By Stu Hackel
After months of buildup and promotion, the Winter Classic is finally upon us. It is, of course, nothing more than Game 569 of the regular season schedule, worth the same two points in the standings as any other game -- or (sigh) two for the winner and one for the loser if it ends in a regulation tie.
But the exposure and popularity this unique game has brought to hockey during the past four years can't -- and shouldn't -- be denied. For that we must credit the NHL's partnership with NBC. Their deal may be far less lucrative for the league's teams than the ones enjoyed by other major pro sports, but it's the best the league has ever had, especially because
NBC and its offshoots respect the product and help create new ways to expose it.
The same can be said for the NHL's deal with HBO which, through its"24/7" series, provides an unprecedented look at the run-up to the game. Nothing has ever come close to bringing viewers inside the NHL as it really is, looks and sounds.
As a preview of the Winter Classic itself, this year's 24/7 has increasingly dwelled less on hockey itself and more on the lives and personalities of the participants. How much that enhances fans' enjoyment and understanding of the game is debatable.
It might have been more useful, for example, if the producers had devoted a bit more time explaining how the Flyers have compensated for losing Chris Pronger and, briefly, Claude Giroux. And we all love the musings of Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalov on topics as lofty as cosmology and as down to earth as his dog; but what, if anything, did he work on after getting bombarded by the Bruins earlier this month?
Similarly, wouldn't it aid fans to understand just how that Rangers have emerged as a legitimate force in the NHL? It would give a deeper appreciation for what they'll be watching on Monday. That means revealing the key role center that Derek Stepan has played in New York's attack this season, and his chemistry with the league's top goal scorer, Marian Gaborik. And it would entail not just interviewing Michael Del Zotto and stating that he has improved, but exploring how his growth as a player has allowed the Rangers to survive the injuries to other members of their defense corps and how his pushing the pace of the game and advancing the puck fits in with coach John Tortorella's aggressive system.
Armed with that information, the big TV audience would have a deeper appreciation for what happens on the ice.
The Winter Classic is staged outdoors in baseball and football stadiums, and geared more toward the national TV audience -- both live and filmed -- than the people who pay dearly for seats with poor sight lines (you can check out just how bad some of the views will be at Citizens Bank Park in this post from the Broad Street Hockey blog).
The the real lure for the whole enterprise is the matchup of traditional rivals. In the Rangers and Flyers, the NHL will presents two of the sport’s more bitter antagonists. Another minor flaw in HBO's series has been glossing over how historically disagreeable these teams have been over time.
The venom began in the teams’ first postseason encounter, the 1974 semi-finals. Under coach Fred "the Fog" Shero, the Flyers cemented their reputation as the Broad Street Bullies by setting new marks for penalty minutes and fighting majors while finishing atop the West (yes, West) Division. Their actions on the ice branded the sport with a harmful reputation that it has never completely shed.
With Emile "the Cat" Francis behind the bench and serving as GM, the Rangers’ image was of a classy, skilled team with a deserved reputation of its own: one that didn't have the stuff to win big playoff games. Flyers tough guy Dave "the Hammer" Schultz got the ill will started by telling reporters after Philadelphia swept the Atlanta Flames in the first round, "I hope we play New York because they have a reputation for choking in the past.” That drove the faithful in Madison Square Garden berserk, and the fans chanted "We want Schultz!" even before the Rangers eliminated the Canadiens in their first round matchup.
The teams brawled through seven contentious matches and a then-record 406 penalty minutes. The series is perhaps remembered for different things in each city. In Philly, fans recall the slap shot from Rangers defenseman Dale Rolfe that hit the Flyers' All-Star defenseman, Barry Ashbee, in the eye, ending his career.
Game Seven, a 4-3 Philadelphia win, remains stamped in the collective memories of that generation of Rangers fans due to Schultz’s one-sided punch-out of Rolfe, while pulling the defenseman's hair in the process. None of the other Rangers jumped in to intervene.
Schultz later said that a Flyers coach told him Rolfe had been playing well and if Schultz had the chance to fight him, and maybe get him off the ice, it would help.
By winning the series, the Flyers became the first 1967 expansion team to defeat an established NHL club in the playoffs and they landed on the cover of SI with an accompanying story by Mark Mulvoy. After the series, the Rangers' All-Star defenseman Brad Park sat glumly in the visitors' dressing room at The Spectrum and remarked, “I decided if I had to maim somebody to win the Stanley Cup, it wasn’t worth it.”
The Flyers would win the Cup that spring and winger Ross Lonsberry later reacted to Park’s sentiment by saying, “That statement epitomized that whole club.” The rivalry was on.
In the aftermath, the Flyers remained perennial contenders and the Rangers plunged into turmoil. Four years later, the rebuilding New York team lured Shero away to be its general manager and coach. In February, 1979, the Flyers fortunes took a dramatic turn in a game against the Rangers when their star goalie Bernie Parent was injured on this play.
