Bobby Clarke can do it all. Yes, sir, he's one of the great ones. He gets the job done. He plays the game the way it should be played—the winning way. He hangs tough. He never lets up, never lets up. Work, work, work—that's Bobby Clarke. He's a take-charge guy. A natural leader. A team man. He gives everything he has—and more. He plays as if every game were his last. He makes things happen. He has pride. Desire. Heart. Character. He's a competitor.
That locker-room litany is not just some fizz left over from the Philadelphia Flyers' last Stanley Cup bash. No, cliché by sweaty cliché, every word of it was actually uttered this season by various opponents of Clarke, the man whom Detroit Red Wing Goalie Ed Giacomin, stretching for a high, hot one, calls "Mr. Fire." If not exactly breathless, the phrasemaking by Giacomin and all the other National Hockey League laureates who persist in describing the Flyer center as the original "110% guy" is understandable.
After all, what precisely does one say about a professional athlete who starts off each day with a 55-unit shot of insulin; a myopic, relatively small player of only average skating and shooting skills who twice in the past three years has been voted the NHL's Most Valuable Player and who is once again leading the league in autographs, humility, gifts to the needy, leadership merit badges and, if shaggy 26-year-old cherubs are your thing, shining good looks?
Well, given all the gush, one might say that perhaps Bobby Clarke really is some kind of icebound cliché, that by the supreme test of lung and leg that is his profession he actually is the sum of a lot of hoary intangibles like second effort, will to win and all that.
February 23, 1976
Do not smirk. The big, bad, burly Philadelphia Flyers not only talk, seriously talk, about the old do-or-die spirit all the time, they even know the location of Clarke's supply—sort of. Patting his heart, Center Terry Crisp says, "That little extra something that Bobby has comes from here. It's not the kind of stuff you pick up in a container at the corner store." Tapping his head, Goalie Bernie Parent says, "Clarke's got it here. He makes sense 85% or 90% of the time, the other dummies on this team only about half the time. That's why he's captain." Thumping his gut, Forward Dave Schultz says, "It's something you reach down here for. I don't know where Bobby gets it, but I sure admire it."
No, the Flyers do not take kindly to smirkers. What differences of opinion there are about Clarke, in fact, depend solely on one's vantage point—including flat on the ice. One might, for instance, agree with Montreal Canadien Defense-man Pierre Bouchard, who says, "Clarke is the dirtiest player in the league." Or with Milt Schmidt, former coach of the Washington Capitals: "I don't think I have the vocabulary to express the goodness of the guy." Or Toronto Maple Leaf Coach Red Kelly: "I don't think I'd call Clarke dirty. Mean is a better word." Or Flyers' Board Chairman Ed Snider: "Look, I know people tend to exaggerate the superstar thing, so you'll just have to take my word for it. Clarke is it. He's not just an amazing hockey player. He's an amazing human being, a once-in-a-lifetime guy, an incredible phenomenon of our time!" Or Clarke himself: "Aaw, naaw, none of that stuff is true."
What is true is that the line dividing aggressive play and mindless violence in pro hockey has become blurred. And by skating a wavering course somewhere in between, the Philadelphia Flyers, alias the Broad Street Bullies, alias the Mean Machine, alias the Mad Squad, have become the focal point of the controversy over brutality on the ice.
In Philadelphia, alias the City of Brotherly Mug, the prevailing argument is that it is not the duty of the Flyers to enact or enforce the rules. Their job is to win, and that they have done in smashingly dramatic fashion by copping the Stanley Cup the past two seasons, not to mention routing the Soviet Union's Central Army Club in January. The fact that along the way the Flyers also became the most penalized team in NHL history is considered neither shocking nor scandalous, merely the price of victory.
And protection, claims Snider. "Listen, I'm tired of all this violence talk," he says a trifle violently. "When we first started out here at the Spectrum nine years ago we watched guys like John Ferguson, one of those so-called 'skating gazelles' from Montreal, pound our teeny little guys into the ice night after night. Why didn't people scream then? We didn't. We went out and got the best policeman there is, Dave Schultz, and as soon as we started to win, all these supposed purists began calling us animals and goons. Ridiculous!" Adds Flyer Coach Freddie Shero, "If it's pretty skating they want, let 'em go to the Ice Capades."
