Anyone following the Philadelphia Flyers fortunes has probably heard some reference, even if only oblique, to their glorified Broad Street Bullies era.
Those days are long gone of course, more than three decades in the rearview mirror. Yet they grew to mythic proportions in the City of Brotherly Love, cementing a perception about the team that has lingered to this day.
Not that it really applies any more even if Philadelphia’s second round series with Boston has seen both teams do a lot of give-and-take in the heavy hitting department. Still the impact and type of the contact does bear a passing resemblance to those Wild and in retrospect farcical days in the first decade of NHL expansion at times, and by coincidence, the Bruins were among the victims as the Flyers did regular beat downs on opponents on their way to consecutive Stanley Cups.
That said, today’s story doesn’t quite fit the storyline, mostly because right now the Bruins are the better team and deserve their 2-0 lead in the East semifinal. Besides in this salary cap era it’s almost impossible to keep teams together long enough to develop a real hate for opponents, so any animosity almost has to be spontaneous.
That’s nothing like it was in the Bullies days which have been documented in a fine new film that will be running on HBO this month. Catch it if you can. It’s a serious trip down memory lane for those who were around for the era, and for everyone else, a history lesson on why it has become such a part of the Flyers legacy.
I watched those Flyers a lot doing those years and seeing this reminded me of how much team that relished beating the crap out of people. Literally. Sometimes it was relatively legal with their players just delivering crunching hits, but dirty wasn’t a dirty word to those Flyers and neither was pain. Philadelphia inflicted much of it with individual fights and bench-clearing charges, making brawling and mauling an art form. It was brutal, often ugly and definitely effective.
It helped that the Flyers had an unreal goalie then in Bernie Parent, one of the generation’s greatest leaders in Bobby Clarke and had some very talented players who could score and defend. But Philadelphia won the Stanley Cup in 1974 and 1975 by pounding teams into submission with guys like Bob Kelly running players into the boards head first, and Dave Schultz punching faces out.
“That can be uplifting to a team,” Schultz gleefully recalled in the film. “We used to play and fight and then win and then we’d go drink their beer.”
The goonery was unprecedented and made those Flyers the real blue print for the original SlapShot movie team. Remember helmets weren’t required back then and padding was minimal, so many of the players could have been mistaken for Hansen brothers with their scraggly caveman hair, bushy mustaches and missing teeth.
They liked to snarl too. But those Flyers could play. And political correctness aside, they were compelling to watch. The documentary, though a little sappy at times, shows why with some great vintage footage from an NHL that was light years from today and unapologetic and humorous recollections from players interviewed for the film.
Like the one from defenseman Ed Van Impe on knocking out Soviet star Valeri Khalamov during a 1975-76 exhibition tour between the international powerhouse and NHL teams.
The Cold War propaganda battle for supremacy was real back then and Philadelphia was left to defend the NHL’s honor after the Soviets had gone unbeaten in the first three games of the four-game mid-season tour. Van Impe made it known how the Flyers intended to do that early in the game when he emerged from the penalty box and skated across the ice to blind side Kharlamov.
“He ran into my elbow with his chin,” Van Impe explained.
The Soviets actually quit after that, storming off the ice because of the brutality only to emerge a few minutes later when they were informed that they wouldn’t get their share of the gate receipts.
“The communists were more capitalistic than we thought,” backup goalie Bobby Taylor laughed.
But they were intimidated too, losing 4-1 while being outshot 49-13 by the Flyers in what was proved to be the beginning of the end of an era. Philadelphia lost the Stanley Cup Finals that spring to a Montreal Canadiens team would win four in a row, and then the rules started changing in a way that kept the Flyers from doing what they did best as forerunners to the UFC.
Some remnants remain because physical play has become so much a part of post-season success. But beating up opponents doesn’t work anymore so for the Flyers to get back in their series with Boston, they’ll need to do a better job in the small areas of the game. The Bruins have dominated in the faceoff circle and on the penalty kill, they’ve taken early leads and made Philadelphia be in constant catch-up mode. That has to change.
The Flyers get two chances to get back into the series now that it has shifted back to Philadelphia and maybe stealing a page from the predecessors to do it.
“We need to play with more desperation,” Daniel Briere said. “Take their will away.”
But they’ll have to use their talent rather than their fists.