HOW THE FLYERS BECAME THE ‘BULLIES’

Howie Mooney
FiredUp Network Sports Writer

@HowieMooney

Sunday, February 27, 2022


HOW THE FLYERS BECAME THE ‘BULLIES’

 

If you are of a certain vintage, as I am, you might have memories, albeit vague, of when the Original Six teams of the National Hockey League added another six teams and became a league of twelve.  If you are younger, you will likely have no memories at all of the six-team NHL.  And that’s perfectly okay.  

There was a time when the owners of those Original Six teams had no wish for the league to expand.  Well, almost all of the owners.  They were quite content to maintain the status quo and keep the hold on their little fiefdoms, and the attendant revenues that came along with that.  There was one league executive, though, who saw the folly of choosing not to expand in the early 1960s.

Mick Kern, host of the Under Review show on Sirius XM’s NHL Network Channel laid it all out when he appeared as my guest on The Sports Lunatics Show in February of 2022.  The Original Six were comprised of the Boston Bruins, Chicago Black Hawks, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers and the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“They were small ‘C’ or big ‘C’ conservative owners.  It was a boys’ club.  They didn’t want to expand in the early ‘60s.  It took William Jennings from the Rangers to say ‘Guys, if we don’t expand, the Pacific Coast League is going pro.  They’re going into L.A., San Francisco and St. Louis and Denver if we don’t move.”

“And Bill Wirtz and Harold Ballard and Stafford Smythe were ‘Ah, we’re making our money, we don’t need to do this.’  I’ve talked to Stan Fischler about this, and it was Jennings who said, ‘We’ve got to do this, we’ve got to wake up’.  And I believe it saved the NHL – the great expansion of 1967...those six teams.”

And so it was, that the last season the NHL played with six teams was the 1966-67 campaign.  The Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup that spring and I have a friend who is a Leaf fan and it’s his contention that that was the last ‘pure’ Cup victory.  The fall of 1967 would see new NHL teams playing in Los Angeles, Bloomington (Minnesota), Oakland, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and St. Louis.

The new teams played in the West Division while the previously existing teams formed the East Division.  Each club played a 74-game schedule.  Teams played divisional opponents ten times each while they played against the other division’s squads only four times each.  In the East, the Canadiens finished atop the division. 

Over in the West, it was the Flyers who finished in first place, despite their under-.500 record.  The Los Angeles Kings finished second while the St. Louis Blues ended up third, just three points behind Philadelphia.  The North Stars wrapped up the fourth and final place in the postseason at the end of that 1967-68 campaign.

In the first round of the playoffs, back then, for whatever reason, the NHL pitted the first place team against the third place team and the second place team against the fourth place team.  So, The Flyers enjoyed home ice advantage in their best of seven series against the Blues.  St. Louis was a tough, gritty squad with size, pugnacity and experience.  The Flyers were built with speed and skill and smarts.

The postseason then was much like the postseason now.  You’ve got to be able to play a physical style to last the length of a seven-game series.  The Blues were the team that was better capable of doing that and after four games, they held a 3-1 series lead as the teams went back to the Spectrum in Philadelphia for Game 5.

The Blues were built with toughness and skill in mind.  Their coach was the 34-year old Scotty Bowman and his defense corps was built with an ill humour in mind.  Two of the three Plager Brothers, Barclay and Bob, were on this original incarnation of the team.  Noel Picard was a hard-rock blueliner who was probably best known for being the guy who hooked Bobby Orr’s foot and sending him flying into the air after his Stanley Cup winning goal in 1970.

Al Arbour, yes future Cup winning coach Al Arbour, was a quintessential shot-blocking stay-at-home defenseman for the Blues.  Hall of Famer Doug Harvey would be a late addition to the team.  He had been coaching their Kansas City franchise in the Central Professional League and, at 43, he would be added to the roster for the seventh game of the first round.  He would prove an inspirational persona in the room. 