Clarke, a vice-president of the NHL's Players Association, takes a softer line. He reasons that if the sport is in need of reforms, they can only be determined by powers removed from the daily hit-and-hustle business of winning. "In many ways we players are the worst judges of what may or may not be too much violence," he says. "We've all been raised to play a certain way and if people now find that offensive, then let's clean things up. Heck, if everyone is really so concerned, they could put in a new rule today that would eliminate the fighting tomorrow. If that's what everybody wants, let's do it. If not, let's get on with the game."
Are you, er, a meanie?
"Aaw, naaw," says Clarke. "Scotty Bowman [the Montreal coach] said something like that once and right away people picked up on it. I'm too small to be a dirty hockey player. I'm not squawking, but I've eaten a few, too, you know. Guys who complain about my being dirty should go home with my body at night."
Freddie Shero never complains. He contradicts. "Generally, Clarke carries his stick a little higher than it should be," he says. "He's like a leech: check, check, check. He wants to be hacking and hitting and all that. Sure he's mean. Anybody who expects to be truly great has to be mean. I'm talking about Gordie Howe, who could carve you. Or Rocket Richard. Or Milt Schmidt. They were mean. They took care of the opposition. Like Clarke."
Violent? Dirty? Mean? Most valuable? Obviously, distinctions in the NHL come in several different shades, all of them gray. And deep in that haze is where Bobby Clarke does his thing, emerging in the end as a paragon wrapped inside a paradox. He changes images with an audible click, now popping out his four front teeth to become Bobby Clarke, the toothless rink terror, now clapping them back in place to revert to Bobby Clarke, leader of men. The scenes tend to blur.
In 1972, when Team Canada needed a swift stroke of good fortune to rescue its series against Russia, Clarke provided it with the now infamous shot heard round the hockey world. It came when Clarke, sweeping up ice behind Valery Kharlamov, decided that "something had to be done about this guy who was killing us." So he slashed the Soviet star across the ankles with his stick. The two-hander sidelined the Russian, and the Canadians rallied to win the last three games and the series.
"It's not something I'm really proud of," says Clarke, "but I honestly can't say I was ashamed to do it. Right before it happened he stuck me pretty good in the stomach with his stick. He hurt me and I wanted to hurt him back. Everyone says that the Russians are different, that they play patterned, position hockey. But throw us together and they can be just as dirty as anyone. The only difference is that the Canadians do it out in the open and the Russians do it sneaky."
In the 1974 playoffs, when the New York Rangers rebounded to take a pair from the Flyers and tie the series at two games apiece, Clarke was quick to isolate the problem. Rick MacLeish, the team's best skater and shooter, was "floating," a recurrent letdown that caused him to take a total of only four shots in the Flyers' two losing efforts. Then, suddenly, Rick the Rifle started firing again, scoring two goals to win the fifth game and getting two more big ones in the finals, including the shot that clinched the championship for the Flyers.
What happened? "Clarkie told me to get off my rear," MacLeish said.
Behind 1-0 in the final minutes of the sixth game of the 1974 cup finals, the Boston Bruins were looking to Bobby Orr to save them from being eliminated by the Flyers. But while the action—and the officials' attention—was directed elsewhere, Orr was engaged with Clarke, who earlier had baited the Bruin superstar into a roughing penalty. This time Orr felt that Clarke was guilty of tripping, so when Clarke sped off moments later on a breakaway, Orr overtook him with a vengeance and was assessed two minutes for holding. Since there was only 2:22 remaining at the time, in effect Orr—and Boston's hopes—were gone for good.
Late last season, when the Flyers were coasting some nine points behind the league-leading Buffalo Sabres and seemed certain to finish with only the third-best record in the NHL, Clarke confronted Shero.
"I don't think we can end up first," Shero said, "so I'll be playing everyone, giving the guys on the bench some experience."
"Screw that," Clarke said. "Forget those guys on the bench. I've talked to them, they don't care. We want to finish first."
"I don't think it's possible," Shero said.
"Give us a chance," Clarke said.
"He really gave me hell," Shero recalls. "So I played the best and they made it. I counted us out until Clarke gave me the courage to do what I wanted to do. On the other hand, when we're way ahead in a game, Clarke'll demand that we break up a line to give the guys on the bench a break. You think Orr or Esposito or any of the other top scorers would take themselves out of an easy game? No, they want to be out there picking up those points. But not Bobby. Heck, he gives away a lot of his points. More than some guys score in an entire season. There's never been one like him in 50 years."
