It's all over, the 1974-75 hockey season. Finis! After 254 days and 97 games, the Philadelphia Flyers concluded the longest season in pro sports history last week by winning their second straight NHL championship. They beat the Buffalo Sabres 2-0 behind Bernie Parent's impeccable goaltending in the climactic sixth game in steamy Buffalo.
After the Flyers had short-circuited Buffalo's French Connection, after they had guzzled the bubbly from the Stanley Cup and after they had been cheered by 2.3 million delirious Philadelphians on their triumphant parade through the city, it was impossible to forget a message that Coach Freddie (The Fog) Shero had once written on their dressing-room blackboard:
Fame is a vapor
Popularity an accident
Riches take wings
Only one thing endures
and that is character.
No one can deny that the Flyers have character. Lots of it. Take that downright honest character, add a generous portion of Parent's wizard goaltending, plus a good measure of Captain Bobby Clarke's fanatical desire, have it rise to special occasions with Rick MacLeish's inspired play, season with a few sprigs of Kate Smith's golden tones, pour it all into Shero's disciplined system—and you have your basic Stanley Cup champion.
Last season the Flyers were called the Broad Street Bullies from the City of Brotherly Mug because of the coarse manner in which they played hockey, sort of like a band of escapees from A Clockwork Orange set loose on the ice with machetes attached to their sticks and brass knuckles concealed under their gloves. Ask who personified the Flyers' style of play in other NHL cities and Clarke, even Parent, would probably have taken a back seat to hockey's top-seeded bad boy Dave Schultz. "Nobody likes us," Shero admitted. "Nobody outside Philadelphia, that is. In fact, the nicest thing people say about us is that we are a bunch of muggers."
So they were. This spring, though, the Flyers suffered and survived a surprising metamorphosis. While their intrinsic natures will never permit them to be mistaken for so many Frank Merriwells, the Flyers disdained their standard rough-house tactics and beat the harried Sabres with pure, clean, fundamental hockey, just the way they had defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs and the New York Islanders in earlier playoff rounds. Unbelievably, the Flyers were involved in only two fights—one loss and one draw—during the six games against Buffalo. "We used to have at least two fights in every period," says Clarke.
Sticking to hockey, the Flyers limited Buffalo's alleged power play to just three goals in 32 attempts; held the French Connection line of Center Gilbert Perreault and Wings Richard Martin and Rene Robert—which had scored a total of 18 goals in 11 previous playoff games against Chicago and Montreal—to a paltry four goals in the finals; and thoroughly neutralized the normally elusive Perreault with their adroit checking maneuvers. In fact, Perreault—hockey's flashiest forward—managed but a single goal and one assist against the Flyers, and for all of his one-on-one bobbing and weaving, the Philadelphia defensive umbrella stubbornly refused to collapse.
Terry Crisp was one of the five Philadelphia centers who shared the assignment of harassing Perreault. More analytical than most of his teammates, Crisp offered the best assessment of what the Flyers had just accomplished. "When people think of hockey," he said, "they think of everything being graceful and flowing. The 'Flying Frenchmen,' the 'French Connection'—all that. Then we came along. They used to call us goons because we weren't very fancy, but now they have no excuses—none—because there was no gooning in these playoffs. Or put it this way: the point we proved is that a working man's hockey team can win."
Call that character. Bob Kelly certainly is a working man with character. Affectionately known as Hound or Mutt to his teammates, Kelly is Philadelphia's designated hitter who usually steps onto the ice only when Shero feels the pace of a game has become too humdrum. "Kelly doesn't know how to put on his brakes," says Shero. "He shakes up both teams. He's the most dangerous 11-goal scorer in hockey." Kelly spent most of the first two periods of the sixth game propped on the Philadelphia bench, watching Parent and Buffalo's Roger Crozier match shutouts. Then, at the insistence of Assistant Coach Mike Nykoluk, Shero started Kelly in the third period. It took just 11 seconds for the tactic to pay off. The puck rolled down behind the Buffalo net, with the Hound in pursuit. When he touched it, however, Buffalo's Jerry (King Kong) Korab crashed him into the boards. Korab, in turn, was slammed off the puck by Clarke. Scrambling for the loose puck, Kelly gained control of it, wheeled around in front of Crozier and fired a backhander into the far corner of the net for what proved to be the cup-winning goal. "Imagine that!" Kelly said. "Me scoring the goal that wins the cup. I'm not a goal scorer, everyone knows that."
