For this week's diversion from the rigors of hockey, Coach Freddie (The Fog) Shero—already the creator of such novelties as the Tennis Ball Tango, the Wrist Waltz, the Blue-Line Bunny Hop and the Goaltenders' Sleighride—planned to bus his Stanley Cup champion Philadelphia Flyers over to Temple University and put them through three hours of tests to determine the player with the strongest grip, the strongest arms, the strongest legs, the strongest back, the most endurance and the least mental fat. The best performer presumably gets to be Mr. Flyer in the next Mr. America contest. "I'm afraid Freddie's in for a shock," said Captain Bobby Clarke. "He's going to discover that nine of us ought to be teaching school and the other nine ought to be working as bouncers."
Maybe so. For sure, Dave (Hammer) Schultz, Bob (Hound) Kelly, Andre (Moose) Dupont, Don (Bird) Saleski and some of their fast-fisted friends could clean out Rexy's, a Flyer hangout across the river in New Jersey, in a couple of minutes. On the other hand, Bill Clement, Rick MacLeish, Terry Crisp, Bill Barber, Joe Watson and a scattering of deep-thinking colleagues probably could handle a high school history class. As for Clarke, the tests no doubt will show that he should be a teacher of peace and love by day and a bouncer by night.
When he wears his teeth, his wide, tinted glasses and his Flin Flon winter suit—a rainbow ensemble consisting of a blue leather jacket, black corduroy Levi's, a flowered shirt, milk-stained platform loafers and no socks—Clarke looks peaceable enough. But when he removes his teeth, substitutes contact lenses for the tints and replaces his gaudy garb with an orange and black Flyer uniform, Clarke becomes a skating miniature of the Hound and the Hammer—with more talent, of course.
Sans teeth, Clarke, hockey's most indomitable forward, leads the NHL's Campbell Conference in scoring and has the feisty Flyers coasting along in first place in the Patrick Division. "Big deal," says Clarke. "We haven't played that well. It takes two teams to make a game, and we don't seem to bring out the best in a lot of the other clubs anymore." Indeed, the Minnesota North Stars showed up at the Spectrum with failing hearts and trembling legs for their game with the Flyers last Thursday night and they avoided body and puck contact so well that Philadelphia Goaltender Bernie Parent had himself an easy 6-0 shutout. Clarke, in a routinely deft performance, set up each of Right Wing Reggie Leach's three goals. It was Clarke who persuaded the Flyers to grab Leach, a linemate in his junior days, from California during the off-season. Today the Clarke-Leach-Barber line rivals Buffalo's French Connection for destruction.
Down in Atlanta the following night the slumping Flames at least challenged the Flyers for the puck and attempted a little body-bouncing, so for the first time in weeks the Flyers played like the old Broad Street Bullies, defeating the Flames 3-2 oh MacLeish's deflection of Watson's shot on the power play with precisely 93 seconds remaining. Schultz had watched most of the game from the press box; he left the ice by order of Referee Ron Wicks after collecting 17 penalty minutes on one play and then giving Wicks the choke sign with a towel. So far, Schultz is hammering along almost 50% ahead of his pace in 1973-74, when he spent a record 348 minutes in NHL penalty boxes. He appears to be going for 500 this season.
"The NHL rewrote the rule book last summer just to hurt guys like Schultz," says Clarke. "Once Schultz hits a guy, he has to go to the box without arguing. One word and he gets another penalty. When you think of it, they're penalizing Schultz for being aggressive, yet hockey is supposed to be an aggressive game." Strangely enough, Clarke himself leads the league in apologies. In recent weeks he has expressed his "deepest regrets" to
1) NHL President Clarence Campbell for implying that the 69-year-old Campbell is too old to be running the league, and
2) his close friend Rod Seiling of the Maple Leafs for spearing Rod in a game.
