Friday, October 23, 2009

The Greatest Philly Team of All-Time


You may have noticed from the title of this article that I didn't say the greatest "Phillies" team of all-time, but instead the greatest "Philly" team of all-time. That was on purpose, because as of right now, despite what might be stated on local sports talk radio or television, this current 2009 Phillies team is not that greatest team.

At least they are not that "Greatest Philly Team of All-Time" in the opinion of this educated fan of almost four full decades, a fan who loves the Phillies more than all of the other local teams combined, and who believes that this team has a chance to be mentioned in the same breath as that greatest team. At some point. But not yet.

Before I name and describe that team, let me state what my personal criteria are for becoming the greatest. First, the team needs to be a professional sports team, competing at the highest levels of competition against the greatest athletes in their sport. Second, the team needs to be a champion. So to be in the conversation, teams need to have been a pro sports champion at the minimum.

Enough of the pussy-footing around, since the picture accompanying this article likely gave it away to you already. For my money, the title of "Greatest Philly Team of All-Time" as of right now has to belong to the Broad Street Bullies, specifically the incarnations of the Philadelphia Flyers teams running from 1973 through 1976.

The current Phillies team has a ton of young fans who have been flocking to Citizens Bank Park ever since it opened for the 2004 season. They have fallen in love with the current team led by Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Jimmy Rollins. But it is only those of us born in the 1960's and prior who truly remember with clarity and a sense of reality, only those who experienced it first-hand, who can tell you about how great, exciting, and beloved those Flyers teams really were.

The Flyers went to the Stanley Cup Finals all three years, winning back-to-back Cups the first two seasons before falling to one of pro hockey's all-time greatest dynasties, the Montreal Canadiens of the late 70's. Those Les Habitants would win four consecutive Cups beginning with the '76 win over the Flyers. Those Flyer teams were not only great, winning teams on the ice, but they were also exciting, and they captured the hearts of this town the same way today's Phillies have captured it.

But not only would those Flyers beat the best professional teams that money could put together, they also would beat the acknowledged best team in the world at the time, a team that no other NHL club could defeat, including those Canadiens. I am talking of course about the Flyers legendary winter 1976 victory over the Soviet Red Army team. But let's come back to that game and begin with the first Cup.

Going into the 1974 Cup Finals, the Flyers were prohibitive underdogs against the Boston Bruins. That Bruins team had legends skating for them all over the ice. They were led by Bobby Orr, perhaps the most exciting player in hockey at the time, who had recorded an astonishing 122 points from the defenseman position. Their leading scorer, center and captain Phil Esposito, had scored 68 goals and recorded 145 points during the season, leading the NHL in scoring for the 4th straight year.

Esposito's right winger, Ken Hodge, had scored 55 goals. The Bruins also had two other 30-goal scorers in forwards Wayne Cashman and John Bucyk, rugged defenseman Carol Vadnais, tough guy enforcer Terry O'Reilly, flashy forward Derek Sanderson, and a steady goaltender in Gilles Gilbert. They had won the Cup just two years earlier, and had led the NHL standings in both wins and points. And that dominance extended to the Flyers, whom they had fashioned a 17-0-2 record against in their previous 19 games dating back for years.

The Flyers were known for three things: scrappy center Bobby Clarke, shutdown goalie Bernie Parent, and for fighting. The nickname 'Broad Street Bullies' was well earned, with 7 individual players recording more than 100 penalty minutes. The 'Bullies' were led by 'The Hammer', Dave Schultz, who had an unreal 348 penalty minutes and would fight at the drop of a hat. They also included Andre 'Moose' Dupont (216 mins), Don 'Big Bird' Saleski (131 mins), and Bob 'Hound' Kelly (130 mins) among their colorfully nicknamed members.

The Bruins took the first game in a spirited contest by a tight 3-2 margin, and the second game at old Boston Garden was just as close. Entering overtime, the Flyers faced the possibility of a sudden-death loss and an almost insurmountable 2-0 series deficit against a team they hadn't beaten in years. And then it happened, perhaps the single most important moment in Flyers history. Clarke took a rebound and slid it into the net for a game-winner that stunned the Beantown crowd, and the joyous Flyers mobbed their captain in celebration of the series being tied.

The Flyers gained considerable confidence from finally beating the 'Big Bad Bruins', and that confidence was bolstered with their return home to the Spectrum and their maddeningly loud and partisan home crowd. In the pre-game ceremonies, the team's official anthem of "God Bless America" by singer Kate Smith was played in place of the national anthem. The Flyers had an unreal record of winning when the song was played, and it remains a team good-luck staple to this day.

Behind their hometown crowd and with the new found confidence, the Flyers outplayed the Bruins in both games at the Spectrum behind some stunning goaltending by Parent. They won both games by scores of 4-1 and 4-2, and suddenly the impossible seemed within reach. A return to Boston Garden showed that the Bruins were far from dead, as they recorded a huge 5-1 drubbing. With the series now headed back to the Spectrum for Game #6, the Bruins seemd to regain momentum and hoped to tie things up and force a Game 7 at the Garden.

