Defenseman Bob (The Count) Dailey laughs and constantly croons "short people got no reason to live" to Philadelphia Flyers Goaltender Wayne Stephenson. The object of Dailey's serenade is a reasonably normal 5'9". From The Count's viewpoint, that makes Stephenson only an inch taller than a hockey stick Dailey used back in his junior days. "Dailey is a freak," Flyers Defense Coach Pat Quinn says. "Anyone that big who can do what he can in this game is a freak who might come along once in 20 years."
Standing a fraction under 6'6" and weighing between 223 and 230 pounds, The Count is not only the National Hockey League's biggest player, but also has emerged, at 24, as one of its offensive stars. In Philadelphia's first 34 games—he missed two last week because of a bruised shoulder—he tied the club record for goals by a defenseman (14) and it seemed probable he would become the only defenseman other than Bobby Orr and Dennis Potvin to reach the 30-goal plateau.
With the possible exception of the omnipresent Bobby Clarke, Dailey is on the ice more than any Flyer—killing penalties, playing forward, protecting a late lead, keying the power play and, at all times, lending the force of his body-scattering shot. Given this new dimension from the beginning of a season for the first time, Philadelphia is off to the best start in its history, which over the previous four seasons included two Stanley Cups and four first-place finishes in the Patrick Division.
That brings up an important question: How could the defense-poor Vancouver Canucks have traded Dailey last January for two journeymen defensemen? "The team was losing, management was impatient and I was the guy who stuck out," says the Count. "Attitude is a problem out there, from the top on down. The travel is really tough on the players. I admit I didn't play well at times, and management couldn't appreciate that sometimes it takes longer for tall people to put everything together. I'm sure it's true for any big gangly kid in any sport. When you're tall it just takes longer for your whole body to get its coordination."
There also was something of a personality conflict between Dailey and former Vancouver general manager and coach Phil Maloney. "He and some of the fans wanted me to goon it up," says Dailey. "It's just not in my personality."
Maloney and the rest of the Canuck brass thought a 6'6", 230-pound hockey player should behave more like Killer Kowalski than a restaurateur, so they began making sarcastic references about Severin's, a restaurant-disco complex Dailey opened in Vancouver. But while The Count was born and raised the son of a penitentiary guard in the small Thousand Islands community of Gananoque, Ontario, there is no question that sophisticated Toronto, where he went at 17 to join the Marlboros, a junior team, left an indelible mark on him. Dailey dresses like a model for Gentlemen's Quarterly, hits every possible rock concert, kills spare hours on the road by browsing in bookstores and knows more chefs than Craig Claiborne. Old-school players get asked out to dinner the night before a game and order steak and potatoes. The Count? Pheasant and wild rice.
So while the Canucks had grown impatient after waiting 3½ years for Dailey to lift them from the depths of the sweat-hog Smythe Division, the Flyers were prowling for defensemen. "When I came here in 1971, we had six traditional stand-up defensemen who never dared get involved in the offense," says Philadelphia Coach Fred Shero. "The year before, not even one had 27 points. Heck, defensemen have to be as much a part of the offense as forwards are of the defense. If anything, the man on the point is more effective in the offensive zone because the play's in front of him, only a lot of traditionalists won't admit it. When we had a chance to get the giant, we jumped."
Dailey was traded for Larry Goodenough and Jack McIlhargey, which was on the order of the deal that sent George Foster from the San Francisco Giants to Cincinnati for Frank Duffy and Vern Geishert. In Vancouver, Dailey had been known as "Moose." The Flyers already had a top-flight defenseman named Moose—Andre Dupont—and when Dailey walked into the dressing room for the first time, overcoat draped over his shoulders like a cape, Dupont shrieked, "It's Count Dracula!" The nickname stuck.
The Count was no overnight sensation in Philadelphia. "I brought a lot of bad habits with me," Dailey says. "My shot had gone so wild in Vancouver they took me off the power play. I was trying to do everything myself and in Philadelphia that often left me stranded." In 32 games with the Flyers, he had five goals and 14 assists, little improvement over his 20 points in 44 games in Vancouver.
Then came the playoffs. "Everything just seemed to come together," he says. With the Flyers trailing 2-0 in what turned out to be a grueling six-game struggle with Toronto, The Count took over. He tied a team playoff series record with 10 points and in the two series (a total of 10 games; the Flyers were eliminated by Boston 4-0) tied Rick MacLeish for the team lead in the playoffs with 13 points. "The playoffs are where you find out what guys are," says Bruin Coach Don Cherry. "We found out last April what a lot of us suspected all along—that Bob Dailey is another Larry Robinson."
When training camp opened, Dailey dropped from 232 pounds—his playoff weight—to 224 and found himself paired with Jimmy Watson, who, while less spectacular than Robinson and Dailey, is one of the game's best all-round defensemen. "They're the best defensive pair in the NHL this season," says Quinn, risking the wrath of the people who watch Robinson and Serge Savard in Montreal. "Jimmy's taken to carrying the puck more—and better—than he ever has before. And The Count may not only have the hardest shot in hockey, but only Potvin can approach his offensive instinct. He sees offensive opportunities and breaks into the holes with uncanny quickness. It's instinctive genius, only you'd never think a man 6'6" could have the quickness to get there."
Quinn also says, "This is a habit game, and The Count still has some bad ones. He still gambles a bit too much, which is where Watson helps him so much because Jimmy's never out of position. But Dailey's only 24 and hasn't been here a full season, so the bad habits should take care of themselves in time."
Both Quinn and Shero have indicated that they would like Dailey to be a bit meaner in front of his own net. "People always wanted me to fight," Dailey says. "What good does it do for me to fight some little guy? When I think it necessary, I'll fight." His last fight came in the playoffs against Boston's tough Wayne Cashman. "At the time, I thought it was necessary," says The Count. "He was running some guys."
Life has its special hardships for a 6'6" hockey player. For one, hotels don't provide special large beds for hockey teams the way they do for basketball and football teams. Then there's the matter of the stick. In juniors, Dailey once used one 68 inches long. (In 1965, in an effort to restrict the reach advantage of players like Dailey and Pittsburgh's 6'5" Peter Mahovlich, the NHL limited stick length to 55 inches.) Dailey skates around, hands close together on the stick, looking like a giant Quasimodo. "My back'll give before my legs," he says.
So far everything has held together for the man who once was an awkward 6'4", 235-pound 17-year-old. "I skated so badly in juniors I was the comedy relief on the Marlboros," The Count says. "I wasn't any star, and I played with guys like Steve Shutt and Billy Harris who were—so while some more heralded juniors held on to the puck trying to be the next Orr, I was learning to play within the context of a team. Those short people looked up and laughed at me back then. Now they just look up."