Year in, year out, they have been there. Along the boards. In the corners. In the slot. All those places where hockey games are won and lost. Not just five or six guys—the whole bloody team, crashing fearlessly into the fray. Oblivious to the conventional wisdom that the regular season is meaningless, the Philadelphia Flyers will work just as hard to beat you whether it's the beginning of October or the 29th of May. If they can beat you with their speed, they will try it. If they can beat you with their fists, they will try that. If they must wear you down to beat you, then they will wear you down. All hockey teams talk about the work ethic, the Flyers live it. Eighty games a year, year in and year out, with numbing consistency, they outwork, outhit and outhustle their opponents.
They also outscore them, a fact that is too often ignored in any discussion of this much-vilified, yet much-respected team. Since 1973-74, the season the Flyers won the first of their two Stanley Cups, they have won 657 regular-season games, second only to the Montreal Canadiens' 658. Over those same 14 years Philadelphia has been to the Stanley Cup finals six times, once more than either Montreal or the New York Islanders. And while they have lost in their last four appearances in the finals, the Flyers were so gallant last spring against the powerful Edmonton Oilers—taking the series to seven games despite losing Tim Kerr, their leading scorer, and Dave Poulin, their captain, to injury—that they elevated themselves in defeat. The NHL hierarchy now stands this way: the Oilers, the Flyers, the contenders and the rest.
"Last year's playoffs," says general manager and resident legend Bob Clarke, "was as great as the organization's been without winning."
That's saying a bunch, as Clarke knows better than almost anyone. In their 20 years of existence, the Flyers have established themselves as one of the great organizations in sport. They started from nothing, struggled early, got beat up, reassessed the situation, built themselves into champions, beat up other people, repeated as champions, struggled again, rebuilt into contenders, changed coaches, changed general managers, changed presidents, rebuilt again into contenders, twice suffered tragedy—and kept right on winning. Once the Flyers went above .500 in their sixth year, they never looked back, and now they have put together 15 straight winning seasons, with no end in sight.
October 11, 1987
The city, not surprisingly, loves them. Once dubbed the City of Losers, Philadelphia has had a nonstop honeymoon with the Flyers since that '73-74 campaign, when the Broad Street Bullies left the hockey world amazed and aghast. "Philadelphia is a tough sports town, but they don't forget, they really don't," says Ed Van Impe, a defenseman who was the first skater drafted by the original Flyers in 1967.
"People still act like we won it yesterday, and it's been 12 years since our last Cup," says Orest Kindrachuk, a veteran of those two championship teams and now an insurance broker in Philly. "I don't think we realized what we'd done for this city until now. We're still reaping the benefits."
The Flyers sold out more than 280 consecutive games between 1973 and '81, and filled the Spectrum to capacity (17,222) in 36 of 40 games last year. They are perennially among the NHL's top road draws, for the simple reason that, like them or not, they give the people their money's worth. When Edmonton comes to town, people pay to see Wayne Gretzky. When Philadelphia arrives, they pay to see the team. And the game. The Flyers have not had a superstar since Clarke retired to the front office in 1984. They haven't even had a 100-point scorer since 1976, which may be the biggest reason they haven't regained the Cup in the past 12 seasons. But they win more than their share, and year in, year out, they are knocking on the door. Which is all they ever ask for in the City of Brotherly Love.
As with any business, the Flyers' success starts at the top. Ed Snider was a Philadelphia Eagles vice-president when he heard the NHL was expanding from six to 12 teams in 1967. A native of Washington, D.C., Snider had little firsthand knowledge of hockey. But he remembered going to a Celtics game in Boston some years earlier and, upon leaving the Garden, seeing long lines of hockey fans standing at the ticket windows to buy seats to watch the cellar-dwelling Bruins.
Snider and two other investors put up the $2 million to buy the Philadelphia franchise, which joined Minnesota, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Oakland and Pittsburgh in the newly formed West Division. Bud Poile was his first general manager. Keith Allen was coach. And goalie Bernie Parent was his first draft pick. They would build this team from the goal out.
"We've had a consistent philosophy from day one," says Snider, who, among NHL owners, is now second in seniority only to Chicago's Bill Wirtz. "Keith Allen's still here as executive vice-president. Parent's the goaltending instructor. Joe Watson, another member of that original team, is a member of our sales staff. Joe Kadlec, our first p.r. director, is still here as director of team services. Gene Hart, our television announcer. Same owner." Consistency. Stability. And something else. An attitude of urgency and care. "I think I was the only fully involved owner in the league back then, which probably helped," Snider says. "The Flyers were all I had. I had to make them succeed."