The Campbell incident still rankles with Clarke and the Flyers. In October, Kelly and Saleski were involved in a riotous gang fight in Oakland, and when the Flyers skated out for a game in Vancouver the next night, Referee Bryan Lewis informed Clarke that Campbell had suspended Kelly and Saleski indefinitely. Clarke then asked Lewis, who had refereed the game in Oakland, if he had talked with Campbell about the brawl. "No, not at all," Lewis told Clarke. "Well, then how can Campbell suspend them?" Clarke said. There was a hearing on the matter a few days later, and Campbell fixed the suspensions on Kelly and Saleski at six games without pay. "Kelly and Saleski were in the wrong," Clarke admits, "but they didn't get a fair shake because Campbell obviously had decided they were guilty when he suspended them without a hearing in the first place."
Clarke pleads guilty in the Seiling incident, however. "I speared him, I pole-axed him and I cut him close to the eye," Clarke says. "Things like that happen in the heat of the game, I'm afraid. I called Rod the next morning and apologized. What else could I do?" In that game Clarke set a personal record by accumulating 18 minutes in penalties for slashing, cross-checking, hooking, fighting and, of course, spearing. "It's weird," he says. "A couple of days before the game Freddie received a letter from someone in Finland who told him that a Finnish track team had improved its speed dramatically by taking five pollen pills a day for a year. Well, Freddie ordered a bottle of pills for each of us, and I took mine for the first time that day we played in Toronto. It was the last time I took the pills, too, because I never remember having so much zip. Too much."
Needless to say, excessive zip is not a hanging offense in Philly, whose citizens will not soon forget that mad Sunday last May when the Flyers beat the Bruins to capture the Stanley Cup. The city celebrated for weeks, the merriment extending to Clarke's neighborhood across the Walt Whitman Bridge in suburban New Jersey. His front lawn was littered with beer cans and liquor bottles for a week, and the crowds became so festive that police details were sent to protect Bobby and his family from the revelers. "We finally had to move out and stay with some friends for a few days," he says.
"Now that we've won the cup," says Clarke, "I think we've all lost a little of the fantastic desire we had last year. But we're also a better hockey team, and we win games on talent now that we won on desire before. We're at a stage where we think we are the best. We know that if we do our thing, we'll beat the other club. Let them worry about us. In the old days we worried about them. Not anymore. We used to paste all those newspaper headlines on the bulletin board and read them out loud to psych ourselves up. There's nothing on the board now." Clarke pauses. "Who cares what Scotty Bowman says about us anymore?" he says. "Does it matter?" Told that Bowman, coach of the Montreal Canadiens, recently compared the abilities of Clarke and Buffalo's Gilbert Perreault—hockey's two best young centers—by saying, "You take Perreault and I'll take Clarke, and I'll beat you," Clarke responded, "Bowman said that? Really? That's a change."
Clarke goes onto the ice for a Flyer practice session. Shero, who is known as The Fog because he seems to live in one, enlivens Flyer workouts by substituting tennis balls for pucks, making the players bunny-hop down the ice—anything to forestall creeping boredom. For this session he concocts a ridiculous three-on-one passing play in which the two wings end up out along the boards.
"You're not doing it right, Clarke," Shero yells after the Clarke line loses the puck without getting a shot. "You're not doing it right!" Shero yells again. Eventually, Clarke has enough.
"Buzz off," Clarke says, "you don't know what you're doing."
"I'm the boss here," Shero growls.
"I don't give a damn," says Clarke. "You're bleeping wrong."
"I know I'm wrong," says Shero after a moment's thought. "I've ruined practice for the last 20 minutes by making you guys do something stupid, but Clarke's the only one here who'll tell me I'm wrong. Just because I'm the coach, it doesn't mean that I know everything."
Clarke laughs. "That's Freddie," he says. "The other day for our pregame meeting he skipped hockey completely and told us about this couple from Russia that had lived on the Main Line for two years and now wanted to go back to Russia. 'Can you imagine that?' he said. 'That just proves there are some people in the world who love misery.' "
Well, it proves they weren't Flyer fans, anyway.