I clearly remember the day of Sunday, May 19th, 1974. My dad had driven myself and my brother, Mike, down to Wildwood, New Jersey for the day, and we were watching that 6th game of the Stanley Cup Finals at a house that my family had on Leaming Avenue in the little Jersey Shore community. It was there that I watched as in the pre-game ceremonies, Kate Smith stepped out onto the Spectrum red carpet for a live rendition of "God Bless America" that whipped the crowd to a fever pitcher.

When center Rick MacLeish tipped home a shot in the first period, the Flyers had a 1-0 lead, but no one thought that goal would hold up and be enough against the Bruins fire power. But time and time again, a Bruins scoring rush would be ultimately thwarted by Bernie Parent, who split and dove for one acrobatic save after another. As the game moved towards it's conclusion, the Bruins threw a desparate pass towards the Flyers end of the ice, and a historic countdown began.

The puck reached Parent, who lightly tipped it behind the net as the television screen flashed the countdown to 7 seconds remaining. Defenseman Jimmy Watson skated in to pickup the puck, raised his head to make sure that no Bruins players were near, and handled it with his stick as the clocked ticked down and the crowd counted off "...four, three, two, one..." On radio, Flyers legendary broadcaster Gene Hart (whose daughter Lauren now often sings before games) shouted out the dramatic moment: "Ladies and gentlemen, the Flyers have won the Stanley Cup! The Flyers win the Stanley Cup! The Flyers win the Stanley Cup!" The team mobbed one another and the crowd went delirious.

The mighty Bruins had been vanquished. Philadelphia was celebrating it's first pro sports champions since the 1967 Sixers had won the NBA title. Bobby Clarke and Bernie Parent skated around the Spectrum ice with the Stanley Cup raised, the ice flooded with fans who had streamed out of the stands. Little did anyone know that it would not be a one-time fluke, but the beginning of sustained greatness.

In 1975, the Flyers returned to the Stanley Cup Finals to defend their title. This time they had another weapon in right winger Reggie 'the Rifle' Leach, an amateur hockey teammate of Clarke who came to the team in a trade and became a prolific goal scorer. Their opponents this time around would be the upstart Buffalo Sabres, who had missed the playoffs the year before with a losing record.

The Sabres were led by one of the most exciting and prolific scoring lines in history. Known as 'The French Connection' line, Gilbert Perreault, Rene Robert, and Rick Martin were dynamic scorers and playmakers. But it was the Flyers who had the championship experience, and more importanly who had Parent on their side. With Bernie playing at his acrobatic best, standing on his head for save after save against the high-scoring Sabres, the Flyers took the first two games at the Spectrum by 4-1 and 2-1 scores.

Seemingly on their way to an easy Cup repeat, the Flyers took that 2-0 series lead to Buffalo. But something happened on the way to the party, and that something was fog. In an incredible set of circumstances, faulty air conditioning and unseasonably warm weather resulted in fog conditions developing inside of the Buffalo arena. Though both teams had to play through it, it seemed to be the Flyers who were rattled, and the Sabres took advantage to gain first a dramatic 5-4 overtime win that kept them alive, and then a 4-2 win that evened the series at two games apiece.

Returning to the Spectrum ice, the Flyers regained their composure in front of the home fans and the normalcy of the Spectrum playing conditions. They romped to a 5-1 victory that left them one win away from another Cup title. Back in Buffalo, the two teams skated through the first two periods without scoring. I will always remember how the scoring opened for a very unusual reason. I missed the Stanley Cup-winning goal.

There was a Phillies game vs. the San Francisco Giants being televised at the same time as the Flyers. The Phils were finally exciting to watch in just their 5th season at Veteran's Stadium with young homegrown players like Mike Schmidt, Greg Luzinski, and Bob Boone emerging in the season before they would win their first division title and begin their own winning tradition. I flipped to the Phillies game between the 2nd and 3rd period of the Flyers game on the television at our family home on American Street in South Philly.

Now remember, these were the days before remote controls and cable television. You had to actually get your butt up and go over to the television, and then flip a dial to change the channel on the TV set. I tried to time my return to the Flyers action, but the Phillies game was at the Vet, and with nothing at all going on in the ballgame, the Phils' crowd suddenly let out a roar. I knew what I had missed. Quickly, I jumped up, ran to the TV, and turned back to the Flyers game. There the team was congratulating Bob Kelly for having scored a goal just seconds into the 3rd period to put the Flyers on top 1-0.

Late in the 3rd period the Flyers added a breakaway goal by Bill Clement to seal a 2-0 win and clinch their 2nd consecutive Stanley Cup championship. It was just the third time in history that a Philly pro sports team had repeated as champions, following the 1929-30 Athletics in baseball and the 1948-49 Eagles in football. It is also the last time that any major pro sports team from Philadelphia has won back-to-back titles to this day.

So let's take a break right here, and make a point. Those great A's and Eagles teams deserve acknowledgement for winning consecutive titles. However, their accomplishments have to be honestly evaluated against the fact that minorities were basically black-balled from the competition. There were tons of great amateur baseball and football players, including black 'pro' players in baseball's Negro Leagues. Other great Philly teams such as basketball's 76ers of both 1967 and 1983 and the 1980 World Series champion Phillies only managed one title. The Flyers ability to not only become champions, but then to repeat, has to rank them higher.