Last season, during a rugged 6-3 Flyer victory over Toronto that was televised nationally in Canada, Clarke was charged with spearing Rod Seiling, his close friend and former Team Canada roommate. Replayed again and again on TV, the incident caused the NHL to be besieged with angry anti-Clarke mail and moved one sportscaster to recommend that the Flyer captain be fined $5,000 and suspended for the season.
Clarke admits, "I speared Rod. I poleaxed him and I cut him close to the eye. Things like that happen in the heat of a game, I'm afraid. I called Rod the next morning and apologized. What else could I do?"
Seiling says, "I like Bobby as a man but I think he carries the aggressiveness a bit far on the ice. I don't think he has to use the stick on people's bodies as much as he does to be effective."
In last year's Stanley Cup finals, the Flyers won the first two games, then dropped two in a row to the Sabres in Buffalo. Clarke was burning. "The Philadelphia locker room was closed for 15 minutes after the fourth game," says one source, "because Bobby was lashing the rest of the Flyers verbally, telling them how stupid it was to get that far and then throw it away. The reason he was telling them that was because you couldn't believe the drinking that went on in the hotel the previous night. When they sent out a line in the fourth game, they'd have one guy who went to bed at 10 o'clock and two guys with hangovers. And the worst part of it was that management was buying a lot of the rounds."
After the locker-room scene, says the source, Clarke cornered Snider, who was heard mumbling, "You're right, Bobby. You're right. It won't happen again. You're right. I apologize."
The Flyers won the next two games and their second Stanley Cup.
It is not incidental that each of these interludes has a common denominator: victory for Clarke's side. But does the long end of the score justify the short end of the stick? "We used to sit around and talk about that," says Bill Clement. Washington's ex-captain, recently traded to Atlanta, spent four years with Clarke at Philadelphia. "The violent stuff was almost never premeditated. Bobby would say, I just want to win so badly.' "
Clarke is not of the roundhouse-right school. He leaves that chore to such mop-up specialists as Dave (the Hammer) Schultz, Bob (the Hound) Kelly, Andre (Moose) Dupont and Don (Big Bird) Saleski. Their mission is clear. "Our leader must be protected at all times," says Schultz ominously.
Out there on the frozen playgrounds of the NHL that kind of bullyboy support can make a little guy feel downright feisty. "Clarke's no different than any other player," says Maple Leaf Center Darryl Sittler. "If a player knows that when he fights he fights alone, then he's not too eager to start anything. But when he knows that the entire team is willing to fight for him, then he can try a lot more things that could cause trouble."
The result, says Sittler, is that "more than any other player in the league Clarke battles you all the time. He does anything he can to make you think of something other than playing your game. A little whack here, a little jab there. If he can't get you upset, he just steps up the nonsense until he does, and some of it is pretty tough. You don't mind guys working to stop you but Clarke does go a bit far. Cripes, he wants to win so badly that he'll do just about anything."
Not just any old time, though. Marc Boileau, former coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, says, "Clarke takes what he can get. He'll elbow you and hook you, but he gets away with it because he knows when to stop. When he hooks you, for example, he does it with a great sense of timing. If somebody's going to beat him, he gets that stick in there. But he always manages to get it away before the official calls it. He's a cute one, all right." Los Angeles Defense-man Neil Komadoski relates, "I remember how he suckered me into a penalty when I was a rookie with the Kings. He brushed me across the face with his glove and I crosschecked him for the penalty. That's something a rookie has to learn, when to retaliate at the right time."
Clarke is a hummingbird among hawks. "He's everywhere he's supposed to be. Yet he's everywhere you don't expect him to be," says the Atlanta Flames' Bill Flett. Clarke never leaves the ice without trying to skate in front of an opponent. He dances box steps in front of a rival's net to obstruct the goalie's view of a shot. He kills penalties, works the power play, forechecks with deadly abandon and steals face-offs with the touch and trickery of a pickpocket. And when he centers for linemates Bill Barber and Reggie Leach, his only possible fault, says Buffalo Coach Floyd Smith, is "not shooting the puck enough himself, being too unselfish."
"With Bobby," says Leach, who scored 45 goals last season after joining the Flyers in a trade recommended by Clarke, "I know that all I have to do is skate to an open spot on the ice and I'll get the puck. Usually right on my stick. From there, it's just a matter of pulling the trigger."