Philadelphia's second goal resulted from a collaborative effort by two more working stiffs, Centers Orest Kindrachuk and Bill Clement. With five centers on his roster, Shero invariably sits out either Kindrachuk, Clement or Crisp in each game, and for the sixth game of the playoffs it was Crisp who was dressed in street clothes. Desperately trying to tie the score with less than five minutes left, Buffalo was attacking furiously when Kindrachuk blocked a shot at the blue line and darted after the puck. Once he reached it, he halted, hung on long enough to lure two Buffalo players to the boards and then slid a perfect pass to the breaking Clement, who beat Crozier through his legs from close range. Unfortunately, Kindrachuk never had a chance to see the game-icing shot because he was stretched out face down under Buffalo's Korab.
Character, too, is the stamp of the Philadelphia defense, particularly Andre (Moose) Dupont, Ed Van Impe and the Watson brothers, Jimmy and Joe. They have never been popular with All-Star voters, but the Philadelphia Four provide Parent with the sturdiest protection in hockey. With the exception of Jimmy Watson, they lack puck-carrying finesse, and are not much of a threat to rifle blue-line bullets past rival goaltenders. Nonetheless, Parent says he can count the breakaways he faced this season on the fingers of one hand. "Those guys make it easy for me."
Crafty old Van Impe prevented a certain Buffalo goal early in the final game when he sneakily clenched a loose puck and slid it through the crease to a safe position beneath Parent. Later it was Jimmy Watson who thwarted the Sabres by deflecting a Martin shot that appeared to be headed for the unguarded corner of the net. "If we've got a one-goal lead late in a game," says Shero, "I'll take Jimmy Watson and you can have all the Brad Parks and Bobby Orrs." Only 22, Jimmy Watson may soon cause the Philadelphia Four to lose its anonymity. "When a defenseman like Jimmy doesn't get selected for the All-Star team," says Clarke, "you know those teams are really a joke."
Clarke, in particular, was physically spent after the final game in Buffalo. A diabetic, he seemed to lose his skating élan as the playoff season closed in on the month of June, but even at 80% speed he was the most intimidating presence on the ice, aside from Parent. He killed penalties, worked the power play, shadowed Perreault perfectly and proved once more that he is the sport's most tireless performer. Although Clarke's natural skills hardly rival Orr's or Guy Lafleur's, or Perreault's for that matter, right now he is the dominant skater in the game because, as Shero says, "He has shown he is a winner."
So, in his position, is Parent, who was voted the MVP of the playoffs for the second straight year. Parent had four shutouts and allowed only 29 goals in 15 games. "That bumper sticker everyone has down in Philadelphia, the one that says 'Only the Lord saves more than Bernie Parent,' really isn't true," said Buffalo's Korab. "God couldn't have made all the saves that Parent made against us." In contrast, the Buffalo goaltending was extremely shoddy when the nervous Gerry Desjardins was between the posts, but the veteran Crozier—he of the multiple stomach operations—performed solidly when called on for the final game and a brief appearance in Game Three.
After the boisterous parade through Philadelphia, Parent was called to the microphone to address the 100,000 people who had crammed into John F. Kennedy Stadium. His words were brief—and to the point. "I'll see you again right here next May 27, O.K.?" he said. Whatever you say, Bernie. Everyone in Philadelphia is ready and waiting.