Philadelphia was certainly not a hockey town in those days. It had never had a successful minor league team, and the entire metropolitan area had only a handful of rinks. Van Impe, who was drafted from the Chicago Black Hawks, remembers being disappointed when he left them, but he soon recognized a difference in the way the two organizations treated their players. "With the Wirtz family, the hockey club was one of many, many businesses," says Van Impe, now an insurance agent and part-time television analyst in Philadelphia. "I remember the Black Hawks had a big party at the Bismarck Hotel. At the reception line, the owners knew only a half dozen players on our team. The rest had to be introduced by the p.r. guy. In Philadelphia, if you had seven new kids, Ed Snider knew all seven by name. If you had a problem, the man was behind you. I haven't played for him for 11 years, but if I needed him for advice or whatever right now, he'd make himself available."
Snider knew that professional sports is a people business. He hired good people, and treated them with respect. "What he tried to create here was a family atmosphere," says Allen. "It wasn't just a gimmick."
It went way beyond salary. The Flyers have never had one of the fattest payrolls in the league. Rather, the team did a lot of little things for its players to make them feel they were part of something special. Philadelphia voluntarily renegotiated contracts. It was one of the first teams to offer career counseling. In 1982, when the Flyers traded for Mark Howe, they took over the mortgage payments on his newly built house outside Hartford and handled its subsequent sale. When former Flyer Kindrachuk was in the hospital, the team stepped in and paid for his move to a private room. "The Flyers have always looked after their people," says Bill Barber, the team's alltime goal-scoring leader and now an assistant coach—one of nearly a dozen former Flyers on the payroll. "In my third year I didn't have the money to buy a house. I was 22 years old and married. Ed Snider somehow got wind of it and gave me the money interest-free. It was something I never forgot. Now I'm thinking, How can I let the guy down? I've got a friend here I don't want to disappoint. I think it helped me to be a better player."
The family approach seemed to affect a lot of players that way. The Flyers won the West Division their very first year, despite playing the last seven weeks of the season on the road after the Spectrum roof had blown off in a storm. But they were eliminated from the playoffs in the opening rounds in 1968 and 1969 by the brawny St. Louis Blues, an outcome that helped shape the Flyers for the future. "St. Louis had a big, tough club," recalls Van Impe, "and we had a small finesse club. They beat us two ways: on the ice, and physically. It was embarrassing."
"They brutalized us," says Allen.
"Look, we didn't invent fighting in hockey, we inherited it," says Snider. "The Big Bad Bruins used to beat up on us regularly. And I remember going into Montreal those first couple of years and watching John Ferguson kick the crap out of all our little Frenchmen. We had a line of Andre Lacroix, Simon Nolet and Jean-Guy Gendron. I asked Keith Allen, 'What's this?' I was told, 'Ferguson's their policeman.' I asked, 'Why don't we have a policeman?' He said, 'We do, but he's not as tough as their policeman.' So I decided, as long as I own this team, we will never be intimidated again. We're an expansion team, and we may not have any superstars, but I'm sure as hell not going to sit by and let my guys get beat up, too."
Reassessment of philosophy. Snider, after all, was just learning the game, and if that's the way the Canadian boys played it, that's the way it would be. In the 1969 draft, after taking a chance on a diabetic center called Bobby Clarke in the second round, the Flyers picked up Dave Schultz and Don Saleski in rounds five and six. Snider fired Poile in the middle of the next season and promoted Allen to G.M. "From that day forward," says Snider, "whatever move we made, whether it was a trade or in the draft, I asked the question: "Will this move help us win the Stanley Cup?" I'd seen too many teams in hockey consider it a successful year if they made the playoffs."
In the next three years Allen drafted Bill Clement, Bob (the Hound) Kelly, Tom Bladon, Jimmy Watson and Barber. He swung deals for Rick MacLeish and Andre (Moose) Dupont and hired Fred Shero to coach. Shero was mired in the Rangers organization at the time, a 13-year veteran minor league coach who had won his division six of the last seven years. The final piece of the puzzle fell into place in 1973. when Allen gave a first-round, draft choice and goalie Doug Favell to reacquire Parent, whom he had traded to Toronto in the MacLeish deal. Thus were the Broad Street Bullies born.
"Jack Chevalier, a local writer, gave us that name," remembers Allen. "It was like starting a brushfire. Everything we did after that was magnified. I'm not saying we weren't a rough, tough group who raised a lot of hell. But we were talented, too. As a result, I don't think that team ever got all the accolades it deserved."