But what mainly fires the Flyers, what disrupts rivals, stirs controversies and wins Stanley Cups is Clarke's cussed, dogged, clawing, nonstop drive. He is just plain too annoying to be around. Even when he is not in nagging pursuit, the thought that he might be makes for a lot of looking over the shoulder. As Shero astutely points out, "When you're looking behind you, you don't know what's in front of you. You can fall down a lot that way."
Or get knocked down. Either way, Shero's logic is hard to fault: "If you keep the opposition on their butts, they don't score goals." So much for defense. Offensively, the Flyers excel at another rough, rudimentary skill: dumping the puck into the corners and going in after it, no holds—or elbows, knees, forearms, sticks, fists—barred. Winger Kelly, whose scarred brows are testament to his duties, says, "A lot of us are not what you'd call smooth skaters. I guess you'd call our style helter-skelter."
Helter-skelter, hit and hurt, it is all as plain as the stripes on a referee's shirt. "There is nothing mystical about the way Philadelphia plays," says Montreal Goalie Ken Dry-den, "but they're very effective. They just sort of come at you and the person who comes at you more than anybody is Bobby Clarke."
And therein, says Terry Crisp, hand still figuratively on heart, lies Clarke's chief virtue as Captain Inspiration. "When our club is groping and gasping along," says Crisp, "Bobby comes to the fore. That's what you mean by leadership. Leadership isn't walking around before the game, smacking guys on the back, telling them to go out there and win one for the Gipper. Leadership is making a big play when you really need it. Leadership is Bobby's desire to win. He does so much, so well. Listen, he'd drive the ice-cleaning machine if they wanted him to."
And so the sermonettes go in Philadelphia. Ultimately, though, whatever it is that makes Bobby Clarke a little special and causes all these hard-nosed men to carry on so about one of the most stultifying topics in sports—leadership—is perhaps best summed up by Ed Snider, a front-office realist who showed his concern for soul after the Flyers' first Stanley Cup by raising ticket prices 50%.
The secret, says Snider, is that "Bobby Clarke has no outstanding talents. When our guys see someone like Bobby Orr or Guy Lafleur or Gilbert Perreault, players with such great natural gifts, they know they could never be like them no matter how hard they tried. But when they see Bobby, they think, 'Hey, I can do that.' They feel they can do everything he can do if they just put out the same effort."
If that effort sometimes results in the kind of violence that demeans the sport, it can be argued that it is not the Flyers' "exuberance" but the league's permissiveness that is to blame. Or, as Shero contends, "Success requires no explanations, failure presents no alibis." So while the NHL continues to ponder, the Flyers figure to keep exploiting every weakness they can find, including the slow whistle. Shero has a saying for that tactic as well: "He that will not when he may, he shall not when he will."
You figure it out. The Flyers gave up trying to long ago. They call Shero Mr. X, the Phantom and the Fog. He is a study in burnt sienna. His hair, his complexion, his suits and tinted glasses all are of a dark reddish hue that seems to mask a man of mystery—and savvy mischief. During one game he stopped the action by blithely tossing a handful of change on the ice. "What the hell," he says, "the refs knew where it came from and we needed the rest."
In marked contrast to the mayhem he presides over, Shero is an extraordinarily placid man. His prolonged blinks have been officially timed as naps, and when he resurfaces it is often to say things like, "Sometimes you lose by winning," or, "We play cerebral, not physical, hockey," or, "To really coach, you've got to be miserable in winter and more miserable in summer." Yes, one can understand the strains and pressures of a long season, but why the misery in summer? "Because I'm not coaching." Oh.
But mostly Shero saves his confounding Confucianisms for the Flyer blackboard, where he is forever scribbling such bulletins as, "Only a mediocre person is always at his best," and "An oak tree is just a nut that held its ground." To the latter. Winger Gary Dornhoefer appended, "If you walk with your head in the clouds and keep your feet on the ground, you can make a million dollars in the National Basketball Association."
"It's just the way I am," says Shero of his stoic, enigmatic ways. "I hate showing my emotions in public. That's why I sit in my basement alone or go for long walks by myself." After one wee-hours stroll in Atlanta during the 1974 playoffs, Shero woke up with a broken thumb, a gashed arm, assorted bruises and no recollection of what had happened. "I don't know if I had a fight in a bar," he said, "but if I did it wouldn't be the first time. I remember the word 'animal' upset me."