Red Berenson was the team’s leading scorer, having scored 22 goals and adding 29 assists for 51 points in just 55 games.  Gerry Melnyk had 15 goals and 35 assists for 50 points.  There were other players up front like Jim Roberts, Frank St. Marseille, Gary Sabourin, future NHL coach Terry Crisp and Larry Keenan to add some scoring and some spice to the lineup.

So the fifth game in the Spectrum got heated pretty quickly.  Larry Zeidel of the Flyers took a charging penalty thirteen seconds after the opening faceoff.  Three minutes into the game, Noel Picard was called for roughing.  Twenty seconds later, Philly’s Forbes Kennedy went off for boarding.   The gloves weren’t off quite yet, but the tone was being set for what would happen later.

Nine minutes into the game, the Flyers got on the board when Leon Rochefort got a puck past Blues Hall of Famer Glenn Hall.  Four minutes later, 22-year-old rookie Rosaire Paiement scored to make it 2-0.  86 seconds after that, Zeidel took a high sticking penalty that forced the Flyers to play a man short.  But 68 seconds after that penalty began, Kennedy scored a shorthanded goal to make it 3-0 for the home side.  The first period ended that way and, after giving up three goals on nine shots, Hall’s day was over and Seth Martin, the former Canadian national team goalie, was in for the Blues.

 At the 12:06 mark of the middle frame, the Flyers’ Claude Laforge was sent off for slashing.  Laforge was a 5’9”, 170 pound dervish who proved to be irritating to the Blues in the series.  43 seconds after that, the game began to degenerate.  Barclay Plager hammered a Flyer and took a boarding penalty.  He then added a misconduct and a match penalty to his game resume.  Jimmy Roberts also took a misconduct at the same time.

Plager’s boarding penalty was later termed an “obvious foul” by NHL President Clarence Campbell.  Plager didn’t like the call and he began to go back at referee Bill Friday with “abusive threatening language”.  Friday gave Plager the ten-minute misconduct penalty.

That was when Plager really got upset.  As the officials were trying to guide the Blues’ player to the penalty box, Plager went hard at Friday and even managed to get a hold of Friday’s jersey.  Friday then assessed a match penalty to Plager and, instead of going directly to the Blues’ dressing room, the Blues’ defenseman “engaged in a further tantrum which resulted in further delay”.  

Campbell levied fines which, for the time, were substantial.  Both coaches were fined as well as a number of players for what had gone on in the game.  The misconduct penalty given to Plager was his sixth in the previous six weeks!  According to Campbell, the automatic fines of $25 and $50 were no longer adequate.  His fine after the April 13 incident was $275.

If this had happened today, there is no doubt that Plager would have been suspended.  But I could find no mention of any suspension in any of the news articles I looked through in preparing this column.

With just less than four minutes remaining in the second, Forbes Kennedy and Al Arbour were sent off for roughing.  51 seconds after that, the Flyers’ Brit Selby scored to make it 4-0 for Philadelphia and the Spectrum crowd was feeling it.  The second period ended with the home team enjoying a four-goal cushion and the possibility of staving off elimination for a couple more days.  They weren’t quite aware that the third period might contain some real fireworks just yet.

It was still 4-0 just over nine minutes into the final frame when all hell broke loose.  The Flyers said that their man was hit from behind.  The Blues thought differently.  Anyway, things started when the 6’1” Picard and the smaller Laforge collided and then began slashing each other.  That escalated to the two men fighting.  Laforge was not a good fighter.  He ended up face down on the ice with an open wound on his face that required 14 stitches, and a broken dental plate.  

The benches emptied.  The 1960s was a time when that was still not against the rules.  The brawling mob remained on the ice for twenty minutes before it was eventually cleared from the skating surface.  Doug Favell, the Flyers back-up goalie, was just one of the players involved in the fight.  The game sheet was festooned with five-minute majors at the 9:13 mark of the third period.

