As St. Louisans looked over the sports pages last week they could note with satisfaction that the Blues were in their accustomed place in the West—on top and threatening to pull away. They could also see that the rest of the division was engaged in a cutthroat fight for the remaining three playoff spots. Nowhere were the blades sharper or the fans louder than in Philadelphia, where a Huck Finn of a rookie named Bobby Clarke was pumping some excitement into the heretofore colorless Flyers. The fact that Clarke is a diabetic made him all the more precious to the Philadelphia fans, who believe he can win Rookie of the Year honors anyway.
In their first two years the Flyers had not done badly in the standings, finishing first and third, but they played pretty dull hockey. During the summer, Coach Keith Allen was eased into the front office and fiery Vic Stasiuk took over. A former member of Boston's famed "Uke" Line—and of five championship teams in Detroit—Stasiuk wanted more hitting from the Flyers. At the June meetings in Montreal he picked up the rugged Hillman brothers, Wayne and Larry, and New York's pesky Reg Fleming
Above all, though, the Flyers needed some scoring punch. Even so, in the amateur draft they caused acute surprise by taking 20-year-old Bobby Clarke on the second round. It was not that hockey people doubted Clarke's potential; indeed, his poise, hustle and 52 goals at Flin Flon in an amateur league had reminded more than one scout of Norm Ullman, the Toronto stalwart. What bothered them was the diabetes.
"It was a gamble," said Bill Putnam, the Flyers' president. "We discussed the boy for days. But we felt he was the best young player in Canada, and when our doctors assured us that—under a watchful eye—he could stand up to the grind, we grabbed him. Actually, we wanted him so bad we'd have taken him on the first round if we had to."
Clarke went to camp and, teaming with Fleming and another promising rookie, Lew Morrison, up from the Quebec Aces, left the Flyers with no choice but to keep him. "From the start, they were our best line," Stasiuk said. "Bobby passed out twice in training camp," Frank Lewis, the club's trainer, recalled. "But both attacks followed morning workouts when he had skipped breakfast. If there's one thing an athlete needs, diabetic or not, it's a good, solid breakfast. But Bobby knows now that we've got to be frank with each other. I'm not out to make a big project out of it when he needs something, but we both know we've got to work together on this thing."
The fact that diabetics can be highly susceptible to infection doesn't appear to bother Clarke at all. "I've been carved up all over the face," he says. "Once I needed 15 stitches around my eye, but I was back the next game." Working spectacularly with Morrison, Clarke has become a favorite for the rookie award.
When 13,081 turned out last week to see Clarke, Morrison, Goalie Bernie Parent and the rest of the Flyers lose a tough 4-1 game to Montreal, they lifted the club above a 12,000 average for the first time in its brief history. Philadelphia had shown steady progress at the gate—averaging 9,625 fans a game the first year and 11,275 the second—and this may be the year the franchise becomes every bit as hot as St Louis and Minnesota. The team is plugged liberally on television and radio, and three, four, sometimes even five hockey stories appear in a single newspaper. On the day of the Montreal game, the tabloid Daily News ripped the headline KIDNAPPERS GET RANSOM, KILL BOY off the front page of a late edition in favor of a hockey picture, score sheet and banner head billing FLYERS vs. MONTREAL. The Blue Line Club, a dining room and bar in the Spectrum, is jammed before and after games, and reservations for dinner must be made two weeks in advance. Bill Putnam, an ex-banker who saw his first hockey game in Fort Worth, Texas in 1946, is one of the few who are not surprised at how the Flyers have caught on; in fact, he predicted it.
"Philadelphia's a good sports town, and it always has been," Putnam said as he sipped a highball after the Montreal game. "The first thing people want to do is knock the town, which is O.K. But they can't knock it as a sports town. When I looked around and saw cities like Detroit and Boston and Chicago playing to 96% of capacity with hockey, there was no doubt in my mind that we could make it go here, where we can draw on almost five million people. At $2 million, the franchise price was right, too." Keith Allen, now assistant general manager, agreed. "They're just starved for a winner. The Eagles are sold out, and wait until you see the Phillies in their new stadium. You give Philly a winner and you won't find an empty seat in this place."
The Spectrum is an unlovely building with unpainted cement trim along the balconies, orange seats and red and white 76er pennants hanging from the roof—which the wind blew off two years ago. Yet the sight lines are superb, and what the building lacks in beauty it has in hockey feel. "It's alive," said Larry Hillman, who played in Montreal last year. "St. Louis and Minnesota's arenas are, too. You skate onto the ice before a big crowd here and you want to play. That's not always true in places like L.A. and Pittsburgh; those buildings are too quiet.
"The city isn't pretty," he continued, "but from what I've seen the organization is really topflight. In a way it reminds me of the Canadiens. They've got some good bright men in the front office."
Putnam spoke of building loyalty. "We don't want our players wishing they were somewhere else because somebody offered them an extra $1,000. To be a successful organization you've got to have your people working together, glad to be part of the organization. We've talked to our players about this, concentrating on the young ones, and I think we're developing this spirit. And this year for the first time the players are being called upon to make personal appearances. That's important, because when they get known around town, chances are some of them will settle here in the off season. The team has really caught on lately, and if we get a winner this whole thing could blossom—just like it did in St. Louis."
"The secret is just getting over the hump," said Hillman. "Like tonight, against the best team in hockey we played well enough to win for a period and a half—but we lost. With a few breaks we would have won. What is still lacking here is that real hurt that comes when you lose. It just kills Montreal when they lose, and I hear it's getting that way on the Blues. I think it's coming here, too."
In Oakland, the biggest hurt so far has been at the box office, but that situation is improving. The Seals' attendance has been averaging 5,700—up 2,000 from last year. That is so even though the club has suffered heavy injuries. Already six regulars have been sidelined, and only some gritty goaltending by Gary Smith and Charlie Hodge has kept the Seals—outshot in every game so far—in the race.
The only consistent thing about the Minnesota North Stars has been the fans, a marvelous following that has the club averaging an SRO 14,588 in an arena seating 14,368. Minnesota has been spectacular (4-2-0) against the East, pathetic (2-4-0) against the West—but getting better if Saturday's victory over the Blues is any indicator.
Although Pittsburgh is still moribund at the gate, Coach Red Kelly and a few new faces have perked up the Penguins on the ice. "Sometimes I think we're snakebit, though," moans Jack Riley, the general manager. "Like, three days before our home opener I see this piece of wood protruding along the boards, near a net. I tell the maintenance manager about it, and he says he'll have it beveled down. Well, he doesn't, and wouldn't you know, we play Oakland and we're ahead 2-1 in the second period when one of our guys wheels the puck around the boards. It hits that piece of wood and out it comes on the stick of an Oakland player, alone in front of the goal. We tie 2-2 when we should win the game 2-1; that has been the story of our life."
The story in Los Angeles has been Eddie Shack, the former Boston strong boy. Eddie scored the hat trick in his first game in the Forum—and now Eddie can do no wrong. Whenever he scores or throws a stiff check, the organist hammers out something called Clear the Track, Here Comes Shack. There will have to be a heap of clearing if the Kings are to threaten St. Louis. As Bill Putnam says, "The rest of us just go around cutting each other up."