The Philadelphia Flyers wiped out a couple of their many worries last week. The first was that the Flyers no longer liked to hit anybody. That one was put to rest by rugged Right Wing Gary Dornhoefer, a charter member of the Broad Street Bullies, at the Flyer Fan Club's annual appreciation dinner, an event attended by players, wives and 350 ardent rooters at a restaurant in suburban Cherry Hill, N.J. The high point of the evening came when Dornhoefer stepped forward and called everybody's attention to the upcoming 50th birthday of the fan club's president, a gent in a green leisure suit named Lou Damia. Then Dornhoefer wickedly threw a cake in Lou's face. Well, a hit's a hit, right?
Meanwhile, a more pressing concern—the Flyers' leadership crisis—was eased by the return to action of Captain Bobby Clarke, who had sat out three weeks with a double fracture of the left thumb. It was the longest layoff in Clarke's nine-year NHL career. During his nine-game absence the Flyers won four, lost four and tied one, perpetuating a two-month-long slump in which they had dropped to second place in the Patrick Division behind the New York Islanders and to fifth in the NHL's overall standings. Just when it looked as though Clarke would never return to rescue the floundering Flyers, there he was—elbows up, stick up, dander up—flashing across the Spectrum ice and discounting suggestions that the Broad Street Bullies had degenerated into just another hockey team.
"We're not finished yet," Clarke vowed. "Our goal is to win the Stanley Cup again, and I honestly think we can do it."
To fulfill that objective, however, the Flyers must reverse the gradual slide they have been in since winning their second straight cup in 1975. They were the big bad Flyers in those not-so-distant days, but some of the sting has plainly gone out of them. They reached the Stanley Cup finals in 1976 but were routed in four games by the Montreal Canadiens. Last year they made it only to the semifinals before losing—again in four straight—to Boston. This season the Flyers got off to the best start in the NHL and boasted a 21-4-4 record in mid-December. Then came the tailspin.
The Flyers have won only 17 of their last 37 games, and their record is a merely respectable 39-17-11. Worse still, the team that once led the Islanders by seven points now trails them by seven. Particularly worrisome, too, is Philadelphia's season-long futility against the NHL's best—Montreal, Boston, Buffalo, the Islanders and Toronto. Until they beat the Bruins 6-2 Saturday afternoon at the Spectrum, the Flyers had won just one of their 16 games against those five rivals—a 6-4 home-ice victory over the Bruins back on Dec. 15.
The Flyers' skid has raised alarums in Philadelphia. The team still routinely sells all 17,077 seats at the Spectrum, but its sometimes desultory play has brought out the boo birds and inspired signs like one that appeared last week: WE'RE REALLY BULLIES NOW—WE ONLY BEAT THE LITTLE TEAMS. At the same time, the Flyer front office has noticed a decline in hate mail from other cities, indicating that the club no longer makes rivals' blood boil. Meanwhile, Philadelphia's four papers dutifully probe the burning issue of the day: What's wrong with the Flyers?
One answer is that they are victims of their own success. In winning back-to-back Stanley Cups, the Flyers got spectacular goaltending from Bernie Parent and Pattonesque leadership from Clarke but were otherwise a modestly talented crew kept in trim by Coach Fred Shero. Shero had the Flyers hustling, hitting and adhering to his disciplined "system," the unfortunate term for a grind-'em-down style in which free-lancing was out, executing assignments was in. Today, aping the Flyers, other teams grind 'em down, too, and everybody, of course, has a system. All of which the ofttimes cryptic Shero noted the other day in his tiny Spectrum office, where he had been poking through a tome called Handbook to Higher Consciousness.
"It's not that there's anything wrong with the Flyers," Shero insisted. "It's just that the rest of the league is better. When we won the Stanley Cup we weren't supposed to, but we surprised people by being better conditioned. Now everybody's well conditioned. Now you have to work like hell even to beat a team like Washington."