Paiement scored just after the halfway point of the final twenty minutes.  Melnyk scored to get the Blues on the board less than a minute later.  Paiement got his third at the 13:26 mark to get his hat trick.  The game ended 6-1 for the Flyers but the optics of the game were not necessarily good for Philadelphia.  

Yes, the Flyers had won the game but in all of the altercations that took place, the team had been manhandled by the bigger, stronger St. Louis club.  The post-game questioning from media was centered on the brawls that took place more than the final result.  Blues’ coach Scotty Bowman was quite willing to give his team’s version of what happened.

Bowman told the assembled media that the Flyers had been running around slashing and high sticking his players for the length of the series now and the Blues had just plain had enough.  He singled out two Flyers in particular, LaForge and defenseman Ed Van Impe.  He also stated that the vitriol between the two sides went back into the regular season.

“There is no room in the National Hockey League for a guy who uses his stick.  A fight is part of the game as long as you don’t use sticks,” Bowman told the writers.  “About three months ago, after a rough first period, (Flyers’ general manager, Bud) Poile shouted at me ‘We can get pretty rough in our own rink too.’  There’s no place in this league for that.  Maybe in the minors, but not here.”

It would seem that Bowman was unaware that at the back of the press throng was none other than Bud Poile and he had been listening to every word that the opposing coach said.  “Tell him to tell the truth,” Poile shouted.  “He has to be responsible.  He’s the coach.  He’s been quitting for ten years.”

There is no report of their verbal joust going any farther than that, but suffice it to say that the two sides would not be inviting each other to any Christmas parties in the near future.  Also, the Flyers’ owner, Ed Snider, was making sharp mental notes of everything that was taking place in this series.  He would eventually express his thoughts to Poile and anyone else who was there to hear them by the end of the series.

The sixth game of the first-round set would take place back in St. Louis on Tuesday, April 16.  Gerry Melnyk opened the scoring for the Blues eighteen minutes into the game.  St. Louis carried the play to the Flyers and outshot them 28-9 after forty minutes.  That one goal was the only goal of the game as the clock ticked down toward the end of the third period.  But then......

The Flyers had pulled Bernie Parent, who had been outstanding in goal all night.  Philadelphia was in desperation mode as time was dwindling away and Andre Lacroix let a shot go that just got past Glenn Hall to tie the game with fifteen seconds remaining.  The game would go to overtime.  The shots on goal after sixty minutes heavily favoured the home team by a count of 39-27.  

As the first extra period went on, the Blues continued to dominate but Parent was magnificent.  Twenty minutes elapsed but the game was still knotted at 1-1.  In the second overtime period, Parent was again stellar stopping shot after shot and holding his team in the game.  

Just over eleven minutes into that second extra frame, Don Blackburn backhanded a puck at Hall and St. Louis defenseman Ray Fortin, in an attempt to block the shot, ended up deflecting it past his goaltender.  It squirted through Hall and made it over the line and into the net to keep the Flyers’ hopes alive. 

Parent’s greatness was perfectly illustrated in this game.  The final shot tally was 64-43 in the Blues’ favour.  After the match, the Flyers’ Brit Selby sat in his stall and shook his head.  “It’s a funny game.  A funny, funny game.”  The two teams would head back to the Spectrum for a seventh meeting two nights later.

The big news before this game was the fact that the Blues called up the great Doug Harvey.  St. Louis got the game’s first goal at the 7:38 mark of the opening period when Frank St. Marseille scored on the power play.  The Flyers scored with the man advantage a minute and a half before the end of the period when Bill Sutherland put one past Hall.

Halfway through the middle frame, Larry Keenan took a shot that Parent got a pad on, but the rebound banked off the skate of defenseman Larry Zeidel and into the net to give the Blues a 2-1 lead.  Harvey collected an assist on that one.  That was also a power play goal.  Red Berenson scored an empty-netter with fifty seconds remaining in the third to eliminate the Flyers.

After the game, Bowman gave credit to Harvey, who was older than his coach by almost a decade.  “Doug did an awful lot to help get this team ready for the game.  He played fine defense and did you notice he got an assist on the winning goal?  The players look up to Harvey.  He’s coached a number of them in Kansas City.”

