As far as the Philadelphia Flyers know, their enigmatic coach, Fred Shero, actually does hate ice cream and thinks that beer is the real breakfast of champions. Shero, in fact, is such a heretic that he is the only soul around Philadelphia who will publicly admit to preferring the Beatles to Kate Smith. The Flyers reverently call him "Anatoli" because Shero professes to be a latter-day disciple of Anatoli Tarasov, the father of hockey in the Soviet Union. At the same time they irreverently call him Freddie the Fog because behind those photo-gray bifocals, that Fu Manchu mustache and those early-American Bandstand clothes, Shero indeed seems to be living somewhere offshore in a pea-souper. By any name, though, Shero has molded the Flyers in his image, operating on the tenets that 1) Baloney baffles brains; 2) An aphorism a day keeps defeat away; 3) All players should not be treated equally; and 4) The best weapon in hockey is a yellow legal pad. Whatever. Under Shero, Philadelphia won the Stanley Cup in 1974 and could well make it two in a row this year. Somewhere in that fogbank someone knows where he is going and it is Shero's hand on the tiller.
Witness Shero last week when the Flyers finally rubbed out the pesky New York Islanders in the seventh game of their semifinal Stanley Cup series and then rode Bernie Parent's spectacular goaltending and Shero's foolscap carpet to victory in the first two games of the cup finals against the Buffalo Sabres.
Early in the week, having just lost three straight games to the phoenix-like Islanders, the Flyers were understandably quiet and depressed as they skated out for what could have been their final practice of the season. But black armbands?
"What're they for?" Shero snapped.
"The guys are in mourning because Rexy's burned down last night," said Captain Bobby Clarke.
For the Flyers, losing Rexy's, their preferred watering hole across the Walt Whitman Bridge in New Jersey, was almost as traumatic as losing the three games to the Islanders. Considering the gloomy mood of his teammates, Clarke suggested to Shero that the Flyers spend the night in seclusion at a motel in Valley Forge. Reluctantly, Shero approved. "Montreal always hides in the mountains before big games but all the players ever do is stare at each other," Shero said. "What good is that? Why run away from people? I'd rather take them into the heart of traffic, let them see the girls and relax. I've told players to do that before. Oh, well, if they want to be out at Valley Forge, I'll be with them. Besides, it's a free meal."
On the day of the final game against the Islanders, the Flyers lounged around the motel, listened to some of Kate Smith's Goldies but Oldies album, hummed God Bless America and wondered aloud: Will she or won't she? Will Kate the Great arrive just before game time in Owner Ed Snider's limousine, take to the ice, sing God Bless America, collect her $5,000 fee and then cheer the Flyers to another victory? Or will she do it on tape? In living color Kate the Great had a perfect record: undefeated, untied and unscored upon in two appearances, including a cup-winning 1-0 decision over Boston a year ago. On tape she had a 40-3-1 record.
Shero feigned outrage at the suggestion that Kate the Great was a seventh skater. "If she really means that much," he grumbled, "I think we ought to put her on the payroll. I like the song, but it won't put the puck in the net." Shero was sitting behind a stack of books in his cubbyhole office off the Flyers' dressing room, below a sign that read: "O, the despair of Pygmalion, who might have created a statue and only made a woman." Shero is very big on aphorisms. Before; each Philadelphia game, home or road, big or ordinary, he pores through books, selects a particularly pointed sentence or phrase and then chalks it onto a green blackboard for the edification of his players. For the Islanders, he flooded the small board with three messages:
•"Only he deserves power who every day justifies it."—Dag Hammarskj√∂ld.
•"When I find myself in time of trouble, there's a light that shines on me...shines until tomorrow...let it be."—The Beatles.
•"Success requires no explanation. Failure presents no alibis."—Coach Fred Shero.