It would end his career. He had been the Conn Smythe winner as playoff MVP for both Flyers Cup championship teams, 1974 and 1975, and while Wayne Stephenson was a good replacement, he wasn't as good as Parent.
When the '79 playoff rolled around, the teams met again. No longer preaching intimidation tactics, Shero engineered an upset of the favored Flyers, crushing them in five games en route to a Rangers' berth in the Cup final.
The tables turned the following year with the Flyers dispatching New York in five games of the second round on their way to the final. By 1983, the Rangers had retooled under former U.S. Olympic coach Herb Brooks as a fast, skilled team of smaller players who played a highly intricate offensive system, the same formula that won the 1980 Olympic gold medal in Lake Placid. Yet, New York managed only a .500 regular-season record, finishing 26 points behind the division-best Flyers.
The Flyers had a different look, too, that season although it was more cosmetic. They were wearing long pants rather than shorts and socks. It wasn't Philly's uniforms, but the Rangers' speed that made the beefier Flyers look awkward late that season, causing coach Bob McCammon to claim that his less mobile team hadn’t “hit their smurfs all night,” referring to little blue-colored animated characters who had become a North American pop culture phenomenon a few years earlier.
The Rangers embraced their smurfs identity and continued to decisively outplay Philadelphia in the ’83 playoffs where they shocked the Flyers in Game 1, winning 5-3.
Then New York swept the next tree games by a combined score of 18-9, again dashing Flyers' Cup dreams.
These teams have met 10 times in postseason play and, at one point, seven times in nine years. But not all of the rivalry’s big moments have come during the playoffs and not all the antagonism was initiated by Philadelphia.
In the mid-80s, talented Rangers winger Tomas Sandstrom regularly irritated the Flyers, not just with his scoring, but by dishing out his share of cheap shots and dispensing as much physical punishment as he received, which was unusual for a European player of his era. In January of 1987, Flyers enforcer Dave Brown speared Sandstrom during a game in Philadelphia.
Two months later, after Sandstrom high-sticked Flyers defenseman Mark Howe, Brown retaliated with a crosscheck to Sandstrom that earned a five-game suspension. Then in October 1987, after Sandstrom got entangled with Flyers goalie Ron Hextall, who was playing his first game of the season following a slashing suspension earned in the previous year's Cup final. Brown violently crosschecked Sandstrom in the head and neck, concussing him and sending him to the hospital. Listening to the commentary of announcers from their respective cities, you get a good feel for the rancor between these two teams. Here's Sam Rosen and John Davidson on MSG.
And here's the late Gene Hart and Bobby Taylor broadcasting back to Philadelphia.
Brown was assessed a 15-game suspension -- at the time, the second-longest ever doled out by the NHL for an on-ice incident.
The conflict between the Rangers and Flyers has not confined to the ice. The teams also competed to secure the rights to sign Eric Lindros in 1992 after the big young center refused for a full season to sign with the Quebec Nordiques, who had drafted him first overall in 1991.
A year later at the entry draft, Nordiques’ president Marcel Aubut entertained offers from other NHL clubs for the rights to Lindros and reached deals with both the Rangers and Flyers on a trade.
Each team believed it had a valid claim and the case went to a league arbitrator, Larry Bertuzzi, who ruled in favor of the Flyers. Some conspiracy-minded fans suspected the decision was influenced by interim NHL Commissioner Gil Stein, who had once been a Flyers executive and remained a close friend of Flyers owner Ed Snider, although no connection was ever proven.
Lindros eventually became a dominant NHL player for the Flyers, centering the Legion of Doom line with Mikael Renberg and John LeClair, and was named the Hart Trophy winner as league MVP in 1994-95. That spring, his Flyers swept the Rangers from the playoffs as New York unsuccessfully defended its first Stanley Cup in 54 years.
In 1997, when the Rangers made a dramatic playoff run featuring a reunited Mark Messier and Wayne Gretzky, Lindros’s five goal-four assist performance overshadowed both of them in the five-game conference championship series. With the series tied 1-1, a hat trick by Lindros in Game 3 was capped off by his outworking Messier -- something many considered unthinkable -- on an empty-net goal that sealed the game.
After the Flyers knocked the Rangers out of the postseason, Messier left Gretzky and the Rangers as a free agent that offseason. New York would miss the playoffs for the next seven campaigns. Then, two seasons ago, these two rival teams battled in one of the most dramatic conclusions ever to the regular schedule. Squaring off on the last day of the season, the winner would make the playoffs, the loser would be eliminated. They needed all of regulation, plus the overtime and the postgame skills competition before it was settled.
It's quite a history. The Winter Classic is only the latest installment. You can be sure that the book on the Rangers and Flyers has many more chapters yet to be written.