Bill Meltzer: Meltzer’s Musings: Clarke Turns 65

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Who was your first sports hero as a child? When I was growing up as a young Flyers fan in the 1970s, the entire Broad Street Bullies team was a collection of superheroes in my mind. There were two players among them who were a step even beyond that: Bobby Clarke and Bernie Parent.

From ages 3 to 14, I deified Clarke.

So did all of my friends. Only the Lord saved more than Bernie, but Clarke was pretty much synonymous with God as far as we were concerned. Clarke, who was born on Aug. 13, 1949, celebrates his 65th birthday today.

Today’s blog is dedicated to Clarke and the way that ones views of childhood heroes evolve and change over the years. No angel, but a hockey deity

In a typical day in my life in the mid-1970s, I’d go outside to play sporting a short-sleeve “Bobby” t-shirt emblazoned with his photo or a long-sleeve #16 Flyers “jersey”, which I recently gifted to my five-year-old-son, Benjamin. When I outgrew the shirts, I stretched them out as much as possible so they would to continue to “fit” me. My pants were held up with a belt that had color photos of various NHL stars of the 1970s, including Clarke.

On many days, I’d play street hockey with my friends right in front of the house or in the back patio with my orange-bladed Bobby Clarke Street Hockey stick with a sturdy wooden shaft and plastic blade. We’d use an orange Mylec street hockey ball or orange Bobby Clarke Street Hockey puck (each sold separately, of course). The prize would be a chance to lift the “Stanley Cup” — actually my great-grandparents samovar they brought along when leaving Russia at the turn of the 20th century.

At some point, my mother would call me inside for lunch; a sandwich made from Bobby Clarke peanut butter (Bobby’s Smooth Peanut Butter) and grape jelly. I’d wash it down with a glass of milk from a Flyers Stanley Cup commemorative glass, which originally contained sour cream. I’d wolf down the sandwich as quickly as possible and rush back outside to play some more street hockey.

If one of my friends wasn’t over at the house or my neighbors Johnny and Timmy were unavailable to play that day, I’d simply shoot the puck into the empty net, laying a goalie stick horizontally in front. In some ways, I preferred it that way, because I ALWAYS got to be Clarke (we’d pick which Flyers player we were supposed to be). Also I never once was playing on the losing side in those solo games.

On rainy days, I often set up the hockey net in the narrow center hallway or the den or simply contented myself to play a “hockey game” with my hockey cards in my bedroom. I used a knotted up rubber band for a puck and two shoe boxes for the goals. The Flyers cards would play various NHL opponents — always the better teams in the league, for whom Topps had printed enough player cards to have something resembling a lineup.

The Flyers went undefeated. Bobby Clarke averaged about 10 points per game. Bernie Parent yielded one goal for every four or five games he played (hey, I wanted realism and he was only human after all).

On the walls of my bedroom, there were three Bobby Clarke posters. I no longer have any of them, but I can still clearly picture all three of them in my mind. All three measured about 18X24, so they were smaller than the classic Sports Illustrated type of posters.

One poster showed Clarke about to take a faceoff. His face was the picture of concentration. Clarke’s mouth was open slightly and you could see he was missing his front teeth. Toward the right hand side of the image, there was a linesman’s head visible (but not the rest of his body). The photo was clearly taken prior to 1973, because Clarke had an alternate’s A on his orange road sweater.

The second poster was a posed shot on the ice. Clarke, smiling and wearing his dentures, sprayed a massive show-shower toward the camera. He had his captain’s C in this one and he was dressed in the Flyers’ road orange uniform.

The third poster was my final addition. Likely taken in the same photo shoot as the second one, it is another staged on-ice shot. The camera lens was at ice level and you basically got the viewpoint of a down-and-out goaltender or defenseman who could only helplessly look up at Clarke and the arena lights off in the distance as the Flyers captain was in the act of shooting the puck into the (out of frame) net.

My bed had hockey sheets, featuring the logos of the various NHL teams of the mid-1970s. That included the Flyers of course, as well as the likes of the soon-to-be defunct California Seals. On a small book shelf next to my bed, I had Jack Chevalier’s Broad Street Bullies, Bobby Clarke and the Ferocious Flyers, Bernie Parent’s autobiography and other hockey titles.

On top of the book shelf, I had a wind-up “movie viewer” with the inserted cartridge featuring “Bobby Clarke’s Hockey Instruction.” The viewer hand-cranked the viewer to advance each frame and could go as slow or fast and even in reverse. I had it til I was about 8 when my cousin, Wayne, broke it.

On top of my dresser, I had cardboard cutout “stand-up” (although they never stood up very well) figures of various Flyers players. My mother got me the Clarke one first, followed later by Parent, Bill Barber and Rick MacLeish.