Although Shero would never admit it, the Hammarskj√∂ld quotation was clearly aimed at Rick MacLeish, a talented center who performs either sensationally or dismally. As the Flyers and Islanders faced off for Game Seven, MacLeish's dismal efforts led his sensational ones 4-2; in fact, Clarke had even called MacLeish to his motel room for a private bawling-out earlier in the day. MacLeish obviously got both messages. Skating furiously, he swooped around, over and through the Islanders for three goals as the Flyers scored an easy 4-1 victory to advance into the finals.
While the Flyers went off in search of a back-up Rexy's, Shero retreated into his cubbyhole with Assistant Coaches Mike Nykoluk and Barry Ashbee, a dozen reels of what he calls "fil-lum" and, of course, his trusty yellow pad. The problem was not so simple: the Philadelphia brain trust had to devise a way to stop Buffalo's French Connection line of Center Gilbert Perreault and Wingers Richard Martin and Rene Robert. Last year Shero and Nykoluk devised a stop-Bobby Orr maneuver that befuddled the Bruins in the final series. Rather than try to isolate Orr from the puck, which at the time was a standard stratagem against the Bruin defenseman, the Flyers repeatedly forced Orr to handle the puck by shooting it down his side of the ice, then harassing him with three checkers. "We knew Orr always played about 45 minutes a game," Shero said. "What we wanted to do—and what we did—was tire him."
For the French Connection, Shero outlined a two-part plan on his magic pad. First of all, he ordered his centers to harass Perreault unmercifully. "How do you check the fastest and shiftiest center in the game?" Shero asked. "Well, you force him out of his funnel, get him out and away from the center of the ice. You maneuver him against the boards, into the traffic—and then you seal up his escape routes. You try, anyway." The key part of Shero's plan, though, was much like his anti-Orr strategy: wear out the Connection by quick line changes.
Shero's plan became operative the moment Perreault, Martin and Robert skated out Thursday night for their first shift in Game One. The Connection was on the ice for exactly 97 seconds, and during that time Shero threw three different lines at them. On their next shift of 106 seconds, the Connection faced another three lines. And those line changes were done s-l-o-w-l-y, also according to Shero's design. "We wanted to disrupt any momentum they might have been building up," Clarke said. Following orders, the Philadelphia centers, particularly Clarke, played Perreault navel to navel, tattooing his midsection with their sticks—semi-legally, of course—and preventing him from playing his flashy game.
Shero was naturally elated with the success of his plan, even though Martin scored the only Buffalo goal in Philadelphia's 4-1 victory. "Buffalo outshot us 8-2 and 14-8 the first two periods," he said, "but we did what we wanted to do: we stopped their big guys. If they think they outplayed us those first two periods, they're stupid."
Apprised of Shero's last remark, Clarke broke out with a grin. "Freddie, you know, is one of the great put-people-on artists in the world."
"I like to have a different answer for everyone," Shero later confirmed.
Unfortunately, Shero's gruff facade and his frequent displays of verbal dexterity—along with Philadelphia's belligerent playing style—have obscured the fact that he is the best tactician in hockey. Now 49, Shero coached in the minor leagues for 13 years, mostly in the New York Rangers organization, and finished below second place only twice. However, the Rangers never offered him an NHL coaching job, obviously realizing that Shero does not tolerate interference from the front office. Ironically, the same Rangers have now hired Ron Stewart in the hope that he can coach with Shero's ability.
"My first job as a coach was in Shawinigan Falls, Quebec," Shero says. "I knew why they gave the job to a rookie the minute I met my players. They were the castoffs, the hopeless cases, the very worst players owned by the Montreal Canadiens. But we all joined forces. We lived, fought, played and drank together—and we won together."
At Shawinigan, Shero also learned Rule No. 1 for coaching success: always carry a beer can opener. "The sign of the minor-leaguer is a beer can," he said. "We'd get on a bus after a game, reach for the beer and then cut ourselves to pieces trying to open the cans. I still carry an opener with me because you never know when you'll get one of the old-fashioned cans instead of a flip-top."
