THE FLYER FROM FLIN FLON

Can a boy from a small mining town in Canada find happiness in the NHL? You bet he can, if his name is Bobby Clarke, his bankroll is gorgeous and he enjoys an undiplomatic immunity from harassment
October 21, 1973

So you want your son to be a doctor or a lawyer or a wheat farmer. Forget it. Go buy him a pair of ice skates, a curved stick, some protective equipment and send him to Flin Flon to be a hockey player. As a new season gets under way the average salary for players in the National Hockey League is $55,000 and climbing, and a 45 year old man named Gordie Howe skates out the front door of the Hall of Fame to play in the World Hockey Association for $150,000. When will the money madness end? Never, perhaps. The NHL rinks are filled every night, except in California, and the WHA needs NHL players at fancy fees to sell its product. A Ken Dryden can leave his $130,000 job in the Montreal goal to take a $7,000 position as a law clerk because he knows that next season, when both leagues expand, he can command $250,000 for stopping flying pucks. The Boston Bruins desperately want to give Bobby Orr $2 million before some WHA team offers him more. Bobby Clarke, the young man at right, recently had the pleasant task of deciding how and when he wanted to receive a million bucks. Which is a sum a modern hockey player can get his teeth into—after adjusting his dentures, of course.

For years fans of the expansion West of the National Hockey League have wanted a star. Now that he has arrived, they find it difficult to get him into proper focus, because this paragon is not only relatively small in stature, a diabetic and weak of eye without his contact lenses, he looks like too nice a guy to be a party to hockey's inevitable violence.

Ignore the innocence of his angelic face and his all-I-want-for-Christmas smile. To place Bobby Clarke in proper perspective, he must be viewed in several cities. Moscow, for one. There was Team Canada staring at disaster, down two games to the Russians with only three to play. As the action swept up ice, Clarke happened to be trailing the Soviet star, Valeri Kharlamov. "It suddenly hit me that Kharlamov was the guy who was killing us while I was only holding my own," Clarke recalls. "I realized immediately that someone had to do something about him." In the heat of that realization Clarke swung his stick and connected with Kharlamov's ankles. The consequence was considerably more damaging than the mere discipline and shaking up Clarke had had in mind. The Russian was out for the rest of that game and all of the next one. Clarke drew a two-minute penalty for slashing. The NHL All-Stars rallied to win the last three games—and the series. "It's not something I was really proud of," Clarke says softly, "but I honestly can't say I was ashamed to do it."

Now move to Philadelphia. Bobby Clarke is not booed in Philadelphia, which is a distinction in itself. "You've got to like this kid," says a beer drinker at Rexy's. "He's the first classy athlete we've had around here since Norm Van Brocklin retired." As captain of the Broad Street Bullies, also known as the Philadelphia Flyers, Clarke centers the first line, directs the power play, kills penalties and moderates the nightly disputes between the Bullies and their adversaries. Although he tries to maintain a low fighting profile in front of his home crowd, Clarke is adept at squirting gasoline on incipient fires. One night Keith Magnuson of Chicago smashed the unsuspecting Clarke into the boards.

"Clarke, you're sick," Magnuson snarled.

"I can't help that, you dummy," Clarke replied, "but you're stupid, Maggy, and you can do something about that. Now buzz off—or else I'll send Schultzie after you." Schultzie is Winger Dave Schultz. He is large and menacing. He has a winger pal named Hound Dog Kelly. Hound Dog can bite. Clarke enjoys a sort of undiplomatic immunity, because if unfriendly people like Magnuson press their attentions on Clarke, one of the bullyboys comes calling. "Guys stay away from me because they know Schultzie or Hound or someone will beat them up," Clarke says candidly. Or as Schultz, the NHL's reigning heavyweight champion, explains, "We've got to protect our leader at all times."

Finally, see Clarke in Flin Flon, Manitoba. "I'm pretty reserved when I'm with strangers," Clarke says on the long, winding drive from the airport to the Flin Flon Hotel, "but I swear, drink beer and drive too fast when I'm with my own kind." Clarke is in Flin Flon for a brief August visit with his own people in his hometown so that they may honor him—the NHL's Most Valuable Player—with a Bobby Clarke Day. Upstairs in the hotel, huddled around three cases of cold Molson's beer, two dozen men ranging in age from 20 to 60 wait patiently for Clarke to finish signing autographs in the lobby and join them for a bull session.

"We told Bobby when he was here on vacation in June that we wanted to have a big testimonial dinner for him at the end of the summer," says Pat Ginnell, the coach of the Flin Flon Bombers, the town's junior hockey team. "But he told us he wouldn't hear of such a thing. He got mad, in fact, and said we didn't owe him anything, that he owed us everything. We argued about it for a few days. Finally Bobby suggested that we hold a benefit game instead, with all the money directed to youth hockey in Flin Flon. That's the only reason he's here now."

