Over the past week, I have played in five Alumni charity hockey games. It was a blast! Although I am very stiff and sore this morning it was very much worth it, as I have said many times in my blogs, it is always great to see some old teammates again.
I am proud to have worn the sweaters of five NHL teams (six, if you count the Atlanta and Calgary Flames separately, which I do because the atmospheres were as different as could be and it required one of my many residential moves). Each and every day in the NHL was a privilege and I have good memories of everywhere I played. It didn't matter to me where I was playing, so long as I had a job in the League!
However, the lengthiest span of my career was spent with the Philadelphia Flyers. I spent 514 of my 1,086 NHL games in Philly. I played 66 of my career 97 playoff games as a Flyer, and went to the Stanley Cup Finals twice (1985 and 1987). My wife's side of the family is from South Jersey. My oldest son, Erik, is named for my late teammate, Per-Erik "Pelle" Lindbergh and he is still a Flyers fan at heart to this day.
When you combine all these things, as special as it was to be a Flame, Maple Leaf (the team I grew up rooting for), Red Wing, and Senator, my Philadelphia years were probably my happiest. Recently, I had a chance to put on the Flyers logo again in the first of the five Alumni games I played over this past week.
Other than the Winter Classic game a few years ago, the game I played last Saturday was my first time playing with the Flyers Alumni. The game was in Oaks, PA, in a fundraiser for the Montgomery County Hero Fund. The place was packed as almost 1,000 people crammed into the little community rink.
Flyers Hall of Fame member and two-time NHL All-Star game participant Joe Watson is a regular for the Alumni team and played in the game in Oaks. I thought that was really neat simply because he is 71 years old.
While Joe probably does not like to admit it, he has slowed down quite a bit over the years but his brain still works! It always amazing to me the hockey smarts of the wily old veteran hockey players. Watching Joe play was text book, especially in our end of the rink. The instinct of an old defenseman is to protect the front of the net and Joe did that to a T. The passing lanes were always blocked and those few players who did get around him often found themselves angled into the corner with nowhere to go.
Bob Kelly -- the "Hound" as everybody called him -- played too. He is 63 years old. Watching the Hound play brought back a lot of old memories, memories of what in my opinion is the single most intimidating part of the game for a defenseman. I'm talking about the dump in.
The dump in is a simple play -- flip the puck past the defenseman into the corners, and pursue the puck as he retrieves it and tries to pass it to a teammate to carry out of the zone -- but it is the player who is doing the forechecking that causes many defensemen anxiety. Having played against him early in my NHL career with the Flames, I can tell you they didn't call Kelly "the Hound" for nothing!
During our Alumni game, there were several times in which the puck was dumped into the corner and Bob was chasing down the opposing defenseman. The fans loved this because they remembered Bob doing it in a NHL; the opposing team defenseman loved it because they wanted to get hit by the “Hound” even though he knew it was all going to be for fun. That aspect was rather different than our days in the NHL.
I smiled on the bench and remembered the many times the “Hound” was chasing me down. The old Spectrum was the worst, because the Flyer faithful fans were right into it as well! So here is the scenario:
The Flyers break out of their own end and if it is Bob Kelly carrying the puck you know exactly what he is going to do! Why? Because the Hound never beat anyone 1-on-1 in his life, so you knew he wasn't going to try to stickhandle around you. As soon as he hit the red line, it was a soft dump into the corner. The race was on!
From there, Kelly only had one thing in mind. It wasn’t scoring a goal. The Flyer fans knew what he was going to do and they cheered with anticipation. Myself and every other defenseman knew exactly what was going to happen, too. Kelly was out to run you right through the boards. You knew the hit was coming, so as you were going back to pick up the puck, you were going over your options in your head: 1)Take the hit and freeze the puck or 2) take the hit, protect the puck and then send it hard around to the winger.
Ether way, you were going to get hit. The thing here is, it wasn’t so much the first hit, it was the second hit and then the third one. Kelly did it over and over all game to you. Like the dead animal on the side of the road, you knew you were going to get hit multiple times every time the puck was dumped in.
The Flyers of the 70’s never played the 1-2-2 style of forechecking. It was all three forwards full steam ahead! So watching Bob forecheck in the game was kind of neat – thank goodness I did not have to worry about being the one to get hit anymore. Trust me, those guys on the other side wouldn't have invited it so happily if we were playing for keeps.
I never played as teammates on the Flyers with Joe or Bob. I did play for many years with Brian Propp and, for a shorter period of time, Ray Allison. There is an old saying in hockey that goes “once a goal scorer, always a goal scorer.”
Propper and Ray fit both fit this bill, but especially Brian. Propp scored over 400 goals in the NHL, played in five Stanley Cup Finals (three with the Flyers and two along with me), played in five NHL All-Star Games and is a member of the Flyers Hall of Fame. Ray was also an excellent goal scorer, especially when he was in junior hockey on the same team as Propp and also in AHL. He also scored quite a bit for the Flyers in the early 1980s. Nowadays, Propp and Allison still score a lot of goals in various Alumni games.
This is what I've found over the years from playing Alumni games: The hands never leave the goal scorers. Even though the player is older, slowed down quite a bit, and usually a little out of shape, his hand-eye coordination is still there. Even more importantly, they still know how to get in the open. Their puck sense is still very much alive.
Every time I go back to the Philly area, the Flyer fan always amazes me. They are all very loyal to all eras of the Flyers; not are they are loyal to all of the players but ferociously loyal to the brand of the Philadelphia Flyers. The crowd at the Oaks rink was no exception.
They were loud, they cheered for every goal (for both teams) and many had jerseys on that represented all eras of Flyers hockey. There were generations of Flyers fans there watching us. There were young fans there that probably had never heard of Watson, Kelly or Marsh but we wore the Flyers logo and they wanted our autographs. The only thing that they knew about us was what their parents or grandparents told them.
Signing an autograph for an old time Flyer fan is really like a trip down memory lane. They all have their favourite story, their favourite game and more specifically their favourite memory of you. Their stories are very much personalized, “I remember this or I remember when you did that” so with each autograph signed, that bond between the Flyer fan the logo grows deeper.
It was an honour to play in seven seasons for the Flyers. It was an honour to put on the logo again last weekend. Once a Flyer, always a Flyer!