Yet, as Shero knew too well, something was wrong with the Flyers. Bob (The Hound) Kelly, one of the hard-hitting heroes of the Broad Street Bullies, had lost his attraction for the corners. Bob Dailey, the 6'6" defenseman whose searing shot had terrorized the league earlier in the season (SI, Jan. 9), had gone cold. The goaltending of Parent and Wayne Stephenson was not always reliable. And there were the continuing struggles of Rick MacLeish and Reggie Leach. MacLeish led the team last season with 49 goals, but only a recent revival has raised the swift center's season total to 29. Leach, whose 61 goals two years ago are the most ever scored by an NHL rightwinger, has but 22 this season, and Shero has kept him on the bench in many games.
Surveying these many woes, General Manager Keith Allen was openly questioning whether the Flyers had lost some of their old desire. "Most of our guys have tasted success, and it's only human nature that they'd be less hungry today," he said. Hoping to shake things up, Allen has been busy phoning in an effort to make a major deal before this week's trading deadline. The resulting trade rumors have sent chill winds through the Flyer locker room. "Things have been tense in here," admits Dailey, who was rumored to be heading everywhere from Los Angeles to Cleveland. "All the talk about trades has been hurting morale."
A continuing source of concern was Parent, who has been burdened in the past two seasons by financial problems and neck surgery. Because of his world-weary air and middle-age paunch, it is slightly startling to realize that Parent is still only 32. Playing just 39 of the Flyers' first 66 games, he leads the NHL in shutouts (six), and his goals-against average is second only to Montreal's Ken Dryden (2.27 to 2.18). Still, Parent, as well as the 33-year-old Stephenson, has shown a disturbing tendency to allow easy goals at inopportune moments, prompting Shero to wonder whether his goalies are in what he calls "the downward spirals" of their careers. Last month the Flyers summoned 23-year-old Rick St. Croix from the Maine Mariners and put him in the nets for seven games. But there were some rough edges on the rookie's game, and last week he was shipped back to Maine. Shero said he would let Parent and Stephenson fight it out for the right to handle the goaltending chores in the playoffs.
Searching for the solution to his problems, whatever they are, Parent has been spending many afternoons engaged in what seems a melancholy activity: he sits alone for hours at the Spectrum watching films of his play during "the great years," as he revealingly calls them. But Parent also says, "You have to be careful when you compare yourself to what you were before, because it can play tricks on your mind. I've made watching the films part of my job. I've picked up some bad habits, and the films help me get rid of them."
With Parent struggling, Clarke remains, more than ever, the heart and soul of the Philadelphia club. He is a Pete Rose on blades, yelling encouragement to the boys, winning face-offs, getting the puck to open linemates and flinging his body at anybody who does not have the good sense to be wearing Philadelphia colors. In view of his hell-bent style, it is remarkable that until Vancouver's Pit Martin inadvertently slashed him on the thumb in a 5-2 Flyer win at the Spectrum on Feb. 9, Clarke had missed no more than four games in any season. The injured thumb made it impossible for Clarke to hold a stick but he continued to skate at practice. Still, he complains of his nine-game layoff, "I just didn't feel like I was part of the team. It was especially rough because we weren't going so well."
When Clarke returned 10 days ago, the Flyers lost to the Canadiens 7-1 in Montreal—their 12th straight non-winning effort against the Canadiens. That was the last stop on a tough six-game Flyer road trip (two wins, three losses, one tie) and the last appearance in goal for St. Croix. Back in the Spectrum for a four-game stand, Philadelphia whipped St. Louis 7-1 behind Parent; then Stephenson, getting his first start in five weeks, let in a couple of soft goals before the Flyers outlasted Atlanta 5-3 Tuesday night. On Saturday they blitzed the injury-riddled Bruins 6-2, scoring a pair of shorthanded goals in the process, and on Sunday night they beat the Colorado Rockies 6-2 for their fourth win in a row.
As Shero plots a late-season surge, he likes the fact that rivals might be taking his club a little more lightly these days. "If they tend to count us out, that's good," he says. "That's how we won our two Stanley Cups."