That's probably true. The 1973-74 Flyers were a remarkable collection of individuals. They were motivated, starting with Allen and Shero, sifting right on down through the lineup, from the classy veterans who had struggled for years in the minor leagues—players like Van Impe, Barry Ashbee, Wayne Hill-man and Gary Dornhoefer—to the youngsters like Barber and Clarke. "Guys like Ashbee and Dornhoefer set a standard of performance that the young players had to match," says Pat Quinn, a former adversary of those early Flyer teams who is now the G.M. of the Vancouver Canucks. Quinn also coached the Flyers from 1978 to '82, and in 1979-80 led them in an incredible 35 straight games without a loss, an NHL record. "They developed great peer pressure there."
"Barry Ashbee was a real strongman's type of man," recalls Clarke. "Things were all black and white with him. There was no gray area. He wouldn't accept an excuse from himself or anyone else, and he practiced hard every day." This was particularly impressive because Ashbee played the '73-74 season with a pinched nerve in his neck and chipped vertebrae. He wore a white collar around his neck, skated stiffly upright and winced in pain every time he leaned down to lace up his skates. Says Clarke. "Those guys had played a long time in pro hockey and understood the commitment it takes to play this game. They understood the importance of playing as good as they could all the time."
Clarke, too, understood. The league's MVP in 1972-73, he helped hold the Flyers together as the competing World Hockey Association was getting off the ground. "Clarke set the standards at the team level," says Snider. "He was the captain, and he let everyone know that we were all in this together, players and management. When I heard that the WHA was being formed, I wanted to sign all my players to long-term contracts. Clarence Campbell I then president of the NHLI called me a maverick. In those days players didn't sign for the year until they showed up at training camp. As it turned out, we were one of the few teams who didn't lose anyone to the new league, and that was because of Bobby. He came in early and said he wanted a long-term deal, and we sat down and hashed it out. Before he left I told him, 'You realize you probably could get a lot more money by jumping leagues.' He said, "Yeah, I know. But maybe if I'm signed it will be easier for you to get the other players to sign, and I want to win the Stanley Cup.' "
Looking back on it, knowing all we know now, it seems preposterous that those 1973-74 Flyers were not, at the very least, cofavorites to win the Cup. They had finished the regular season with a 50-16-12 record, only the third franchise in history to win 50 games. They were champions of the Western Division and had finished a mere point behind the mighty Bruins in the overall standings. During the regular season they had allowed only 164 goals, a measly 2.10 per-game average, and were already recognized as the hardest-working team in hockey. Clarke had proved himself to be one of the finest players in the world during the classic 1972 showdown between Team Canada and the Soviet National Team, and the year before had won the first of his three MVP awards. Parent had a league-leading 1.89 goals-against average. MacLeish was a 50-goal scorer. Cowboy Bill Flett scored 43. Tough-guy Schultz, nicknamed the Hammer, was one of the most feared fighters in the league and a member of the elite 20-20 club—20 fights and 20 goals on the year. Behind the bench stood the inscrutable Freddie the Fog, a masterful tactician who would write messages like AN OAK TREE IS JUST A NUT WHO HELD HIS GROUND On the blackboard before every game and who introduced the word system to the lexicon of hockey.
The Flyers had been innovative from the start, and they remain so to this day. Snider's football background freed him from the homogenized thinking of the Canadian hockey establishment, and he was willing to try new ideas that today are considered old hat. The Flyers were the first NHL team with a full-time working assistant coach, Mike Nykoluk. They were the first to hire a goalie coach, Jacques Plante. They were the first to hire a strength and conditioning coach, Pat Croce, who is still there in the same capacity. The Flyers, under Shero, were the first team to have mandatory practice the morning of game days. It was Shero's way of getting them out of bed.
"Everyone knew his job," recalls Clarke. "We were a big, strong team that was not very mobile, so Freddie gave us a system that would work for us. It wouldn't have worked for Montreal or one of the more skilled teams, but it did for us. He used to say, 'Give a guy a small job, and make him do it very, very well.' "
"Freddie guided us, and our older players led," remembers Barber. "He was the teacher, and they taught along with him. We stood four guys at the blue line and waited for the other team to make a mistake. We were a very patient hockey team waiting for the kill. Our goal was to keep the other teams to under 20 shots for the game. We sacrificed a lot of personal ambitions to win. There was no team that was more team-oriented—ever. They say we bullied our way to the championship. They're full of b.s. We worked our way to the championship."
