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 1980s: The first drought in Flyers history
The Flyers started a slow decline starting with the 1987-88 season. Gone were the days of dominating the Patrick Division and the Eastern Conference.
The Flyers finished third in the division and faced the Washington Capitals in the first round of the playoffs. After having a 3 games to 1 lead in the series, the Caps stormed all the way back and forced a Game 7. Philadelphia built a 3-0 lead in Game 7 only to have the Caps tie that game and force it into overtime. Of all people, Dale Hunter scored the series clinching goal on a breakaway to end the Flyers season.
The 1988-89 season was more of the same. The Flyers were again a middle of the pack team in the regular season, but caught lightening in a bottle in the playoffs. They avenged their loss to the Caps in the opening round and then beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in 7 games in the second round. They eventually lost to the Montreal Canadians in the Conference Finals in six games. The series against Montreal was memorable because Canadians defenseman Chris Chelios knocked Brian Propp out of the series with a hit that would have warranted a ten game suspension in today’s day and age. And then in the closing seconds, as Game 6 was winding down and it was clear the series was over, Ron Hextall stormed out of his net and ambushed Chelios.
Even with their run to the Conference Finals, it was clearly evident the Flyers were a team on the decline. It was littered with players like Keith Acton, Mike Bullard and Kjell Samuelsson who were at the end of their careers. Staring with the 1989-90 season, the Flyers went through a stretch where they missed the playoffs for five straight years.
The 1990s: Eric Linnros and the Legion of Doom
Eric Lindros was the most highly touted prospect since Mario Lemieux and he was regularly being refereed to as “the next one”. The Quebec Nordiques finished with the worst record in the NHL and would have the first overall pick in the draft and thus the rights to draft Lindros. Lindros has stated several times that he didn’t wish to play for the Nordiques, but Quebec still drafted him and tried to sign him. When it became evident Lindros wasn’t going to sign with the Nordiques, Quebec set out to trade him.
At the following year’s draft, a bizarre scenario happened where Quebec seemed to have completed a deal with the Flyers and Rangers for Lindros at the same time and an arbitrator was then brought in to settle the dispute. Arbitrator Larry Bertuzzi decided that Philadelphia had indeed completed a valid deal and Lindros was awarded to the Flyers. Going the other way were defensemen Kerry Huffman and Steve Duchesne, forward Mike Ricci, goaltender Ron Hextall, center Peter Forsberg, two first round picks and $15 million in cash.
Lindros burst onto the scene and was dominant right from the start. He was a lethal combination of size, speed and skill. He netted 43 goals his first season in the league. The Flyers missed the playoffs his first two years in the NHL but then finally broke through in 1995. Philadelphia got off to a slow start and it was obvious a change was needed. So the Flyers traded star forward Mark Recchi to the Montreal Canadians for forward John LeClair, defenseman Éric Desjardins and winger Gilbert Dionne.
Desjardins instantly stabilized the Flyers defense. LeClair was put on a line with Lindros and Mikael Renberg on what became the most dominant line in hockey. The Legion of Doom, a nickname coined by Flyer Jim Montgomery, was born. The Flyers won the Patrick Division and advanced all the way to the third round of the playoffs where they lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champion New Jersey Devils in six games and Lindros was named the league MVP. In 1995-96 the Flyers stumbled a little bit and lost in an upset to the Florida Panthers.
In 1997, the Flyers finally made their run with Lindros when they finished the regular season with 103 points. They beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in five games in the first round, the Buffalo Sabers in five in Round 2 and the Rangers in five in Round 3. The Flyers were dominating every team they came across and would meet the Detroit Red Wings in the Finals. It’s hard to believe when you look at the result of that series, but the Flyers were actually favored going into that 1997 Stanley Cup. Right from the drop of the puck in the opening game though, you could see that Detroit was the better team. Philadelphia was swept by the Red Wings in convincing fashion.
The End of an Era
As seems to be the case when you look at Flyers history, they always seemed to regress instead of getting over the final hump after going to the Stanley Cup Finals. The Flyers made early exits from the playoffs in both the 1998 and 1999 seasons ans in 2000 Philadelphia made another run in the playoffs. It was the year of the Keith Primeau‘s goal against the Penguins after a record five overtime periods on May 5.
They got to the conference finals and were up three games to one on the New jersey Devils. Eric Lindros had been out for the playoffs with a concussion and t was announced before Game 5 that he would be back for Game 6 if it was necessary. Philadelphia came out and laid an egg in Game 5 and lost in convincing fashion. Lindros was back for Game 6 in New Jersey. The plan was to start him off slowly by playing him on the Flyers third line. That plan went by the wayside quickly as Lindros was the most dominant player on the ice. He scored a goal in the game and almost had a second but it was waved off because it had gone in the net just after the first period had ended. The Flyers would lose Game 6 setting up a Game 7 in Philadelphia.
I was at this game and saw what unfolded live. The Flyers were trailing 1-0 when Lindros got the puck and started storming up the ice. It was the kind of rush that he had done so many times before that would bring you out of your seat. And the crowd was doing just that, anticipating Lindros to do something big. And then it all ended in a split second. Just as the play was being whistled offsides, Devils defenseman Scott Stevens delivered a forearm shiver to Lindros’s jaw and he crumpled to the ice. Right away one could see it was bad and the crowd went completely silent. It wasn’t hard to realize that I had watched Eric Lindros’s last game as a Flyer as he was later traded to the Rangers. So much hope and promise but Linnros ended up falling a little short of those expectations.
Next: The Flyers Last Big Run