Flyers’ coach Keith Allen was sportsmanlike in his assessment of the game and the series.  “They capitalized on two penalties and checked well.  Neither team monopolized the game.  It was fairly even,” Allen told the press after it was over.  He felt that the Blues got a break on Keenan’s goal, but then added, “but who are we to talk about breaks?  We got our share.  Maybe it was their turn.”

While Allen may have been conciliatory after the series was finished, Flyers’ owner Ed Snider was not happy and he thought back to some of the moments in which the play was rough and not necessarily in his team’s favour.  “I don’t ever want to see our team get beat up again.  I don’t give a goddamn about this team having one policeman.  Let’s have five or six.”

And that became the plan for the Flyers moving forward.  In 1968, the amateur draft was not really a tool that teams used.  Philadelphia only chose one player in that draft.  Lew Morrison played more than 500 NHL games.  But starting in 1969, the Flyers would move in earnest toward Snider’s vision of his team.

In the draft that summer, they got Bobby Clarke in the second round, Dave Schultz in the fifth round and Don Saleski in the sixth.  The following year, they picked up some skill in Bill Clement in the first round, but some grit in Bob Kelly in the second and more sandpaper with their seventh selection in Hank Nowak.  In 1972, in the first three rounds, they got Bill Barber, Tom Bladon and Jimmy Watson.  These were the players that eventually formed the foundation for their Stanley Cup wins in 1974 and 1975.

In the process, they not only re-created their own style of play, but, the NHL being a copycat league, a lot of other teams tried to rebuild their own teams in the image of the Flyers.  But make no mistake.  Yes, Philadelphia could play rough and tough and fight with the best of them, but they could also put more pucks into your net than you could put into theirs.  

Mick Kern outlined that on the aforementioned February 2022 episode of The Sports Lunatics Show.  “They did beat their way to things, they were savage at times.  You wouldn’t beat up one guy, they’d all come at you.  But they also had Rick MacLeish.  The second year, they had Reggie Leach.  They had the reincarnation of Bernie Parent.”  

“They had Bobby Clarke who was as dirty as they come but he was a heck of a player.  They had Bill Barber who won gold medals for diving but, man, he was a heck of a player.  They had Jim Watson who could move the puck.  They had lots of guys...Tom Bladon....you can’t put the puck in though by beating guys up.”

The leader of this pack was a toothless, diabetic kid from Flin Flon, Manitoba named Bobby Clarke.  In his third season, 1971-72, he scored 35 goals and added 46 assists for 81 points.  The next year, he scored 37 times and finished with 104 points.  His offensive abilities and his fearlessness garnered him the Hart Trophy as the league’s Most Valuable Player.  He also won the Lester B. Pearson Trophy as the MVP as voted on by the NHL players.

During games, he was relentless.  He was the same in practice.  He worked harder than everyone else on the ice and he expected the same from his teammates.  Adam Proteau did an excellent 2014 piece in The Hockey News about the Flyers of that era and he got stories from many of the players on those Philadelphia teams.

Bill Clement told a story about Clarke in that article.  “Bobby knew how to pull people, and he did that with me a couple of times.  He also knew how to pull people aggressively when that window of opportunity was limited and challenge them to give the team more,” Clement recounted.

“I was sitting between him and the guy he said it to on the bench in the Stanley Cup final against Boston, and he leaned in front of me, and he was angry.  And he just told him, ‘I sure as hell hope you’re saving it for Thursday night, you sonofabitch’.  And then he just sat back up.  And the game the player played the next night was unbelievable.”

One thing Clarke was often criticized for was going into a corner and instigating some rough stuff and backing away as his teammates came in to fight his battles.  But Clement told Proteau that talk like that was unfounded.

