book Fred Shero: A Kaleidoscopic View Of The Coach Of The Philadelphia Flyers. "Ninety percent game knowledge and ten percent motivation has shifted to thirty percent knowledge and seventy percent motivation. At least, the coach of the Flyers feels that way."

He operated without a curfew and had a tolerance for his players' after hours activities, although he was a loner and didn't often socialize with them. Yet he had an overriding concern for their well-being, fully aware that the way he handled each individual could impact the direction their life might take.

Freddie's daily aphorisms on the dressing room blackboard -- which could be a quote from a classical British author, an American president, a Beatles song, an ancient Greek philosopher or just something he made up -- were designed to get his players in the proper frame of mind to give their best. He was a players' coach who defended them against all critics. Everything he did fostered togetherness within the group. His most famous blackboard saying was the one he wrote prior to Game 6 of the 1974 Cup final against the Bruins: "Win now and we walk together forever." It proved as prophetic as much of what Shero said and did. The players on that team have an unbroken bond that endures today.

This coming season will mark 40 years since the first of those two consecutive Flyers championships, a reign by Shero's team that, while historic (the first post-'67 expansion team to win the Cup) and wildly popular in Philadelphia, also set the game back in terms of public acceptance on both sides of the border. The Flyers were a mix of very talented players and less talented ones whose main job was to use their bodies and their fists to bludgeon the opposition.

Apart from the Flyers relentless fighting, however, Shero was able to get them all on the same page to play a highly organized, disciplined game for its day. The Shero system seemed to capture the imaginations of the hockey world as much as the intimidating sideshow repulsed so many old and potential new fans.

For that, he's now belatedly gotten the Hall of Fame recognition he deserves.

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