"The Fog is everywhere," says Clarke. "Turn a corner and he's there. Go into a bar down an alley and he's there, he's everywhere. And never ever will he say hello to you. What can you say about Freddie? We went from nothing to the Stanley Cup once we got him. If we lose he never comes in and gives us hell. He treats us like men. We love Freddie."
And the City of Brotherly Love loves Robert Earle Clarke. It must, for why else would it adopt as its favorite son an alien who lives in New Jersey and hails from a place called Flin Flon? That's Flin Flon, Manitoba, which can be reached by hanging a right at Winnipeg and proceeding 500 miles northwest to the first rocky mass spilling over the Saskatchewan border.
Named after Josiah Flintabbatey Flonatin, a prospector in a dime adventure novel, Flin Flon is a subarctic redoubt where most of the 12,000 inhabitants work for the Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting Co., including Clarke's father, who is a drilling inspector. Scratching around for copper and zinc 5,000 feet below ground was not Bobby's idea of a fun job. "In Flin Flon you either play hockey or you work in the mines," he says. "There's no way I wanted to work in those mines."
So, often braving numbing temperatures of 30 and 40 degrees below zero, he played hockey, hockey, hockey. His mother recalls, "Bobby learned to skate on an open-air rink and he lived there morning, noon and night. Of course, that still wasn't enough hockey for him, so we had another rink out in the garden. Many's the time he'd shoot the puck off the side of the house—and a few times through the window."
Clarke learned that he was diabetic when he was 15. To determine if his hockey career would have to be curtailed, his father took him to Winnipeg for further checkups. But Bobby had already decided to play hockey whatever the doctors said. "He'd never seen the bright lights of the big city before," his father recalls. "It was just before Christmas and I said we'd take him downtown to see all the lights. But he already had his skates on. He was going for a skate on some rink on the outskirts of town."
Pat Ginnell, former coach of the Flin Flon Bombers, first saw Clarke in 1966. "He was wearing glasses, had buckteeth and looked kind of thin on the ice," says Ginnell. "But once he started moving, there was no doubt in my mind that this was going to be one of the best kids I ever coached."
Quitting school at 17, Clarke joined Ginnell's Bombers and for the next two seasons led the Western Canadian Junior League in scoring. Ginnell recalls, "Bobby's leadership qualities really came forward his last season at Flin Flon, even in practice. One day a bunch of the guys were goofing off during a scrimmage and that got Bobby good and mad. I want to play hockey for a living and you guys are hurting me and the team. Shape up!' he said. By setting an example Bobby made sure everyone fell into line."
By 1969, when he became eligible for the NHL draft, Clarke was considered the best junior in Western Canada. Nonetheless, though he was armed with a Mayo Clinic report confirming that he was capable of competing, his reputation as "that diabetic centerman" had preceded him. Most NHL teams rejected Clarke without bothering to check his medical records, leaving him, to their undying regret, to be snatched away by the Flyers as the No. 17 pick. Though he felt snubbed at the time, Clarke now says, "If nobody drafted me, I would have sneaked out and played pick-up games. It didn't make any difference."
The Flyers had reason to doubt the Mayo Clinic when Clarke, reporting for his first practice at the team's training camp, fainted on the ice. "They thought he was drunk," a Flyer says, "and they were about to throw him out until somebody explained that, it was the diabetes thing. So they called an ambulance."
Diagnosed as a failure to eat breakfast—a must for a diabetic—the collapse caused the Flyers to keep an attentive eye on Clarke's daily regimen ever since. He is supplied with scheduled doses of sweetened Cokes and orange juice at each game and his weight is checked almost daily to make certain that it stays within the acceptable range of 178 to 183 pounds. "There's no problem," insists Clarke, who cites the success of other diabetic athletes such as Billy Talbert and Ron Santo. "I have to do some things, other players have to do other things. Some play with bad backs or knees. Some play with plates in their skulls. I don't feel unusual in any way."
Clarke certainly looked different from his fellow Flyers when he suited up for his rookie season. His glasses had been replaced by contact lenses and his buck-teeth had long since been claimed by the hockey tooth fairy. But the blond hair was as short-cropped as ever and his dimpled visage suggested that he should be playing third soprano for the Vienna Boys Choir. And instead of growling menacingly, he kept saying things like, "I've never seen a place as big as Philadelphia before. I can't believe it. It's like a dream. Imagine, me being on the ice with Howe and Hull and all those guys. I just can't believe it."
