The hottest ticket in Philadelphia these days is the one to an off-Broad Street revival of a popular mid-'70s show. Featuring some snappy cast changes, a new director and a few plot twists, "Flyers 1979-80" has opened its NHL run with a 13-1-2 record and drawn rave reviews from the critics. Of course, the original version also was a smash, but in a more literal sense: battered bodies and penalties galore were the rule as Philadelphia won the Stanley Cup in 1974 and 1975 and earned the nickname Broad Street Bullies.
But the current Flyers scarcely resemble their brawling forebears. The new Flyers take—but don't break—the body, pile up wins like poker chips and average 17 penalty minutes per game. On one occasion, the old Flyers took 18 penalties in a single period.
"Sure we've changed," says Bobby Clarke. "Part of it is because hockey has changed so much—the Russian influence, the Canadiens' style. But our personnel is different, too, with different talents. We used to play very physical, tough, defensive hockey, because that's what won games. Now the emphasis has shifted. You can't compare this year's Flyers to any other Flyer team."
No, you can't. Gone are Bernie Parent, Gary Dornhoefer, Don Saleski, Dave (Hammer) Schultz. People named Bathe, Barnes, Busniuk, Peeters, Linseman and Propp are now on the roster. Gone is Fred (The Fog) Shero, replaced behind the bench by jut-jawed, cigar-smoking Pat Quinn. Gone, too, is Kate Smith, whose God Bless America was the Flyer theme song for nine years. Now the pre-game anthem is The Star-Spangled Banner, via a recording by Canadian tenor Roger Doucet.
November 26, 1979
The recasting and remodeling job didn't occur overnight. In 1976, Montreal routed once-dominant Philadelphia 4-0 in the Stanley Cup finals, signaling hockey's return to a skating game. The Flyers were unprepared for such a turnabout. "We didn't panic after losing to Montreal," says General Manager Keith Allen, the chief architect of the Flyer reconstruction, "but we did realize we'd have to make decisions about established players who, while good enough, were not likely to improve much."
After the Flyers lost to Boston in the 1977 semifinals, Philadelphia established the Maine Mariners of the American League as its private farm team. The Mariners began to pay for themselves immediately, winning two straight Calder Cup championships. Meanwhile, the Flyers floundered again in 1977-78, failing to win their divisional title for the first time in five years, and lost to Boston in the 1978 playoffs.
At that point, Shero left to become the guru of the New York Rangers, and a trial-and-error housecleaning began. Maine Coach Bob McCammon was promoted to the head job in Philadelphia, but he returned to the Mariners 50 games into the 1978-79 season and was replaced by his successor in Maine, Quinn, one of Shero's assistants in 1977-78.
"The wheel is turning," says Quinn, 36, who played defense for three NHL teams in his nine-year career. "The static style that worked a few years ago doesn't cut it anymore. Look at Montreal. When other teams turned to defensive or fighting styles, Montreal kept skating—and winning. Now everyone copies Montreal. Hockey, more than ever, is a game of motion."
Quinn wanted the Flyers to play a more offensive, wide-open game, but realized such an adjustment would take time, especially for a team so accustomed to a restricted, brawling style. Complicating matters was the fact that Philadelphia had a goaltending crisis. Supergoalie Parent was forced to retire after suffering an eye injury last February, and by the time the Rangers had eliminated the Flyers in the quarterfinals of the 1979 playoffs, Philadelphia had exhausted three goalies.
But during the off-season Allen and Quinn stocked the Flyers with players promoted from the Mariners, added first-round draft choice Brian Propp at left wing, acquired veteran Goalie Phil Myre from St. Louis and appointed Clarke as a playing coach. Quinn also rewrote the club's training manual and instituted a mandatory togetherness day each Monday. Rather than practice, the players meet on their own to play touch football or basketball or soccer. And Quinn also listens to the players' suggestions.
"When I was assistant to Fred [Shero], he always said players could question him," says Quinn. "But he also had two rules: one, the coach is always right; and two, when in doubt, refer to number one. I wanted the players to know me and work with me. I may not always use their suggestions, but I want to know what they're thinking."
Gradually Quinn's approach began to pay dividends. "We have a different job as a team now," says Clarke. "When Fred was here, his ways worked for those players. But the guys now are stronger physically, and they are far better skaters. There is no point in having a Kenny Linseman, who is definitely a scorer, out there just as a checker, which he would have been in the old days. We should create situations for Linseman to move out and score, and we do. I don't think a team could play the way we did in 1974 and 1975 and win a championship today."
Quinn admits that he wondered about the practicality of his theories when the Flyers were routed by Atlanta 9-2 in the second game of the season. "You know, we could easily have gone downhill," he says. Instead, Philadelphia has not lost since, beating such teams as Montreal (for the first time in nearly four years, and at The Forum, no less), Toronto, Buffalo, the Rangers, the Flames and the Islanders.
In some quarters, though, the Flyers still bear the label of Bullies. "Last year, our sweaters got more penalties than our guys did," says Quinn. "Referees and fans find it hard to forget that stuff." Left Wing Bill Barber, now in his eighth year with the Flyers, says, "Even though the violence was blown way out of proportion, we'll always be paying the price for it." Barber says some Flyers are also paying the price for spending so much time killing penalties during those years. "We took a lot of penalties, and we had maybe two guys who always killed them. Clarkie was one, and I see it's taking a toll on him. How much can he have left to give, after spending his life killing penalties?"
Clarke, a diabetic, has always played hard, and at 30 he may well be slowing down. His shifts are shorter, and he doesn't dominate play as he used to. "I don't feel any strain," Clarke says. "People say if you play too hard, you burn out. I think it's the opposite. I'll be playing a long time." Clarke yielded his captain's "C" to Mel Bridgman when he became a playing assistant coach. "I debated about offering him the job," says Quinn. "I wasn't sure how the guys would react. Would they think he was spying on them? But it's worked perfectly."
No fewer than eight former Maine Mariners now wear Philadelphia uniforms. Goaltender Peter Peeters, 22, led Maine to its two Calder Cups; at present his 2.00 goals-against average and 6-0-1 record are the best in the NHL. Defensemen Frank Bathe, 24, and Norm Barnes, 26, both blond and bearded, have played regularly in place of injured Andre Dupont, Behn Wilson and Bob Dailey and haven't looked lost. Says Barnes, "Once you've played up here, you don't want to go back to the farm."
And the new Clarke is Linseman, a 21-year-old center who arrived from Birmingham of the WHA last season and then was hastily dispatched to Maine. "He came here thinking he was it" says one Flyer official. "A couple of months riding buses in the minors took care of his ego problems." Of all the new Flyers, Linseman is the only real throwback to the Bullies days; he carries his stick high, too high, and has an active mouth.
For his part, Propp has had few problems adjusting to Philadelphia. Playing on a line with Clarke and Reggie Leach, he has scored nine goals and 13 assists.
"You know, the Bully Flyers team was a tremendous public-relations concept," says Quinn. "It sold tickets. In other cities, people came to see their own guys get beat up. Well, we've gotten away from that. Today, people want to watch a hockey game, not a brawl. Fortunately, our organization saw the change coming and did some planning for it, because I don't know how many tickets the Bullies would sell today."
For now at least, the Goon Show has left Philadelphia, and a vacancy sign is up in the Flyers' penalty box.