Over in a corner of the room Jim Bryson, a former Bomber trainer who for years was the undisputed boxing champion of all the cafés within a goodly radius of Flin Flon, nods his head. "Modest, that's what he is," Bryson says. "He comes home every summer and doesn't bring any airs with him. You see him in the pub buying a round of beer when his turn comes, and you see him sitting high in a corner down at the rink, with a bag of popcorn in each hand and about 50 kids surrounding him. When he played for the Bombers, Bobby was the calming influence on all the hotheads. They'd always want to run into the Northern Café, drink a few beers and get into a fight, but he never let them. The trouble is, they don't make kids like Clarkie anymore."

Clarke appears a little later, resplendent in his Flin Flon summer outfit—Levi's, a golf shirt and a pair of clogs—and Bryson immediately offers him a Molson's. "OF Jim Bryson," Clarke says, pumping the man's right hand. "He had 101 fights and won all but the 101st. Tell us about them, will you?" Bryson grins appreciatively. "Sure," he says, "it'll only take about a minute."

Bobby Clarke Day is the summer's happening in Flin Flon, a mining town of 12,000 on the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border about 500 miles northwest of Winnipeg. Named after Josiah Flintabbatey Flonatin, an adventurous prospector in an old mining novel, Flin Flon is one of the few real company towns left in North America. Almost everyone in Flin Flon works for the Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting Co.

There is only one sizable street in downtown Flin Flon, named Main Street, naturally. Downtown Flin Flon looks like any community of similar size in the U.S., an H&R Block income tax office, a Kentucky Fried Chicken parlor, a Simpsons-Sears with a SAVE BIG $$$ sale on color television sets, a bowling emporium, Schrieder's Clothing Store, a few banks, a couple of drugstores, a movie theater, three taxi stands and half a dozen cafés, one of which, the Northern, is boarded up.

Bobby Clarke starts his Day with a visit home to see his parents, Cliff and Yvonne, and his 19-year-old sister Roxanne. Cliff Clarke arrived in Flin Flon in 1941 when he was 16. "I came to see my uncle and never left," he says. "I worked in a hardware store for about two years, and the mining company hired me on the third day after my 18th birthday." He was a driller in the copper and zinc mines for more than 25 years, working 5,000 feet below ground. Now he is a blasting boss charged with inspecting the work of the drillers, but the company still calls on him to "hook up the charges for the big jobs." Throughout this career he has managed to keep his hide whole. "In more than 30 years," he says, "I've missed only half a shift because of injury."

Unlike most people in Flin Flon, the elder Clarke had never played hockey himself, so he did not rush Bobby onto the ice the minute he was able to walk. "I think he was four years old before we took him skating the first time," Cliff Clarke recalls. "See the boards for the rink down there in the playground? Well, it would be 30° and 40° below, but Bobby'd still want to go out and play hockey. He usually got his way, too." Clarke remembers how Bobby illegally got into organized hockey a few years later. "According to the setup in Flin Flon," he says, "you couldn't play in the Tom Thumb program until you were nine years old. Then you were guaranteed nine minutes a week of live hockey on indoor ice. Well, you know Bobby. He found out they never checked the birth certificates and just took the kid's word for his age. So when he was eight he told them he was nine. Right then I figured someday he'd make the big time."

Bobby Clarke immersed himself in hockey at the expense of everything else, including his education. "I used to tell my parents that I was going to school," he says, "but I'd go to the rink instead." His mother confirms the report. "Bobby and his friend John Rutley were always full of the dickens in school," she says, "and a lot of times they would be sent home by the teacher. They never came home, of course. No. They'd always go play hockey down at the playground. I'd look out the window and say, 'Gosh, that looks like Bobby down there,' and right then the principal would call to say he was sending Bobby home for three days for bad behavior."

The family visit ends and Bobby Clarke Day continues. He leaves the house to call on his wife Sandy's family across the border in Creighton, Saskatchewan, and later he goes off to shake hands and sign autographs for the old folks at the Northern Lights Manor, the patients, doctors and nurses at Flin Flon General Hospital and all the young hockey players and their families at the Whitney Forum.

Inside the rink Pat Ginnell sits in a corner and carefully studies the movements of the 13-year-old players on the ice. Ginnell, 35, is said to be the best junior coach in Canada, but he has rejected several NHL coaching offers because, as he says, "There's no way I'm going to coach guys making $150,000 a year when I'm making only $25,000." He looks over at Clarke. "I first saw Bobby play in the juvenile finals back in the spring of 1966. He had some nice moves then, easily the best on the ice, but he sure looked funny with his big glasses, his bucked teeth and the skates his feet were swimming in." Despite those handicaps Clarke easily won a regular job with Ginnell's Bombers in the western Canada junior league six months later. At the time Clarke was 17. Figuring that NHL stardom was his next stop, he promptly quit school.