“I’ll tell you one thing that’s always pissed me off.  It’s when other players say, ‘I didn’t like Clarkie, he didn’t fight his own battles.  You know, he’d start the shit and then all the Flyers’ tough guys would jump in there.’  But here’s what you don’t know:  Bobby Clarke never asked anybody to fight for him, and Bobby Clarke would’ve fought to the death if there was nobody else on that team that jumped in to defend him.”

“He said the guys that jumped in to defend him did it with reverence and respect and dedication and loyalty for Bobby.  Let me put it this way:  there’s no way we win two Stanley Cups without Bobby Clarke.”

The man who was the backstop for the Flyers was Bernie Parent.  For a window of time in the 1970s, he was the best goalie in hockey and he was relied upon to be the eraser of any mistakes his teammates might make in front of him.  His excellence in goal allowed the guys to play with an abandon and take chances they might not have been able to do had a lesser goalie been in there.

Clarke said as much to Adam Proteau.  “We were good enough and deep enough to win a Cup if anybody had got injured, except Bernie.  If we lost him, we wouldn’t have won the Cup.  Either Cup.  He was that good for us and that important for us.”

Fred Shero was the coach by their Stanley Cup years and he had implemented what seemed to be mysteriously referred to at the time as ‘The System’ -- a hybrid amalgam of North American hockey and the less inhibited and more freewheeling and creative Russian or European style of hockey.  Couple that with the talent and the toughness they had and you see a formidable combination.

There have been many hockey people who have called Shero a genius and he was certainly not one to do everything in a conventional manner.  Before the Flyers’ Stanley Cup final series in the spring of 1974, Shero did an interview with one of the Boston papers in which he said some things that concerned his players.

Joe Watson remembered seeing that newspaper report and he told Adam Proteau of The Hockey News about it.  “I picked up the Boston Herald and saw a quote that said, ‘This is anti-climactic, we just beat a better team to get to the final, and we’re gonna play for the final of the Stanley Cup.’  And I looked who the hell would make a quote like that, and I saw Freddy Shero said that.”  

Watson continued, “So I look to Freddy and say ‘How the hell can you make a statement like that?’ And he says, ‘Joe, we haven’t beaten them in seven years.  We’ve got to try a little reverse psychology, get them thinking maybe they aren’t as good as they were.’”

Part of Shero’s game plan was something that a lot of people, including the Flyers’ players, found to be quite unconventional, perhaps even foolish.  When his team didn’t have the puck, he wanted Bobby Orr to have it for the Bruins.  His own team questioned that decision before the series.  Shero’s reasoning was simple.  

His response to his players was something like this, “I want you to work him, pressure him.  By no means spear him or hurt him, but just bump him, make him skate around you, tire him out.  As the series wears on, it’s going to be tough on him.”  That also included dumping the puck into his corner and hammering him into the boards and glass as well.  The plan eventually worked.  The Flyers won the series and the Cup.

The Flyers, by changing the way they played hockey, by going from speed and skill to skill and toughness, changed the face of hockey for a decade.  Many teams, both in the NHL and outside of it, attempted to copy the Broad Street Bullies, to varying degrees of success.  They came this close to sending the Red Army team packing in January of 1976.  Over in the Soviet Union, they were depicted as skating cavemen.

The ‘Bullies’ style of play hit a climax in 1977 with the release of the movie ‘Slap Shot’.  It lampooned hockey’s rough and tough reputation and questioned the legitimacy of the overabundance of pugilism in the game.  At the same time, the Montreal Canadiens were in the middle of winning four Cups in a row by using speed, skill and the occasional ability to throw punches when it was necessary.  

But the next time someone asks you how the Flyers became the ‘Broad Street Bullies’, you can tell them about a brawl in Game 5 of their first round series with St. Louis in 1968 and that their owner would no longer abide having his team get beat up physically and demanded a change.  He got that change.  In a big way.

You can listen to Howie and his co-host Shawn Lavigne on The Sports Lunatics Show, a sports history podcast, right here on the FiredUp Network, or on 182 different platforms wherever you find your podcasts, including Alexa.