Get the picture? When I was a kid, “Clarkie” could do no wrong. I would get livid when I read or heard anything remotely critical of him or his sometimes ruthless style of play. Fortunately or unfortunately, I grew up and realized that he was no angel.

Bobby Clarke could play a certifiably dirty brand of hockey. Not all the time. Not even most of the time. However, if he couldn’t beat you with his skill or sheer stamina and hard work, he’d instead leave his mark with his stick. Often, he was rather sneaky about his stick work, doing it behind the referee’s back. Other times, he was downright blatant.

Clarke’s slashes weren’t love taps; he was perfectly willing to rare back with a two-hander as if the stick were a hatchet, and he always went for vulnerable areas. He’d high stick to intimidate or retaliate. He deliberately butt-ended and speared opponents more than once over the course of his career.

But to this very day, that’s not what I think of when I think of Clarke as a player. I think of one of the NHL’s all-time great playmakers, two-way players, hardest workers and most dedicated captains. Plain and simple, if Clarke had never been a Flyer, the entire history of the organization would have been very different, and I don’t know if there would have been any Stanley Cup championships to celebrate.

Clarke was the ultimate team player, caring nothing for personal stats and willing to do anything for victory – whether it meant spilling his own blood, inflicting pain or fighting for the puck as though his very life depended on it.

While the debate over Clarke’s legacy as a general manager will always raise arguments, no one who grew up watching him as a player would utter a word of dispute over the fact that Clarke was the heart and soul of a team that almost never got outworked. A Philadelphian from Flin Flon

In yesterday’s blog, I talked about how Clarke’s upbringing in the mining town of Flin Flon, Manitoba, shaped the combination of traits that have forever shaped his personality. He is rough hewn and self-made yet humble about his personal accomplishments.

I did not even mention Clarke’s type one diabetes. Nowadays, it’s hard to believe that people once viewed his condition as a potentially insurmountable obstacle to a pro hockey career. It was the reason why Clarke was not selected in the first round of the 1969 NHL Draft, and why some teams passed on him twice before the Flyers took him.

Clarke never viewed his diabetes as any more than a daily fact of life. He took his insulin shot, monitored his blood sugar and went about his daily routine. Clarke has never viewed himself as a trailblazer for athletes with type one diabetes, but that’s exactly what he was.

In Gene Hart’s book, “Score! My Twenty-Five Years with the Broad Street Bullies,” the late Flyers announcer recounted a story in which Clarke was asked to speak to a group of school children (ages 8 to 12) in Minnesota during a Flyers road trip. The topic was how he overcame diabetes to become the National Hockey League’s most valuable player.

Clarke was a little uncomfortable about doing so. Public speaking was never his thing. Nevertheless, since the audience was compromised of school kids, Clarke reluctantly agreed on the condition that Flyers public relations manager Joe Kadlec come and get him after 10 minutes. Kadlec would say Clarke had to leave for a team function, and the hockey player would make his exit.

Clarke gave a short impromptu talk. Then one of the kids raised his hand.

“Mr. Clarke,” he said, “I’m a diabetic, too.”

Moments later, Kadlec entered the room. Clarke waved him off, saying, “No, no, that’s all right.”

Recalled Hart, “Bobby smiled a warm smile, and proceeded to talk on for almost an hour, in his own calm, strong, reassuring way.”

As a player, Clarke was an incredible captain and leader. He was a man of few words, but when he spoke, it had meaning and purpose.

When a teammate was struggling, Clarke would sometimes ask Fred Shero if that player could be placed on his line for a few games. The trust between the player and the coach was strong, and Shero usually went along with the request.

One of the quintessential examples of Clarke’s leadership happened 40 years ago in the summer of 1974.

The underdog Flyers had just beaten the highly favored Bruins to win the Stanley Cup. There was a surrealistic Stanley Cup parade attended by over two million people. Every Flyers player had a check for $19,000 in his pocket — huge money back then — as his share of the playoff money. Everywhere the guys went, they were treated like royalty. There were dinners and parties and special award nights both in the Delaware Valley and the players’ Canadian hometowns.

Clarke, who was one of the first NHL players who took physical conditioning seriously, was concerned his teammates could get complacent and fat over the summer.

“Boys, everyone is going to be gunning for us next season,” he said at a team get together in late May. “This year won’t mean a thing if we don’t do it again. I want everyone to be ready to go. Be in shape to play.”

Clarke took it one step further. He rented a rink in New Jersey for 10 days of on-ice workouts in early September before the start of training camp. Keep in mind was the era when the Flyers used the Class of 1923 Skating Rink at the University of Pennsylvania as their practice facility and before it was common for veterans to report early for camp.

“Let’s go, fellas, give up the final 10 days of your vacation and let’s get back to work,” Clarke said.