Neither could a stewardess on a team flight to St. Louis. Noticing a cut on Clarke's cheek and a blackened right eye, she asked, "Were you in an automobile accident?"
"No," he said, "I'm a professional hockey player."
"Oh," she said, "I thought you were only a teen-ager."
It was a tough rap to live down, but Clarke managed it by making the NHL West All-Star team and being voted the division's Rookie of the Year. That spring, shortly after returning to Flin Flon, Clarke was in an automobile accident. Though no one was injured, it had a profoundly sobering effect on him. Clarke admits he was playing the NHL hotshot. "I was driving along with three girls in my big new car with the big engine one night," he says. "We'd had a few drinks, and all of a sudden I hit the gravel on the side of the road, the car flipped and I found myself on the roof."
The very next day Pittsburgh's Michel Briere, whom Clarke had beaten out for Rookie of the Year honors, lost control of his car on a Quebec highway, was hurled through the windshield and, after several months in a coma, died. "It made me think about a lot of things in a different way," says Clarke.
As Clarke's locks lengthened over the next two years so, too, did the lines of maturity. At the outset of the 1972-73 season Shero made him, at age 23, the youngest team captain in NHL history. "I don't care if you're 18 or 50," Shero says, "if you've got leadership qualities, you've got 'em. And Clarke's got 'em."
"Aaw, naaw," says Clarke, "he just did it to shake up the club."
Dutifully shaken, the Flyers rattled and rolled to their first winning season and battled all the way to the second round of the playoffs before being eliminated by Montreal. For his part, Captain Clarke won his first MVP trophy and became only the ninth NHL player ever to top the 100-point mark in a single season. Did the Flyers' revitalization have anything to do with the new leadership? "Aaw, naaw," said Clarke, "it's just a coincidence."
There was nothing coincidental about the Flyers' new image. Increasingly the following season they began attracting the kind of notices usually reserved for The Ring magazine. In its coverage of one game The Philadelphia Bulletin reported, "Dave Schultz took over with a series of jolting right jabs that ripped solidly into Bouchard's bloodied face. The big Frenchman ducked his head trying to wrestle inside, but Schultz went underneath and began scoring with upper-cuts." And no main bout was complete, it seemed, without a few words from the champ. "I hit him about eight times right in the yap," was Schultz' recap of one game. "He was bleeding like a pig."
No one seemed quite certain what was growing there in the Cradle of Liberty. Terry Crisp called it a juggernaut. The Bruins' forward, Terry O'Reilly, said it was the Roller Derby on ice. But whatever the label, there was no ignoring the two-fisted upstarts from Philadelphia. Indeed, while becoming only the third team in league history to win 50 or more games in a season, the 1973-74 Flyers also set attendance marks in five NHL cities.
So there they were on the threshold of their first Stanley Cup triumph and who could believe them? There was Mr. Fire, saying,' 'It's come down to a test of character." There was Mr. X, saying, "If we win the cup I'm going to return to law school. I think that the law properly exercised can save the world." There was the Hammer, saying, "I'll take on five or six guys at once if I have to." And there, most improbable of all, was Kate Smith, saying, "What could be better than being linked with something so wholesome as good clean sport?" Toss in Goalie Bernie ("Only Jesus saves more than Bernie") Parent, mix well with several thousand rabid fans, orchestrate to the strains of God Bless America sung by a 65-year-old Valkyrie and—crunch!—you have the Incredible Flying Machine.
More incredible still was that it was happening right there in Philadelphia, City of Losers and the butt of the national joke ("You're sure, General, it hasn't already been bombed?"). True, the town had its championship moments: the pennant won by the Whiz Kids in 1950, the Eagles' NFL title in 1960, the 76ers' NBA triumph in 1967 and the Atoms' North American soccer victory in 1973. But those were lonely hurrahs in a canyon of defeat, exceptions that proved that the city did not feel it had had anything to really cheer about since the Union army won at Gettysburg.
Or at least that was the popular notion fostered by everyone from W.C. Fields to the late Jimmy Cannon, who once wrote, "Philadelphia is an old wino sleeping it off in a doorway littered with busted dreams. Its teams are doomed to lose and its fans are cruel and crabbed."