In the opening round of the '74 playoffs the Flyers swept the Atlanta Flames, and in the second round they faced New York. The Rangers, a good team coached by Emile Francis, were favored, largely because they were an "established" team, while the Flyers were still viewed as "expansion." Parity, in the minds of most, had not been reached. The Flyers' regular-season success was, well, misleading.
It was an intense series, seven games, and very rough. After the third game Clarence Campbell visited the Flyers' brass in a fury, accusing them of soiling the league's image with their unseemly brawling. In overtime of the fourth game, a puck hit Ashbee in the eye, damaging his retina and ending his career, though few suspected as much at the time. Each team won all its home games, with the Flyers prevailing 4-3 in the seventh game, which is best remembered for Sehultz's unmerciful pounding of Ranger defenseman Dale Rolfe. The happy totals? Schultz had a record 101 penalty minutes in the series, the Flyers a record 252 penalty minutes and both teams a record 406 penalty minutes. (Incidentally, if you're wondering where hockey has gone in the past decade, none of the records still stands.) Said Ranger defenseman Brad Park afterward, "It seemed like we were reverting back to the olden times when rulers put two men in an arena and told them to kill each other. Where's the sport in that?" It was a question many hockey fans were to ask time and again in the years to come.
Never before had one of the six expansion teams won a playoff series from a member of the original six. The key to the Flyers' win, however, was not their brawling, but their penalty killing. The Rangers failed to score on their last 19 power-play chances, and were only 4 for 49 in the series.
The Bruins, whom the Flyers would meet in the finals, would exploit any such opportunities, or so the pundits said. Led by Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito, Boston had averaged 4.5 goals per game for the season. Further, the Flyers hadn't won in Boston Garden in 6½ years, going 0-17-2 during that period, and were 1-23-4 in their last 28 meetings with Bruins. "The only people who thought we could win were the owners, our coaches and our families," says Van Impe.
The Bruins took the first game on a last-minute goal by Orr. But the Flyers ended their Boston Garden jinx in Game 2 when Clarke scored in overtime to even the series. "We're outplayed, but mostly we're outhustled," said Boston coach Bep Guidolin afterward. "They're hungry, really hungry. It looks like they've got an extra man out there all the time."
Sound familiar? It's the same way the Flyers play today. After Philly won Game 3 in the Spectrum to take the series lead, the Bruins began publicly questioning their own work ethic. "The only thing they're beating us with is second and third effort," said Guidolin. Then, miffed when only 10 of his Bruins showed up at an optional practice, while the whole Flyers team skated at theirs, Guidolin added, "I'm happy to see Philly here and my team at the racetrack today. Wait until your guys get rich."
Harry Sinden, general manager of the Bruins, addressed the same subject when he warned, "Wait and see, if they win this thing, how they are in a couple of years."
The Flyers won Game 4, then returned to Boston Garden and were crushed 5-1 in the dirtiest game of the series. Five fights, a butt-ending, a spearing and a kneeing spattered the scoresheet. Officials whistled a record 43 penalties against both teams, including 24 on the Flyers, for another record; both marks have since been broken. "This is terrible," moaned the Bruins' Terry. O'Reilly, who was hardly a saint himself during his own penalty-checkered career. "This is turning into Roller Derby."
The Flyers pulled out all the stops for Game 6 at the Spectrum, including inviting Kate Smith to sing God Bless America in person for only the second time in their history. In games preceded by the playing of that song, Philadelphia's record was 35-3-1. And Kate came through again, with a little help from Parent, who made a first-period goal by MacLeish stand up. The Flyers' 1-0 victory also had the added significance of being the Bruins' first shutout loss of the year. "Orr worked like hell," said Shero, "but it was 17 against one. I had 17 good men. I've been around long enough to know. This team may never be duplicated. They gave you all you asked for, and if you wanted more, they came up with it some way."
Esposito, who had led the league in scoring for four straight years—his regular-season totals had been 68 goals and 77 assists—produced only two goals and an assist in the series. Worse, he consistently lost key face-offs to Clarke during the vaunted Bruin power play, which converted only three of its 34 chances. Overall, Boston scored just 13 goals in its six games against Parent, the playoff MVP. Said a dejected Espo, "Maybe they outworked us."
They outworked us. No one ever said, "Those doggone Flyers sure have a bunch of world-class hockey players." Even when they won the Cup again in 1975, and finished with a club-record 118 points in 1976, or went those 35 games without a loss in 1979-80—no one ever said that. Which may be why Harry Sinden's prediction never came true: The Flyers never got bigheaded and lazy from success, as his Bruins had. It was the Flyers' hard work, toughness and leadership that got the accolades. Never their talent.