But it is not the end of the line for those great Philadelphia Flyers 'Broad Street Bullies' era teams, and not the end of the argument for their ranking as "The Greatest Philly Team of All-Time". Those Flyers returned to the Stanley Cup Finals for a 3rd consecutive season in spring of 1976. However, their run at a 3rd straight Cup ended with a four game sweep at the hands of a budding dynasty in Montreal. But that run at the top of the hockey world did not end before the Flyers put an exclamation point on their greatness.

On January 11th, 1976, the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Philadelphia Flyers, the best team in North American professional ice hockey, took to their home ice at the Spectrum to take on the seemingly unbeatable Red Army team from the Soviet Union. This was at the very height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviets, and the game took on incredible social and political implications, as well as taking on the unofficial title of 'World Championship' of hockey.

That winter, the Soviet Union had sent two teams over to North America to play a series of games against teams from the NHL. One of those teams was the 'Soviet Wings', the defending championship team from the Russian Superleague, considered at the time to be the 2nd best league in the world behind only the NHL. The Wings were scheduled to play a '2nd level' tier of NHL teams, and won 3 of their 4 games. But this was only the appetizer in what was known as the 'Super Series' of world hockey.

The main event involved the top Soviet team, the 'Moscow Central Red Army' team, a veritable all-star team stocked with the very best players in the Soviet Union and considered by many to be the best hockey team in the world, certainly the most dominant team in all of Europe. This team was sent up against the NHL's elite. They beat both the New York Rangers (7-3) and the Boston Bruins (5-2), and tied the Montreal Canadiens (4-4). Winless against the Soviet powerhouse, with the pride of the entire NHL on the line, for one of the rare times in their history during the 'Bullies' era the Flyers found themselves being supported by fans across North America.

The game was not only for NHL pride, but was frought with personal tensions. Flyers star Bobby Clarke had become infamous in the Soviet Union for a slash against Russian star Valeri Kahrlamov during an earlier 1972 series between the Russians and and Team Canada. Before this game, thanks to Clarke and the 'Bullies' reputations, the Soviet press portrayed them as goons in it's writing and editorial cartoons. Clarke famously stated that he "really hated those bastards."

When the game began, the Flyers took the play to the Soviets, hitting early, often, and hard. The Soviets, used to a more wide-open and creative pace, were frustrated. The tension finally came to a head and ironically it was the same Kharlamov, whom Clarke had slashed four years earlier, at the center of it all. The Soviet star skated into the Flyers zone, and in a perfectly clean move Flyers' veteran defenseman Ed Van Impe laid him out with a tremendous mid-ice check. Kharlamov lay prone on the ice for an extended period, and when he finally was able to arise the Soviets coach pulled his team off the ice in protest of the Flyers rough play.

The Russians left the ice to tremendous booing from the notorious Philly 'boo-bird' crowd, and remained in their locker room for an extended period as a huge international TV audience watched in shock. Finally lured back by threats of witholding their pay, the Soviets returned to the ice and the enraged and inspired Flyers played with almost reckless abandon, taking the play to the Soviets at a furious pace.

Within moments of the resumption of play, Reggie Leach tipped a shot past legendary Russian goaltender Vladislav Tretiak for a 1-0 Flyers lead. Before the period was out, Rick MacLeish would drive home another goal. The Flyer lead grew to 3-0 before the delirious crowd when low-scoring defenseman Jimmy Watson scored a short-handed goal. The Soviets got on the scoreboard in the 2nd period, but then defenseman Larry Goodenough fired in a shot from the point in the 3rd to complete the scoring. The Flyers had outshot the unbeatable Russians 49-13, beaten them on the scoreboard 4-1, and secured a legendary victory for the franchise.

With their back-to-back Stanley Cup championships, three straight Finals appreances, and historic win over the Soviets, the 1973-1976 Philadelphia Flyers have earned my own personal ranking of "The Greatest Philly Team of All-Time". Anyone who does not consider them in the conversation is a fool not worth listening to for sports advice or conversation. Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton, Julius Erving, Wilt Chamberlain. All great. All Philly champions. But in this category, all take a back seat to Bobby Clarke and Bernie Parent and the 'Broad Street Bullies'.

The current Philadelphia Phillies, a team beloved and respected by myself and the entire Philly region, are putting themselves into that conversation. Their rousing victory in last year's World Series is really what makes that at all possible, but it is strongly supported by the club having won 3 straight NL East titles as well as back-to-back National League pennants. But this team still has that one more step to go to overtake the mid-70's Flyers champions.

Win the upcoming World Series, especially if it is a 'signature' type win over a legendary New York Yankees organization featuring stars such as Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, and Mariano Rivera? Do that, and these Fightin' Phils would almost certainly have to move to the top of the heap, and take over the title of "The Greatest Philly Team of All-Time" for themselves.

NOTE: As always, the title of this article is a link to more information on the topic. In this instance, click on the title and you can enjoy all the highlights of that first Flyers Stanley Cup victory!

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