And so it almost seemed when the Flyers opened at the Spectrum in 1967 with a scant 1,200 season tickets sold. The only roof they raised was their own—a windstorm tore away a section of the Spectrum ceiling, causing the building to be temporarily condemned and the Flyers to play their last month of "home" games in places like Quebec City, WHERE, OH WHERE ARE OUR WANDERING BOYS TONIGHT? wondered a headline in the Bulletin. They were at the top of their expansionist West Division in the end, but who could get excited about a bunch of absentees? Nobody.
There were other embarrassments, like the time the Flyers' inept play moved NHL President Clarence Campbell to berate the team publicly for lack of competitiveness (words he would live to rue). Or the night the St. Louis Blues' Red Berenson single-handedly scored six goals against the Philadelphians. Or the 80-foot goal by the Minnesota North Stars' Barry Gibbs that locked the Flyers out of the 1970 playoffs. Or the long shot by Buffalo's Gerry Meehan that eliminated them with only four seconds left in the 1971-72 season.
The Flyers, it seemed, belonged in the City of Losers. But then Clarke, who wept after that last-gasp disappointment in 1970, and Shero and Schultz and Parent and Kate and the gang started to come to the fore and with them a city-wide spirit of revival. And when the underdog expansionist Flyers finally won the Stanley Cup in 1974, the effusive words of the NHL president did not tell the half of it. Campbell, who earlier in the series had chastised the Flyers for their pugnaciousness, pronounced their victory "Probably the biggest event that ever happened in hockey."
To a degree unexpected by anyone, the Flyers' triumph touched off a night of wild revelry in Philadelphia the likes of which had not been seen since V-E day. Caravans of cars, with horns blaring, clogged the streets. Buses were overturned. Streakers were everywhere. There were bonfires, fireworks, mummers' bands and conga lines. At Clarke's home in New Jersey a crowd of 2,000 uprooted shrubbery and tore off souvenir shingles until restrained by police. The next day what was planned as a 45-minute victory parade turned into a five-hour orgy in which some two million people besieged the Flyers, in some cases caving in their convertibles, and forcing Clarke and other players to flee for their safety.
No one is quite sure why, but, like the Amazin' Mets of 1969, the Flyers' young, underdog, oft-maligned, come-from-no-where image seemed to strike a responsive chord in the hardest of hearts. Philadelphians, denied respect for so long, identified with the losers turned winners. They loved it when Clarke did not know how to open his bottle of victory champagne. And the boys in the South Philly bars nodded in knowing agreement when Shero said of the new champions,' 'These guys don't like champagne. They'd sooner drink beer. That should tell you something about this club."
"The Flyers have skated that loser image into the Delaware, and a lot of cruelness and crabbiness has sunk along with it," said an editorial in the Bulletin. "They've given a tremendous lift to civic morale. They've provided an example, an incentive to excel in all our endeavors." The Philadelphia Inquirer added, "Perhaps, and this may be a daring thought to some, it is Philadelphia and its people who are striving mightily to become No. 1."
Right on, Philadelphia. Though Flyer games are sellouts and Ed Snider says, "I could sell another 100,000 season tickets if I had them," there are other compensations. Every day, for example, the city's TV sportscasters get to lead off with these thrilling words, "In sports news in Philadelphia, city of winners...."
How long that happy opportunity will prevail is a subject that concerns Captain Clarke. He remembers what Harry Sinden, general manager of the Bruins, said way back in the middle of the 1974 cup finals. "If the Flyers win this thing," Sinden said, "wait and see how they are in a couple of years. Wait until they get rich." Clarke is not hurting. He signed a seven-year, $1,050,000 contract in 1974 that calls for the payments to be spread equally over the next 20 years, thereby guaranteeing him an income of at least $50,000 a year until he is 45.
Does that bode complacency? Must the Flyers heed the Shero scribbling that says, "There is plenty of room at the top but not enough room to sit down"? Clarke thinks so. "The enthusiasm is not the same this year," he says. "Unlike losing, you get used to winning. The first year we won the Stanley Cup we were hungry. We had to win to prove to ourselves that we could do it. Last year we had to prove that the previous year wasn't a fluke, like a lot of people said." And this year? "I guess you'd have to say we're the team to beat." He said that before MacLeish was injured and lost for the season, but it's still true.
The Flyers are also a different team to beat, claims Clarke. "This year we're getting away from the aggressiveness," he says. "It was necessary for us to build up a reputation, and now that we have it, teams will let us play hockey. Besides, if you get into brawls three or four times a game you don't get out of the building until past midnight. People don't want to see that. It gets boring."