All of this was reinforced in 1977 when Ashbee, who had become a Flyers assistant coach, died of leukemia. His No. 4 became the first number to be retired and hung from the rafters. Ashbee, who saw the world in black and white and accepted no excuses.
You can't understand today's Flyers without understanding their roots. This is a club which, after just 20 years, has a firm sense of its own traditions. The Flyers foster the Flyer mystique. There is serious talk of building a Flyer Hall of Fame adjacent to the Spectrum, of putting the faces of great former Flyers on the locker room walls, the way the Montreal Canadiens have done with their heroes. A memorial to the late Kate Smith—career record of 58-9-2 and counting—was to be dedicated outside the Spectrum on Oct. 8.
Fourteen members of Philadelphia's two championship teams still live in the area, and most have succeeded in their posthockey pursuits. "They're still workers," says Allen, with a hint of a father's pride. "We welcome them to come around the dressing room, to skate with the team in practice if they want. It helps our young guys to have retired players come back and speak highly of the organization."
The standards are higher in Philadelphia than anywhere in hockey this side of the Montreal Forum. "I talk to Davey Poulin all the time," says Clarke. "I've told him by rights you shouldn't even have a bad practice, never mind a bad game. The one demand we can make of our players is that they work hard. If you don't try in practice, there's no way you'll try hard in a game. And when the young players see the veterans working, they'll work hard, too."
That work ethic allows the Flyers to get more from their marginal players than any other team in the league. Some develop into outright stars. Poulin, Kerr and Ilkka Sinisalo, a 200-pound right wing, were all undrafted free agents before joining the Flyers. "It's assimilation," says Poulin. "When a kid comes to camp and sees what's expected of him—and remember most of these guys were the stars of their junior teams and probably weren't used to being pushed—he thinks: 'I've got no choice." It's a lot easier to assimilate someone into that than to start it from scratch."
Work hard, don't back down and win. That attitude has been assimilated from Ashbee's Flyers to Clarke's to Poulin's. It's part of the reason they have never lost the old Broad Street Bullies nickname. And though they have cleaned up their act somewhat, there has never been an extended period when the Flyers didn't play like the Flyers.
Even when Clarke retired as a player—an eventuality Ed Snider had dreaded for years—the Flyers kept on humming. They hardly missed him. Nor did they miss Snider, who handed over the day-to-day operation of the club to his son, Jay, in 1983. Playing under rookie coach Mike Keenan, that young team made it all the way to the Stanley Cup finals before bowing in five games to Edmonton. Says Jay, now 29, "Clarke retired. Barber retired and center Darryl Sittler was traded. We were thinking five years down the road. It's amazing, sometimes, how fast the future gets here."
Gets here and stays here. The Flyers proved that last May, when they made their second appearance in the finals in three years and nearly upset the Oilers behind the goaltending of rookie Ron Hextall. Hextall, a throwback to the Bullies of old in the way he wields his stick, would probably still have been playing in the minors had it not been for the loss of Flyers All-Star goalie Pelle Lindbergh, who was killed during the 1985 season in an automobile accident. It's amazing, sometimes, how fast the future gets here.
In all three of their victories over the Oilers last spring, the Flyers came from at least two goals down. You wonder whether it was coincidence that in last month's Canada Cup series, with the Soviets leading Team Canada 3-0 in the deciding game, it was a pair of Flyers who ignited the comeback. First it was right wing Rick Tocchet crashing the slot for a rebound. Then it was left wing Brian Propp from the doorstep, assisted by Tocchet. Suddenly it was 3-2, and Team Canada, which was coached by Keenan, was back in the game. They weren't pretty goals, like Mario Lemieux's series-winner, but then, few of the big goals in Flyer history have been.
It provided a couple of nice moments for the 4,500 Flyer fans who were watching the Canada Cup finale in the Spectrum. Jay Snider had opened the doors and put the game on the Arena Vision scoreboard to accommodate anyone who didn't have cable TV at home. It was a nice gesture, typical of the kind of things the Flyers organization has been doing for years to promote hockey in Philadelphia.
Most of the original Flyers were watching the game in their homes. Van Impe was still excited about the game while discussing it the next day. He'll be coming out some time this winter, at Keenan's invitation, to work with the modern-day Flyers defensemen. Maybe teach them a trick or two that could help win a game. "That Tocchet's a real hard-nosed kid," Van Impe was saying. "He doesn't like to lose. He'd have fit into our team just great."
So he has.