Bobby Clarke began to play for his home team, the Flin Flon Bombers, when he was eight years old. By all accounts, Bobby should have been first in the draft, but there were rumors in the NHL that Clarke was a diabetic and most probably wouldn't be able to play in the top league because of that. Pat Ginnell, head coach of the Bombers, didn't waste any time. He made arrangements with the Mayo Clinic, one of the best hospitals in North America, and took Bobby to Minnesota.
The doctors concluded that Clarke could play professional hockey if he looked after his health. The coach asked the doctors to put their statement in writing and returned home satisfied. When the following season began and NHL scouts began to visit Flin Flon, Ginnell showed them the verdict from the Mayo Clinic. On ice, Clarke hardly looked like a man with a serious affliction. He totaled 137 points with 51 goals and 86 assists and was again at the top of the league. Clarke also demonstrated superior leadership skills, which are highly valued in the NHL.
The 1969 draft was ample evidence that there were those in the league who believed in Clarke. Bobby was selected 17th by the Philadelphia Flyers in the second round. Sam Pollock, manager of the Montreal Canadiens, who were 1969 Stanley Cup winners, immediately offered a deal that the Flyers management could hardly refuse, but Philadelphia turned it down. Next in line was Detroit Red Wings chief scout Jimmy Skinner, who offered two veterans for the 20-year-old diabetic. But the Flyers made it clear that Clarke wasn't up for sale.
For Clarke, the start of his professional career was rough. During training camp, he had two serious diabetic seizures. One of the Philadelphia coaches, Frank Lewis, conducted his own investigation and learned that in both instances Clarke had had only a light breakfast before the workout. Lewis drew up a complete dietary plan, which Bobby strictly followed for years to come. Before a game, Clarke would drink a bottle of Coca-Cola with three spoonfuls of dissolved sugar. Between periods he downed half a glass of orange juice with sugar added, and after the game a whole glass. Lewis always stashed several chocolate bars and a tube of 100% glucose in his bag, just in case. The personal diet plan developed by his coach went without a hitch and Bobby Clarke didn't miss a single game in his first NHL season. At the same time, Clarke didn't put on any spectacular performances either, with 15 goals and 31 assists for a total of 46 points.
The following season, Clarke's 27 goals and 36 assists helped Philadelphia to capture the number three slot in their division, but in the first round of the playoffs the Flyers were KO'd by the Chicago Black Hawks 4-0. Bobby himself felt that he'd made improvements in all the elements of his game during the second season. There was plenty of praise for the young center, but the question remained: How long could a diabetic keep on playing at the professional level? Gradually Bobby proved to all the skeptics that he was able to deal with his ailment. There were plenty of players out there with injuries that hadn't fully healed. Some with back injuries were compelled to wear a corset under their uniform. Others with knee injuries had to wear tight knee bandages before coming out on the ice. Clarke had diabetes and fought his illness by consuming sugar-laced juices.
By the third season, everyone had forgotten about Clarke's diabetes. Not only did Clarke chalk up the highest number of points in the club's history - 35 goals plus 46 assists for a total of 81 points - he became the uncontested leader of the team, and that at the age of 22. At the end of the season, he was awarded the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy for perseverance and dedication - a first for the Philadelphia team.
As a player, the former Philadelphia captain led his club to Stanley Cup championships in 1974 and 1975. He also captured numerous individual awards, including the Hart Trophy as the league's most valuable player in 1973, 1975 and 1976, and made the All-Star Team four times.