As a team, their goal for this season is probably too lame to
make it onto the dressing-room blackboard or into any pregame pep
talk. The playoffs? Is that all? They are the Philadelphia Flyers,
and this is the NHL. Making the playoffs is like making it onto Ed
McMahon's mailing list or getting your own talk show. Everyone
makes the playoffs. All you've got to do is wear your skates with
the blade-side down and beat the Ottawa Senators a couple of
times, and you're in.
At week's end Philadelphia had won seven straight games, including
a 4-3 triumph over the defending Stanley Cup champion New York
Rangers at Madison Square Garden on March 15. That victory pushed
the Flyers past the Rangers and into first place in the Atlantic
Division. Philly is now one of a handful of teams that appear
capable of winning it all in this condensed NHL season, but the
Flyers are not ready to shoot for the moon, or even a division
title. They just want to make the playoffs. Maybe then they'll see
about getting their names in the phone book.
``Our main focus is still getting in the playoffs,'' says left
wing John LeClair, who came to the Flyers in a Feb. 9 trade with
the Montreal Canadiens. ``That might not seem like that much, but
we've got the five-year thing hanging over our heads.''
Lou Gehrig had the 2,130-game thing. Wilt Chamberlain had the
100-point thing. The Flyers have the five-year thing, a different
kind of athletic achievement that defies logic. Philadelphia had
some grand times in the 1970s and '80s, including two Stanley Cup
championships and 16 straight winning seasons, but it saved its
most implausible feat for the first half of this decade. The
playoffs? The Flyers haven't made them since '89, the longest
drought in the league. It would come as no surprise to see the Los
Angeles Clippers or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or Alan Dershowitz
hit such a skid, but the estimable Broad Street Bullies are
supposed to be different. They're supposed to be tougher,
stronger, more resilient. They're not supposed to be trailing the
San Jose Sharks (1-0) in postseason appearances in the '90s.
``I tell you what -- I'm sick of going home at the end of the
regular season,'' says Flyer captain Eric Lindros. ``The last
thing I want to do is watch other teams in the playoffs, but I'm
almost forced to do it. All my friends are watching. Personally,
I'd rather watch Love Connection.''
Philadelphia's resurgence, unlike its funk of the last five years,
is no great mystery. Last June the Flyers brought back the
legendary Bob Clarke as their president and general manager, and
Clarke brought back the attitude and the drive that made him the
most popular player in franchise history. After the first three
weeks of this season, Philadelphia was 3-6-1 and Clarke was tired
of seeing his Bullies get bullied. ``We were getting pushed
around,'' he says.
Clarke made three trades in the next eight days, including the big
one in which he acquired LeClair, defenseman Eric Desjardins and
forward Gilbert Dionne for 100-point scorer Mark Recchi. The
Flyers haven't been pushed around since. With the 6'2", 219-pound
LeClair on one side and 6'1", 218- pound Mikael Renberg on the
other, the 6'4", 229-pound Lindros has finally found linemates to
match his style and size. The Flyers' new first line averages 222
pounds and 4.9 points a game, and already it has been tagged with
the hideous nickname Legion of Doom.
``The last two years were hell,'' says Lindros, who's in his third
NHL season. ``I was used to winning all my life, and then I came
here, and it was the worst feeling in the world. This year is
totally different. Now when we take the ice, we expect to win.''
Now when they take the ice, they expect to actually make the
``Oh, yes, definitely,'' says Renberg. ``We will be in the
playoffs this year. I'm sure of that.''
Suddenly the losing streak has given way to a mean streak that
runs from the front office down to the dressing room and onto the
ice. Now, these are the Flyers. Clarke wears a suit and tie and a
full set of teeth these days, but he brings a familiar passion to
the organization. A lot of fans and players see Clarke as a link
to Philadelphia's glorious past, a reminder of what was once good
and could be good again. Clarke himself gives the idea a
disdainful shrug. Tough guys don't have time for nostalgia. If
Detective Andy Sipowicz of NYPD Blue were a hockey guy, he would
be Bob Clarke. ``That was 20 years ago,'' Clarke says of the famed
Bullies. ``The game has changed.''
Naturally, Clarke's not thrilled with all the attention Philly
has received recently. A few hot weeks in the regular season are not
about to impress a guy who played in 136 playoff games and won two
Stanley Cups. ``What have we done? You tell me. Have we done
anything yet?'' says Clarke in his office at the Flyer practice
rink in Voorhees, N.J. ``I don't know why all of a sudden everyone
wants to make a big deal out of this. I mean, people are getting
Clarke became Philadelphia's general manager in 1984, after 15
years as a player, all with the Flyers. Under his guidance Philly
won three Patrick Division championships in six seasons and went
to the Cup finals twice, but team owner Ed Snider fired him in '90
after the Flyers went 30-39-11 and failed to qualify for the
playoffs for the first time in 17 years. Clarke spent two seasons
as general manager of the Minnesota North Stars and a season in
the front office of the expansion Florida Panthers while the
Flyers struggled to four more losing seasons. Clarke's Panthers
finished ahead of the Flyers in the standings last season.
