When the Philadelphia Flyers lost their first and only hockey game of this season, back on Oct. 14, 1979, Teddy led Jimmy big in the polls, there were no hostages, gold was at $395 an ounce and the Orioles led the Pirates two games to one in the World Series. Ancient history.
Last Sunday night in Buffalo, the incredible Flyers extended their record unbeaten streak to 35 games by whipping the Sabres 4-2 on third-period goals by Bill Barber and Rick MacLeish. It was the third time that the Sabres, whose point total in the NHL standings (55 in 40 games) is surpassed only by Philadelphia's (62 in 37 games), failed to snap the Flyers' streak, leaving the Buffalonians with what must be a very large inferiority complex. Said MacLeish, "No one thinks this streak's going to go on forever, but it gives us a little extra fuel for each game, that's for sure."
Perhaps the nicest thing about the Flyers' streak is that it has come at a time in the NHL schedule when the rest of the teams seem to be caught in precarious balance between ennui and turmoil. With divisional rivalries gone as a result of the balanced schedule and playoff berths assured for 16 of the 21 teams, motivation among other top clubs has been at an alltime low. The once-proud Montreal Canadiens have fallen into the infighting, backbiting ways of their NHL brethren and now trail, among others, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles in the overall standings. Over in Toronto, owner Harold Ballard, 76, and General Manager Punch Imlach, 61, have reinvented the Generation Gap with their When-In-Doubt-SHOUT! philosophy, and the only player who understands them is 41-year-old Defenseman Carl Brewer, who two weeks ago ended a six-year retirement—a move that earned Imlach the nickname "Punchy."
The turmoil came in familiar form—violence. The twist is that it is now going on in the stands as well as on the ice. To date New York's Madison Square Garden has had the ugliest scenes. For example, the recent night when a fan's postgame sucker punch of the Bruins' Stan Jonathan sent several teammates clambering into the stands in retaliation.
But rising above all the ugliness are the Philadelphia Flyers. They have been on a one-team campaign to save the sagging image of the league, and it is an act the fans are buying. Two weeks ago, in the 32nd and 33rd games of the streak, the Flyers drew record crowds in Winnipeg and Colorado. Says Flyer Coach Pat Quinn, "Each team has been hoping like hell we'll get by the previous one so that they can be the club to beat us, and we've brought out the best in all of them."
The only team that has not had at least one crack at the Flyers is lowly Washington—and the Caps have the worst record in the NHL. Most of the top teams have faced Philadelphia twice since this whole thing began on Oct. 15, when the Flyers were 1-1 and rebounding from a 9-2 drubbing by Atlanta. Since then the Flyers have streaked for 12 weeks, in 15 different cities, and have come from behind in 13 of the 35 games. In Game 8 they scored four goals in the third period to beat Montreal at the Forum for the first time since Nov. 2, 1974. In Game 19, Minnesota, which has the third-best record in the league, scored on three of its first five shots, but the Flyers answered with three goals in the third period to win 6-4. In Game 22 they trailed Boston 2-0 but came back to tie 2-2, and two nights later Los Angeles led 3-0 before the Flyers scored nine straight goals to win 9-4. Then in Game 25, against the Quebec Nordiques, the best of the expansion teams, the Flyers were down 3-1 with nine minutes left but rallied for five goals and a 6-4 win. In Game 26 they came from behind yet again, scoring twice in the third period to beat Coach Scotty Bowman's Sabres 3-2, ending Buffalo's own nine-game winning streak.
It was Bowman's 1977-78 Montreal club that held the old record of 28 games without a loss, a mark that was considered untouchable, given these days of fatiguing air travel and home-ice advantages. The Flyers tied the mark with back-to-back 1-1 ties against the Rangers and Pittsburgh in Games 27 and 28—hair-raising affairs in which the normally wide-open Philadelphia attack stalled beneath the weight of the record—but to break it they had to play Game 29 in the Boston Garden, whose tight corners and small ice surface are tailored to the mucking, close-checking style of the Bruins. That was once the Flyers' style as well, but under Quinn they freewheel more in the manner of Montreal—the old Canadiens, that is. Playing their best game of the entire streak, the Flyers snowed Boston under and won 5-2.
Montreal's mark tucked safely away, the Flyers kept going, and last Friday night in New York they surpassed the 33-game undefeated string put together by the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers, the record for all U.S. professional sport. That was a team led by Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain and Gail Goodrich. The comparison runs a little thin because the Lakers won all their games, while the Flyers' streak includes 10 ties. Still, why blame the Flyers because they play in a league with a 1941 mentality—there are still no sudden-death overtimes in the NHL, even though there are no trains to meet and no war to be won.