Clarke’s teammates complied, and everyone chipped in to cover the cost of the informal camp. The day of reckoning came on Sept. 15, 1974, when everyone on the team had to undergo their physicals before the official start of training camp.

Virtually every player was already at his playing weight; only a couple were a few pounds overweight and none were grossly out of condition (a common problem in an era where diet and exercise were not very high on most NHL players’ priority list.

On the first official day of training camp, Clarke delivered another straight-to-the-point message.

“We won the Stanley Cup last year, but a lot of people think we just got lucky,” he said. “No one thinks we can do it again. I guess we better show them. We win it again this year, and no one can say last year was a fluke.”

To punctuate the same point, Shero’s bulletin board message that day read, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

The rest was history. The Flyers rolled to their second straight Stanley Cup in 1974-75 and, for good measure, defeated the Red Army and reached the Finals for a third straight year before key injuries (Parent and Rick MacLeish) and the supreme talent of the Montreal Canadiens prevailed in the 1976 Cup Finals.

Off the ice, Clarke has always been appreciative of the way the entire Delaware Valley embraced his team and himself. The blue-collar native son of Flin Flon became a lifelong Philadelphian, settling permanently in a region that embodies many of the same qualities.

Last year, my sister, Liza, was putting together a fund-raising event for my nephew’s school. She lined up a host of former Flyers players to attend and well as sponsors to donate a variety of items for auction.

Clarke was unable to attend, because he planned to be in Florida at that time. However, he graciously autographed a variety of items for the auction and even took it a step further. Through his business manager, Clarke arranged for LCB Line linemates Reggie Leach and Bill Barber to sign an old-school style wooden stick along with his signature for the auction.

When my sister thanked him for his generosity, Clarke simply said, “I’m just glad I could help.” Bobby vs. Bob

Robert Earle Clarke has always seemed to be two distinct people in his professional life: Bobby Clarke the hockey player and Bob Clarke the executive.

Al Morganti once said of Clarke that, if you sat on the other side of a negotiating table with him, he’s scratch and claw over a seemingly trivial sum of money. Yet, if that same person ever needed help, Clarke would pull the last dollar out his own wallet to offer assistance. That’s the dichotomy of the hockey front office man and the human being.

Very honestly, the hockey playing role was the one Clarke always seemed happier to perform. It came more naturally to him than being a general manager.

Clarke’s love for being a member of a hockey team — especially a winning one — was always so deep and genuine. I don’t think a single day of his playing career ever felt like a job to him. The GM role, especially toward the end, seemed to bring him less joy. I have no doubt there were many days where it felt very much like a job rather than a passion for which he also happened to get paid.

As a player, the smiles come naturally rather being forced. The off-ice demeanor was so much more relaxed and comfortable when he was dressed in hockey attire close by to his comrades rather than when he was wearing a suit and tie, reluctantly discussing trades, injuries or especially contract negotiations. I think Clarke, in his second tenure, made himself into an above-average GM in the pre-cap era. Even so, he was never as good of a GM as he was the Flyers captain and on-ice leader.

Back on the magical New Years Eve afternoon of the Winter Classic Alumni Game in Philadelphia we saw Bobby Clarke come back for one day. Yes, I know, he never liked to be called Bobby even as a player, but tolerated it just as the late Rich Ashburn — who, like Clarke, was also nicknamed “Whitey” among his teammates and close friends — disliked being called Richie. Nevertheless, to Flyers fans who grew up watching him play, he’ll always be Bobby or Clarkie.

Going down to locker room after the Alumni Game was something I will never forget. To see most of the best Flyers players of the 1960s to 2000s gathered in the same room was incredible. I will never forget how surprised and moved I was to see Clarke get so emotional after the game.

He always wore his heart on his sleeve on the ice and shot from the hip when directly asked for his opinions, but there was always a thin wall of stoicism and mental toughness where he never wanted to show a hint of vulnerability.

Clarke has always been very modest and even shy when it comes to accepting praise for his accomplishments but is also someone with tremendous personal pride. On that one day, he allowed himself to be vulnerable in public both on and off the ice.

One thing any of Clarke’s former teammates or close friends will tell you is that his focus was always on the team, whether it was in a playing or GM capacity. The easiest way to incur Clarke’ wrath was to suggest that he (or someone else) had done something that did NOT serve the best interests of the team that employed him.

From Clarke’s old-school hockey standpoint, this was the root cause where and why he butted heads with the Lindros clan, who had a different perspective on what was best for the team. Both sides basically wanted the same things — for the Flyers to win a Stanley Cup with Eric Lindros playing a key role — but their views on how to accomplish those goals proved to be incompatible. In Clarke’s view, the Lindros side wanted Eric’s interests placed above the team agenda that Clarke and the organization set.