Clarke brings the same no-nonsense approach to Philly that he used
in Florida. ``Rebuilding is an excuse for losing,'' he says.
``This is professional sports -- you are paid to win, and the
other guy is paid to beat you. In Florida we said we weren't going
to be fodder for the rest of the league, and the players bought
Throughout Clarke's travels, there was always a feeling in
Philadelphia that he was working his way back to Broad Street.
When the Flyers won just twice in their final 10 games last
season, dropping timidly out of playoff contention, a call went
out to Florida. Do you think we could have our legend back? Snider
agreed to give the Panthers a second-round draft pick, and Clarke
``It's like apple pie and a glass of milk, or something like
that,'' says Hartford Whaler coach Paul Holmgren, who played and
roomed with Clarke in the 1970s and '80s. ``Clarkie and the city
of Philadelphia just belong together. The fans love him, and he
Many of his current players have a warm spot in their hearts for
Clarke too. ``The guy up there?'' says Lindros, pointing toward
Clarke's office. ``He's the best. He helped me out even before he
came back. You want to know why things are turn ing around for us?
He's a big reason.''
Lindros takes questions about the Flyers' recent success, and you
swear you've heard these answers before. Lindros sounds a lot like
another young, cocky first-line center and captain who once wore a
Philadelphia uniform. He even gives you the same cynical shrug.
``What the hell have we done? Nothing,'' says Lindros. ``As far as
I know, there isn't a parade tomorrow.''
Lindros turned 22 in February, about six months after Clarke and
new coach Terry Murray made him the youngest captain in the NHL,
but he has seen plenty in his short time in the league. He came to
Philadelphia in June 1992 in a celebrated trade. He had refused to
play for the Quebec Nordiques, so the Flyers sent six players, two
first-round draft picks and $15 million to the Nordiques in
exchange for his rights. Lindros still gets booed in Quebec, but,
then, as a bruiser and a high-profile player, he gets booed in a
lot of places. ``Been getting booed all my life,'' he says,
Lindros has virtually no weaknesses as a player, but his greatest
asset may be his attitude. On the ice he is mischievous and mean,
and he seems to enjoy putting an opposing player through the
boards as much as scoring a goal.
He is huge and fast, and when he is on the ice it is difficult to
take your eyes off him. The face is still Luke Perry handsome, but
the eyes are James Woods crazy. ``I guess I've had an attitude
since birth,'' he says. ``That's why I never seem to have more
than four friends at the same time.''
Lindros insists he has downshifted a couple of gears this season.
No longer does he try to send every opposing skater into orbit.
``Now maybe I'll try to take them out 50 percent of the time,'' he
says. ``It used to be 95 percent.'' Lindros missed 23 games as a
rookie and 19 last season with various injuries. He knows he has
to stay healthy if he wants to avoid another postseason watching
Love Connection at home in Toronto. At week's end he was second in
the league in scoring, with 16 goals and 25 assists, and he had
been on the ice for an amazing 61% of the Flyer goals. At the
halfway point in the season, he was as good a choice as any for
MVP of the league.
``Gordie Howe told me I had to learn to pick my spots,'' Lindros
says. ``If I want to play till I'm 35 or 36, or even 32, I can't
keep playing the way I played my first two years. You can't make
it through 84 games running around like a chicken with its head
For the rest of the league, a healthy, mature, under-control
Lindros is a frightening thought. ``He is as complete as they
come,'' says Holmgren. ``I think he has the ability to be the best
While no one is surprised to see Lindros among the league leaders
in scoring, there is another name from Philadelphia near the top
of the scoring charts that causes double takes. LeClair? Is that
the same guy who had one goal in the nine games he played with
Montreal at the start of the season? Same guy. At week's end
LeClair had scored 14 goals and 14 assists since the trade,
including a hat trick in a 7-0 rout of the Canadiens in his first
trip back to the Forum. Clarke was looking primarily for defensive
help when he made the deal, but LeClair has provided the Flyers
with a surprise spark on the offensive end.
``I know there has been a big turnaround in my play since I got
here,'' says LeClair. ``I attribute that to Eric and to Renberg.
Eric can dominate a game. He makes one hit, and for the rest of
the game, everyone is looking out for him.''
The Flyers know Lindros can handle himself just fine, but they
still are expected to watch his back. The old Flyers did it for a
feisty guy named Bobby Clarke. The new Flyers know they need
Lindros on the ice and in one piece if they're going to end the
five-year thing and make an appearance in the playoffs.
``I think it's a matter of pride,'' says Clarke. ``At the start of
this season, we were small, and teams were beating the -- --
out of us. Then we got bigger, and we started fighting back, and
now -- ''
``Now no one is beating the -- -- out of us anymore.''