"There was no way he was going to miss," Ginnell says. "He was always our best player, and a tough kid. He'd cut your ears off if he had to. The idea was that if you got Clarke, you'd get Flin Flon. Not too many people got Bobby. It didn't surprise me one bit that Bobby was the guy who finally gave that Russian the two-hander that ended him. Bobby had been in that spot before. He knew what to do—and he knew how to do it, too."

Clarke's dreams of an NHL career almost ended before they had well begun. When he was 15 it was found he was diabetic. Doctors in Flin Flon told him he would have to become a goaltender if he wanted to continue to play hockey. As usual, Clarke ignored the authoritarian decree. He took his daily shot of insulin, kept on playing as a center and was considered the best junior in western Canada by the time he completed his amateur career in 1969.

Midway through his final season with Flin Flon, Clarke drove with Ginnell to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and at the Bombers' expense underwent a week of tests. "When we returned home," Ginnell recalls, "we received word that, medically speaking, Bobby Clarke could play as a center anywhere."

To their considerable regret, most NHL teams did not bother to check into Clarke's medical records. They simply assumed diabetes would be a permanent drawback in pro hockey. So, despite his obvious playing credentials, Clarke was not selected until the second round of the amateur draft, when the Flyers picked him as the No. 17 junior in all Canada. Only two of the 16 players drafted ahead of Clarke are still with the NHL teams that selected them, and they are utility men at best.

"I was disappointed to be drafted that late," Clarke says, "but that's what happens when other people figure they are experts on something they really know nothing about. Like diabetes. What really shocked me, though, was Philadelphia drafting me. I honestly had no idea where Philadelphia was. I didn't know whether it was on the West Coast, the East Coast or in the middle somewhere. I actually got a little scared when I thought about going to a city I didn't know anything about."

Clarke refused to sign the first contract the Flyers offered him. "Bud Poile was the general manager at the time," Clarke says, "and one day he told me, "Look what we're going to do for you, kid. We're going to give you this $2,500 bonus and this $7,500 contract and make you rich.' All I did was laugh. 'Mr. Poile,' I said, 'I can go back to Flin Flon, live in peace and quiet and make $7,500 by working in the mines.' " In the end, after an impressive training-camp performance that earned him a starting position with the Flyers, Clarke got the money he wanted from Poile—a $5,000 bonus for a new car and a $14,000 contract. "I thought I was a rich kid."

Now, just four years later, he is a rich kid for sure. This year he negotiated and signed a new seven-year, $1,050,000 contract with the Flyers. The payments will be spread equally over the next 21 years, thereby guaranteeing Clarke and his family an annual income of at least $50,000 until he is 45 years old. "I don't think there are many 24-year-old guys who can say they've taken care of their family until 1994," Clarke says proudly.

Despite his new earning capacity, Clarke does not really subscribe to the grab-it-while-you-can syndrome that seems to be pervasive in his sport. For example, he tends to ignore endorsement opportunities. "Right now I don't need the money," he says. "My time is more valuable to me." He also dislikes the bonus arrangements that have become a standard feature of most hockey contracts. "Why not give bigger contracts instead?" Clarke asks. "For instance, say I have 30 goals with 10 games left and I need five more goals to collect a $10,000 bonus. Well, you can be sure that my wingers won't see the puck until I get my five goals. So who are you playing for? The team? No." He shakes his head. "Listen, we're all guilty. We're all grabbing, not giving. We should be doing something to help hockey. Instead, we're hurting the game. If it keeps happening much longer, we'll all be in trouble."

It is almost game time at Flin Flon's Whitney Forum. Clarke sits in a small dressing room with some of the teen-age Bombers who will be his teammates in the exhibition. Ginnell walks in and gives Clarke his old Bomber shirt—No. 11. "We retired it when you left here," Ginnell says. Clarke tries to pull the jersey over his shoulders. He tugs hard. "Sorry, Pat," he says, "it just doesn't fit anymore."

It is doubtful that any of the 2,600 Bobby Clarke fans who jam the Forum hear one word of the P.A. announcer's long introduction of the guest of honor. The noise begins as Clarke steps from the dressing room, and does not subside until he skates to center ice, waves in every direction and pleads for silence. He accepts the gifts—a television set, silverware, jewelry—and he thanks the crowd for coming. "I can never repay Flin Flon for all that it has done for me," he says. "Thank you so much."

Then the exhibition game begins, and in the first minute of play a youngster named Rob Watt has the audacity to slam into Clarke with his stick raised high. Down goes the Most Valuable Player in the NHL. "Do that again, kid, and I'll take your bleeping head off," Clarke shouts as he lifts himself from the ice. Bobby Clarke Day is almost over—there are only 74 seconds left to play in the game—when Clarke spots Rob Watt skating with his head down in center ice. The ensuing crunch is probably audible in Moscow. Clarke has crashed into Watt so hard that the kid is barely able to totter back to his bench.

"Ah, yes," says Jim Bryson with a smile. "That's our Bobby."

ILLUSTRATION
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)