One afternoon Shero was walking around Shawinigan and stopped in a drugstore to buy razor blades. When the attractive teen-age salesgirl asked Shero what he wanted, he said, "I love you. We're going to get married." About three months later they did, and if you believe Shero—a master of the semantic shuffle, remember—he hasn't told Mariette "I love you" since. "She knows I love her," he says. "I know women like to hear it, but I feel like I'm giving her a lot of doubletalk when I say it."
Shero became a disciple of the Russian school of hockey while coaching at St. Paul in the mid-1960s. "Anatoli Tarasov's book became my bible," he says. "I've read it at least 100 times. Even now I still don't know all there is to coaching. I'm still learning, which is why I went to Russia for a coaching clinic last summer. At least I realize I don't know everything. Trouble is, most coaches don't know—and certainly won't admit—that they don't know everything about coaching. We have all these meetings here in the NHL, and all the coaches are at them, but we never meet in the same room at the same time. What we ought to have are coaches' seminars where we can exchange ideas and discuss methods." He shrugs his shoulders. "I guess enough people aren't interested."
Once Shero, a onetime defenseman, began to read and grasp Tarasov, he gradually altered the style of his minor league teams, converting them from ad-lib shooting clubs into fine-honed units that followed a definite "system" at all times. "When I came to Philadelphia in 1971," Shero says, "I forgot about my system because I had too much respect for big-league players. After all, I hadn't been in the NHL for about 20 years, and even then I only played for less than three years." Shero's first team in Philadelphia missed the playoffs in the final four seconds of the regular schedule. "I could think of a million excuses," he says, "but late in the summer I realized these were the same type of men I had coached in the minors and that I should coach them the same way."
Technically speaking, the Philadelphia system is simple, and in truth varies from versions adopted by the New York Islanders and the Los Angeles Kings only in that the Flyers have Parent and Clarke. "There are four corners in a rink," Shero says, "although a lot of players don't realize it, and there are two pits, one in front of each net. To win a game, you've got to win the corners and the pits. You give punishment there, and you take it, which is why we have more fights than most teams. Once we are on the move with the puck, no defenseman can be more than one zone—or two stick-lengths—behind the puck carrier. In other words, once Clarke gets to center ice, I want Ed Van Impe, say, at the blue line. When Clarke reaches the far blue line, I want Van Impe at the red line. Once Clarke is 10 feet inside the zone, Van Impe must be stationed at the point."
The second aspect of the system is partly a product of Shero's mind—the idea of short shifts for his players—and partly the unit system of five-player substitutions that Tarasov perfected in Russia. "I want my players to skate like hell and then get off the ice," Shero says. "If they're on for even a minute, that can be too long." At practices, Shero spends the first 45 minutes working on moving the puck out of his team's defensive zone. Once he is satisfied he allocates only about 20 minutes to plays in the offensive end. His workouts are devoid of routine, and Shero occasionally cancels hockey practice completely and conducts a badminton tournament instead.
"Man for man, I don't think we are among the top five teams in the NHL," he says. "Collectively, I think—I know—we are the best. Why? Because we execute the system." Philadelphia's success with the system style of hockey, along with the emergence of the Islanders and the Kings as winning teams, is prompting some of hockey's old-line thinkers to reevaluate their game plans. Montreal's Scotty Bowman intends to install systemized hockey next year at the expense of the Canadiens' speed skating and shoot-shoot-shoot tradition. The Boston Bruins, who generally play both Orr and Phil Esposito a minimum of 40 minutes per game, have been so impressed with Philadelphia's success that they ordered Esposito to interrupt a Florida vacation and make a trip to the Spectrum to scout the way Clarke and the other Flyer centers work. "That's how Phil's going to play—about 80 seconds per shift, not three minutes," says Boston Managing Director Harry Sinden.
Shero reflected on his system one day last week. "It destroys me when I see someone like Orr having the puck all night," he said. "I ask, 'Is this a team game? Or is this golf or tennis?' Orr is a great player, sure, but you've got to get players to use their talents for the good of everyone. You've got to get them to fit into a pattern. Of course, some teams don't have a pattern, but that's their fault."
Quite obviously, if one stays around Shero long enough for the fog to burn off, his course becomes clear.