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 Coming of Ron Hextall
The Flyers entered the 1986-87 NHL season looking to rebound from the disappointment of the previous year. During training camp, a young goaltender had turned some heads but, it was figured that Bob Froese would still enter the season as the starting goaltender. The Flyers were to open the season at the Spectrum against the powerhouse Oilers. In a very surprising move, coach Mike Keenan decided to name young goaltender Ron Hextall as the starter over veteran Froese.
Hextall would turn the hockey world on its ear. To his superior puck handling skills, to his clanging his goalie stick on the two goal posts, to his fiery temper, never had we seen anything like him. Hextall was dominant in net as the Flyers defeated the Oilers 2-1 in the opener. Hextall went on to cement the staring job as Froese was later traded and the team again stormed through the regular season finishing with the best record in the Eastern Conference.
The Flyers again beat the Rangers and Islanders in the first two rounds of the playoffs and then played the Montreal Canadians in the third round. The series went to Game 6 when all hell broke loose. The Canadians had a ritual where they would wait for the visiting team to leave the ice after the pregame skate and then when they did, they would return and shoot the puck in to the opposing team’s empty net. The Flyers had grown tired of the tactic and had decided to put a stop to it. So after Philadelphia completed their pregame skate, they left Ed Hospodar and back up goalie Chico Resch in the tunnel entryway. When Shayne Corson and Claude Lemieux of the Canadians returned to the ice to repeat the ritual, Hospodar jumped Lemieux and started beating him to a pulp. With that, both teams came roaring out of their dressing rooms. Some of the Flyers like Dave Brown and Daryl Stanley weren’t even dressed and came out in their undershirts. It was a full scale brawl right out of the ’70s.
Order was eventually restored and both teams were sent back to their dressing rooms. No penalties were assessed because the NHL had never seen the likes of this and there was nothing in the rule book that stated how a situation like this should be handled. So Game 6 proceeded as if nothing had happened. The Flyers went on to win the game and would again face the Oilers in the Stanley Cup Finals.
The 1987 Stanley Cup Finals
The 1987 Stanley Cup was one for the ages. The Oilers won the first two games in Edmonton, winning Game 2 in overtime and the series shifted back to Philadelphia for Game 3. The Oilers stormed out to a 3-0 lead and it looked like they were going to make quick work of the Flyers. Lindsay Carson scored to make it 3-1 and it injected some life into the Spectrum crowd. The Flyers then scored a fluky goal that bounced off of the back of Grant Fuhr‘s leg and the Flyers and the crowd were back in the game. When Scott Mellanby scored to tie it at 3, the place erupted. With the crowd still in a frenzy after the Mellenby goal, Brad McCrimmon scored only seconds later as the place went completely bananas.
One thing I will always remember about that game. After a stoppage of play after the McCrimmon goal, the fans started applauding the Flyers’ effort. But it didn’t stop there. As time wore on, more and more people started to cheer and then as the camera panned the crowd, you could see more and more people start to stand up and the ovation just kept getting louder and louder and louder. It was so loud that the officials delayed starting up play again until the noise died down. It’s one of those moments where if you witnessed it, you will never forget it. Philadelphia went on to win Game 3 but didn’t gain any momentum from the victory. They lost Game 4 and were headed back to Edmonton down 3 games to 1.
The Oilers and the city of Edmonton thought the series was over. They had already scheduled the date and time for the Stanley Cup parade. The Flyers had other plans. After falling behind 3-1, Philadelphia stormed all the way back on goals by Brian Propp, Pelle Eklund and Rick Tocchet to win Game 5 4-3. Edmonton would have to cancel their parade and the series would be returning to Philadelphia.
In typical fashion, the Flyers fell behind in Game 6 2-0. After all the comebacks the team had pulled off in this series though, no one was worried. All the Flyers would need would be one goal to light the spark. Sure enough, the Flyers cut the lead to 2-1 on a goal by Dave Brown. Glenn Anderson had been doing his best to imitate Dale Hunter all series and his cheap shots with his stick finally cost the Oilers. He took a high sticking penalty midway though the third period and the Flyers made him pay for it. Eklund threaded a perfect pass to Propp who was coming down the slot and he snapped off a perfect shot that beat Oilers goalie Grant Fuhr to his glove side to tie the score at 2.
That set the stage for the goal that, when you talk to anyone who has been to a lot of Flyers games and who was there for this moment to a man (or woman) they all say the same thing, “It’s the loudest I have ever heard the Spectrum.”
Peter Zezel broke out of his own end and skated the puck over the Oiler blue line. He tried a cross ice pass that was intercepted by Oiler forward Jari Kurri. Kurri tried to clear the puck out of the Oiler zone by banking it off the boards. Flyer defenseman J.J. Daigneault read the play perfectly and swooped in. He didn’t stop the puck at all as it came off of the boards. He one-timed it right towards the Oiler net. The puck made it through a screen that was set up by Mellanby and the roof of the Spectrum nearly blew right off. Ed Van Impe screaming, “Boy I tell ya!!! These people are going CRAZY!!!!!” in reference to the Spectrum crowd summed up the situation perfectly.
The game ended with a classic heart in the throat moment. With the Flyers up 3-2 in the closing seconds, Flyers goalie Ron Hextall decided to try and clear the puck up the middle of the ice. Mark Messier picked off the pass as Hextall was caught out of his net and raced in on goal. Gene Hart was also apocalyptic as he screamed, “Oh no!! OPEN NET!!!! SHOT SAVE REBOUND SAVE!!!!” Hextall somehow managed to make two saves as he was backing towards the Flyers net to salvage the game.
So here we were. Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. One more win and I would finally witness the Flyers win a Stanley Cup. The Oilers took two early penalties and the Flyers had a two man advantage. Murray Craven scored to make it a 1-0 game. It was the first time in the series the Flyers had scored first. Being as superstitious as I was at the time, I took it as a bad omen.
Philadelphia had some glorious chances to go up 2 and 3 nothing but came up short. Brian Propp took a shot that squeaked in between Grant Fuhr’s legs and sat on the goal line for what seemed like an eternity. The Flyers and Oilers raced towards the puck and the Oilers were able to clear it before the Flyers could tap it in. Doug Crossman came down the right face off circle and had half of the net to shoot at but somehow managed to shoot it wide. He then had another point blank shot right in between the face off dots that he shot right in to Fuhr. The Flyers easily could have been up 2 or 3 nothing and could have put a strangle hold on the game but the game remained 1-0.
The Oilers tied the game and then went ahead 2-1. By this time, the Oilers were badly outplaying the Flyers and the only thing that was keeping the Flyers in the game was goaltender Ron Hextall. It remained a 2-1 game until when with about three minutes left Glenn Anderson ripped a 40 footer that went inbetween Hextall’s legs that sealed the game for the Oilers. Hextall wound up being only the second player in NHL history (the other ironically enough also being a Flyer, Reggie Leach) to be awarded the Conn Smythe trophy as the MVP of the playoffs while playing on the losing team in the Stanley Cup finals.
Next: Eric Lindros