It took many, many years for Clarke and Lindros to make their public peace with one another, but at least they finally got some closure in recent years. They’ll never be close and they don’t have to be. But now that Lindros is no longer playing and Clarke is no longer the Flyers’ GM, there was no reason that the two men could not coexist in embracing their respective key roles in team history. That process will be cemented later this year, when Lindros is inducted into the Flyers’ Hall of Fame.

Thinking back to Clarke’s emotional interviews after the Alumni Game, I think it stemmed from his pragmatism. He knew that he may never again play in a hockey event of any lasting significance. As a man in his 60s, he’s no longer physically up to training and playing (to win) even in Alumni Games. The outpouring of love and respect he received from the massive Philadelphia crowd in attendance that day may have been Clarke’s final uniformed appearance, at least in the public realm.

Clarke has always described himself as basically a simple person. I have always viewed him from afar as a rather complex man.

I once saw the Bobby/Bob dichotomy myself in one of my own interactions with Clarke. I rode up on the elevator with him before a November 2001 game against Edmonton. I said hello. I told him that I hoped he didn’t mind me telling him that I grew up thinking of him as the perfect team-oriented hockey player; that he was always held up as the model of how to play with heart and courage even more than skill. He looked me in the eyes and thanked me. I know it’s stuff he’s heard a million times before but I also know that he never takes lightly or for granted how much his career meant to so many Philadelphians.

Then I made a mistake. I switched subjects and asked Clarke if he thought recently called up rookie Ruslan Fedotenko had done enough to stay with the big club when some injured veteran players returned. Clarke got a pained expression on his face and was silent for a long, uncomfortable moment.

“I don’t know,” he finally said, his voice ice cold. “We’ll see. It ‘s only been a few games.”

It was a very innocuous question, and a legitimate one to ask a GM. But it was also poorly timed. I always regretted not simply to sticking one topic or the other. Before he spoke, Clarke’s eyes hardened a bit as though he was sizing if I’d tried to flatter him and then to get him to divulge information about his upcoming roster plans, and that was not my intent at all.

I was being sincere as someone who grew up loving the Flyers and then I jumped back into the journalist realm. Clarke, however, didn’t know me well enough to stand in a freight elevator and step into both worlds with me. Unless you have that sort of personal rapport with a subject, it’s better to stick to business.

It was a lesson learned. Ever since then, whenever I’ve dealt with someone such as Paul Holmgren, Mark Howe or Dave Poulin, I stick only to one line of discussion — either the present day teams they are associated with or questions related to their playing days in Philly. I don’t try to cross over into both worlds unless it’s specifically part of a biographical article. Legacy as a general manager

Bob Clarke had his flaws as a general manager. In his second tenure, I think he got a little too concerned at times with trying to collect as many big bodies as possible. He was a bit cavalier at times about the importance of high-end goaltending. In his first tenure, I don’t think he traded well in his first tenure, and the Flyers drafts of the mid-to-late 1980s were some of the worst in franchise history.

In both tenures, I think he sometimes let personal feelings negatively affect his handling of certain disputes. In his first tenure, there was the ill-fated Brad McCrimmon trade. In the second, there was the enmity with Lindros.

With that said, I think Clarke did a good job overall in his second tenure. He rapidly built a Stanley Cup contender out of a team that had missed the playoffs five straight years. In particular, if not for the gutsy decision to trade Mark Recchi to Montreal in the deal that brought Eric Desjardins and John LeClair to Philadelphia — an unpopular deal in Philly on the day it happened — I wonder if the Flyers’ teams of the mid-to-late 1990s would have even been contenders.

Additionally, Clarke almost entirely rebuilt the Flyers blueline between 1994 to 1995, and brought back Ron Hextall to replace the inconsistent Tommy Söderström in goal. It was arguably Clarke’s best year as GM.

If you are going to criticize the things Clarke did wrong as a general manager, you also have to look at the things he did right. In particular, during his second tenure, the Flyers teams of 1995 to 1997 and the 2003-04 squad were some very good ones.

In total, with Clarke at the helm as general manager over his two tenures, the Flyers reached the Stanley Cup Finals three times (1985, 1987, 1997) and the Wales/Eastern Conference Finals six times (1985, 1987, 1989, 1995, 1997, 2000, 2004). They fell just one win short of the Stanley Cup in 1987 and one win short of reaching the Finals in 2004. He was also the GM of a Minnesota North Stars team that reached the Finals in 1991.

As a general manager, Clarke was unable to add to the two Stanley Cup rings from his playing days. That does not mean, however, that he was a failure as GM. There’s a host of longtime GMs — some of whom are still active — who would gladly trade legacies with Clarke’s.

This post originally appeared on www.hockeybuzz.com and we thank them for permission to rebroadcast it here.

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