It has been 50 years since the formation of the Philadelphia Flyers. In this series, we look back at the proud history of a team that has become synonymous with Philadelphia.
The Late 1970s
After going to their third straight Stanley Cup Final, the Flyers were still one of the top teams in the league but found it tough sledding to get back in to the Finals. In 1976-77 the team finished with 109 points but were swept out of the playoffs by the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup semifinals. They finished the 1977-78 season (my first year of watching hockey) with 105 points but again lost to the Bruins in the Stanley Cup semifinals four games to one. The Flyers fell off a little bit in the 1978-79 season, finishing with 95 points and fell to the New York Rangers four games to one in the playoffs.
The Year of the Streak and Leon Stickle
The 1979-80 season was a memorable one not just for the Flyers but for all four Philadelphia teams. All four teams made it to the championship round of their respective sports. The 1979-80 season was also the season of the 35 game unbeaten streak. The Flyers won their opening game of the season, lost 7-1 to the Atlanta Flames and then didn’t lose another game for another 35 straight contests.
The highlight of the streak came when the Flyers were going for the NHL record that stood at 28 straight. The Flyers would have to beat the Boston Bruins in Boston Garden, a building that had been a house of horrors throughout the team’s history. Philadelphia played a nearly flawless game and beat the Bruins 5-1. The streak finally ended in Minnesota where the Flyers lost to the North Stars 7-1.
The Flyers slumped a little bit after the steak but found their game by the time the playoffs rolled around. They swept the Edmonton Oilers in the opening round, then beat the Rangers and North Stars in 5 games in the following two rounds to advance to their fourth Stanley Cup final where their opponent was the New York Islanders. The Flyers lost Game 1 in OT on a power play goal by Denis Potvin, won Game 2 in an 8-3 blowout and then lost Games 3 and 4 in New York decisively. The series returned to Philadelphia where the Flyers again won in convincing fashion 6-3. Game 6 in New York was a game that all Flyers fans would rather forget. The Islanders scored two goals that should have been disallowed. One on a high stick and another one that should have been disallowed on a blown offsides call. The Islanders won the Game 6 on an overtime goal by Bob Nystrom.
The Early 1980s
The Early ’80s were characterized by good to great regular seasons followed by bitter playoff upsets. The Flyers were never able to build on the success of their trip to the finals in the 1979-80 season and were a team that was sort of stuck in limbo. The early 80s also featured the coaching carousel of firing Pat Quinn and hiring Bob McCammon then firing McCammon and bringing back Quinn again and then firing Quinn only to bring back McCammon again.
In 1980-81 season the Flyers beat the Quebec Nordiques in the first round of the playoffs only to lose to a Calgary Flames team whom the Flyers were favored to beat. Then in 1981-82, the Flyers started a string of three straight seasons of losing in the first round of the playoffs. They lost to the Rangers in 1981-82 and 1982-83 and then to the Capitals in the 1983-84 season. After the third straight first round loss to the Caps, the fans had had it. Thunderous chants of, “BOB MUST GO, BOB MUST GO!!!” in reference to Flyers coach Bob McCammon came pouring out of the throats of the fans at the Spectrum. The Flyers were broken and needed to be fixed.
The 1983-84 season was also the final season for a Philadelphia legend. Long time Flyers Captain Bobby Clarke finally decided to call it a career. He finished with 358 goals, 852 assists for 1,210 points and was also voted as the 23rd greatest player of all time by the Hockey News. He won three league MVPs, one Selke Trophy for the league’s best defensive forward and two Stanley Cups. He is still considered the greatest Captain in Philadelphia sports history. He is also known as the only prominent Philadelphia athlete never to have been booed by the Philadelphia fans. Clarke’s retirement was a signal that the times were changing for the club and it was time for a new era of Flyers Hockey.
A New Era
With the Flyers having been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs for three straight years, things needed to change. The first of those changes was the transition of Bobby Clarke the player to Bob Clarke the general manger. After the firing of Bob McCammon, the Flyers needed to find a new coach. Similar to what the team did before this season in hiring a college coach in Dave Hakstol, the Flyers hired University of Toronto coach Mike Keenan.
The next step was to start turning over the roster. The first major move by Bob Clarke the GM was to trade a veteran who Clarke had become close to as a player and who had been named the Flyers Captain in Darryl Sittler to the Detroit Red Wings for young forwards Murray Craven and Joe Paterson. Along with Clarke and Sittler out the team also said good-bye to the likes of Bill Barber, Ron Flockhart, Paul Holmgren, and Rick MacLeish. Along with Murray Craven, the Flyers brought in 18-year old youngsters Peter Zezel, Rick Tocchet and Derek Smith. The Flyers went in to the 1984-85 season with the youngest roster in hockey with a brand new unknown coach and therefore weren’t expected to do much in the upcoming season. Most hockey pundits didn’t think the Flyers would make the playoffs.
Shows you what the experts know. With a corps of young veterans like Brian Propp, Tim Kerr, Ilkka Sinisalo, Ron Sutter, Mark Howe, Brad McCrimmon and Pelle Lindbergh already in place, the youngsters gave the Flyers a much needed boost. Out of nowhere, Philadelphia finished the regular season with the best record in hockey with 53 wins and 113 points. Even with their remade roster and the superb regular season, the Flyers still had to exorcise the demon of going out in the first round of the playoffs to a much lower seeded team.
And lo and behold, who awaited them in the first round but the hated New York Rangers. The team that had beaten them in the first round in both 1981-82 and 1982-83. I remember going into this series, it was the most nervous I had ever been going into a playoff season. Nothing would have been worse than to have one of the best regular seasons in the team’s history only to lose to the Rangers in the first round of the playoffs yet again.
Game 1 didn’t do anything to assuage my fears. The Flyers stormed out to an early lead but allowed the Rangers to storm all the way back and tie the game at 4 with only minutes left to play in the third period. It was a case of “here we go again, I can’t believe this is happening.” Would the Flyers ever be able to rid themselves of the albatross of going out in the first round of the playoffs to an inferior opponent? The answer was yes as Flyers came out and dominated the overtime period and finally, Mark Howe scored on a wrist shot to win the game for the Flyers 5-4.
Next: Triumph and Tragedy