The Flyers raced out to a 5-0 lead in Madison Square Garden, then survived a minor comeback by the Rangers and a major aerial candy BBs-and-golf ball attack by bleacher creatures straight out of Hieronymus Bosch to win 5-3, extending the streak to 34 games. In one sick scene the Bosch-ians, several hundred in number, hooted at and threatened three injured Flyers, who were seated in the open press box, until security guards arrived to escort the players to safety.
The crowd was stimulated by a Ranger bruiser named Ed Hospodar—his nickname is Boxcar—who within a period and a half broke the nose of one Flyer, sprained the neck of another, fought a third, shoved a linesman, received a double game misconduct and, on exiting, went after Philadelphia's equipment manager. Said Quinn afterward, "We've tried to change our game a little bit, but a lot of teams seem to remember the tough games from the past and want to pay back a debt or two. But if other teams want to play vigilante hockey, we've got the toughest team in the league."
Much has been written about the Flyers' new image, the death of the Broad Street Bullies, but the fact remains that the Flyers are once again the most penalized team in the league, averaging over 20 minutes per game; the most penalized team in history, the 1975-76 Flyers, averaged only 24.75. "The old Flyers used to get called for spearing and slashing, but now they call us for hooking," says Quinn.
One of the reasons Quinn can't believe the hooking penalties is that the Flyers seem to have the puck all the time. The old Flyers won by throwing the puck in, working like crazy to dig it back out and then hustling back into their defensive lanes so Bernie Parent could post goals-against averages like 1.89 and 2.03, which he did the two years—1974 and 1975—Philadelphia won the Stanley Cup. These new Flyers have been giving up nearly three goals a game and have yet to score a shutout. That isn't bad defense, but it certainly isn't the spine of a record-breaking winning streak. The Flyers win by controlling the puck.
That's a concept the Canadiens and the Soviets have hammered home: if you control the puck 70% of the time, you will win at least that often. The old dump-and-grind style was based on giving up the puck and harassing the other team into giving it back, but both Montreal and the Soviets showed that with mobile, smart defensemen, the dump-it-in system could be beaten. Says Quinn, "Our management saw this, and we started drafting faster, quicker players who could move around. Once we had them, it would have been pretty stupid to stick with a static style of play. Now we believe that with our speed and our mobile defensemen, we shouldn't have to throw the puck in very often."
Instead, the Flyers skate in crossing patterns, five men on offense, five men on defense, always moving. "People can talk about systems all they want," says the Bruins' Peter McNab, "but nobody's willing to admit what hard work will do. Do you know how hard it is to keep skating in that rotating system?"
No one on the Flyers seems to notice. "They're playing like there are no stars on that team," Ranger Assistant Coach Mike Nykoluk said after Game 34. And Buffalo Assistant Coach Roger Neilson said, "Quinn's making everyone feel part of it, using a lot of different guys on the power play, three different penalty-killing units, giving Reggie Leach more defensive responsibility by having him kill penalties. Their big edge right now is they're playing as a team better than anybody else in the league."
Indeed, Leach, who scored 61 goals four seasons ago but has not had that many points in a season since, is the Flyers' leading scorer with 25 goals and 16 assists, but that doesn't put him in the top 15 in the NHL. Close behind him is Left Wing Brian Propp, who leads all rookie scorers with 40 points, and is the single most important addition the Flyers made over the summer. "After last year's playoff flop, we knew we needed a goaltender and a left wing," says Quinn. The goaltending, left in chaos when Parent had to retire as the result of an eye injury he suffered last season, was shored up when the Flyers acquired veteran Phil Myre from St. Louis and promoted 22-year-old Pete Peeters from their Maine farm club. Then they drafted Propp, a short, stocky speedster who scored 94 goals for the Brandon (Manitoba) Wheat Kings last season.
Centering for Leach and Propp is Bobby Clarke, the Flyers' assistant coach. He is one of the seven Flyers who are holdovers from the two Stanley Cup teams. There are also five Flyers from what Quinn calls "the lean years"—1975-77—and eight others who learned something about winning while playing for the Flyers' farm team in Maine, which has won the AHL championship the last two years. Philadelphia also has an underdog mentality on its side. No one can really believe the Flyers are for real. As one NHL coach said last week, "We'll see what happens after they lose a couple of games in a row."
If they lose a couple of games in a row. Says spiritual leader Clarke, "We had the same type of feeling when we won our first Cup. People thought we were good, but nobody really believed we were good enough to win the Cup. It's the same with this team. Even with the record we have, a lot of teams don't really think we have that good a club."
You see? Stop being a bully and, first thing, you don't get no respect.