Perhaps so, but when there are not elements of nationalism involved the Flyers do give hints that they might be relaxing their muscle a mite. Shero has been heard mumbling of late about "those silly penalties." And after a dispiriting loss not too long ago, Clarke complained, "It's the same old story. You lose your momentum when you're killing penalties all night."
In last year's cup finals, in fact, Philadelphia got into only two fights while defeating Buffalo with some good sound hockey. And Schultz, who was used only sparingly in the finals, reports, "Things have changed. Two years ago everybody was willing to fight. Now I'm not saying we're not willing to, I'm just saying we don't have to."
If there is a sucker punch hidden in there somewhere (as of last week the Flyers were, as usual, the NHL's most penalized team), Clarke is not owning up. Indeed, once prone to fire from the lip (two seasons ago he suggested that Campbell resign because "none of the other big leagues have old guys as their heads"), now his "aaw, naaws" cover a multitude of diplomatic hedgings.
In 1974, for example, Defenseman Joe Watson reported, "Heck, sometimes Clarkie gives us more crap when we let down than he does to players on the other team." Now Clarke tends to serve up his intangibles with beer. "Geez," he says, "try and tell a guy that he's not sticking with his man when he comes back to the bench and he's been out there working his butt off, he's going to get mad. But you can talk about mistakes over a few beers. You can say all day how you're going to work your butt off, but you still have to do it. But if I talk to Rick MacLeish and he says he's going to do it, then I feel I have to do it. And then Bill Barber talks to me and he says he'll do it. It's contagious."
Whatever it takes, Clarke seems ready to deliver. Late last season, when he noticed that Parent was not as sharp as usual, he called the goalie aside and told him, "Look, you're the one guy who can win the Stanley Cup for us. Do it and I'll buy you a jeep." Parent won MVP honors—and an orange and black jeep with denim interior was duly delivered. With Parent sidelined by an injury so far this season, Clarke may have a jeep talk on the tip of his tongue for stand-in Wayne Stephenson.
When Clarke was given a new Mercedes for being the 1975 MVP, he exchanged it for the half-ton truck he now drives to the games. Down-home tastes come natural to Bobby. Asked to submit his favorite dish for a story in the Flyer program, his wife Sandy offered "hot dog surprise," which is a frank on a bun with mustard and—surprise—a dash of relish.
Sandy Clarke, who comes from a small town near Flin Flon, says she cannot understand all the fuss over Bobby, why people are forever ringing her bell and asking, "Can we look at him?" "When we met," she says, "he was going to school and in the summers he pumped gas and drove a tow truck. With the Bombers, he was the leading scorer all right, but everybody had watched him grow and wasn't impressed. He still wears jeans and cutoffs, still looks as grubby as ever. But now people treat him differently. It's like they've got him way up high on this pedestal where he doesn't belong."
But there Bobby Clarke stands, propped up by Snider, Shero and whoever else happens by. On and on they go about how he picks up draft choices at the airport and moves them into his home; how he is adopting a Canadian Indian boy to be raised with his own children, Wade, 4, and Jody, 2; how he arranges for cars and clothing allowances for the players; how he takes the trainers and their families to Florida each summer at his own expense; how he refuses to take any of his hockey trophies—Wanamaker, Masterson, Pearson, etc.—home; how he runs his own preseason training camp for the Flyers; how he is the only player on the team without a manager because he is not interested in making more money on the outside; and on and on.
"How much money does a man need?" Clarke asked recently while relaxing in the living room of his home, which is on a busy street and might be described as suburban modest. Though the sign on the door reads, PLS DO NOT RING BELL, DADDY AND BABY ASLEEP, the bell kept ringing.
"Can I have five autographed pictures?" one small boy asked Clarke at the door.
"What about those two guys hiding behind the tree out there?" Clarke said.
"Make it nine autographed pictures," the boy said, and Clarke complied.
"I'm happy if I can take care of my family," Clarke continued, "have a nice house and things like a nice car, be with my friends, swim and play golf. I like hockey, I like the life. It's a heck of a challenge to see if you can motivate 20 guys. I'm really a very average guy in most ways. If I have any one talent it might be that I do like to work hard."
Or as one Shero maxim puts it, "If you push through the pain barrier into real agony, you get many intangibles."