In Search of... Hockeytown U.S.A. (cont.)
Posted: Tuesday December 4, 2007 10:54AM; Updated: Tuesday December 4, 2007 10:54AM
So while the Wings' Hockeytown tradition is running on fumes, you have to hit the road to find the new Hockeytown, starting with....
Philadelphia Flyers enforcer Riley Cote and New York Rangers ruffian Colton Orr are throwing haymakers, a first-period fight so entrancing that the linesmen simply watch for 40 seconds as the sell-out crowd of 19,571 in the Wachovia Center on Nov. 15 roars its approbation. In Philadelphia this is mother's milk. The only thing better than hard-nosed hockey is broken-nosed hockey, the legacy of the Broad Street Bullies, who married skill with intimidation to win the Stanley Cup in 1974 and '75.
In modern NHL history, no Cups have ever Krazy-Glued a team to a town quite like those two. When then coach Fred Shero memorably said in the spring of 1974 that the Flyers would walk together forever if they won that first Cup, he neglected to mention that the city would be in lockstep with them. Although vitriol is supposedly the lifeblood of the Philadelphia sports fan, there is precious little directed at the Flyers, who have not won a Cup in 32 years and who last reached the final a decade ago. "Talk show hosts in this city criticize fans for not getting down on the Flyers the way they do on the Phillies, Eagles and Sixers," Flyers president Peter Luukko says. "I think that's because our fans feel they have ownership in the team."
Certainly they buy just as they buy-in. The Flyers are third in the league in attendance but claim to be first in what NHL people call "per caps" -- merchandise revenue divided by tickets sold. (When Philadelphia signed prized free agent center Daniel Brière, his number 48 jersey shot to the top of NHL merchandise sales in August.) The seats near the glass in Philly have always been crammed with fans in orange and now black jerseys, leaving the impression that opponents aren't playing against 20 Flyers but 200. Says goalie Martin Biron, traded from the Buffalo Sabres to Philadelphia last spring, "This always has been the most intimidating building in the league."
If the postlockout rule changes have eroded any of the sport's soul in a city that loves its hockey chaotic -- "The game's become so sanitized it's hard to get that primal scream for it anymore," says Al Morganti, who does a Flyers postgame show on TV -- raw numbers don't reflect it. During a seven-day period in mid-November the Flyers and their minor league affiliate, the Phantoms, who play across the parking lot in the Spectrum (and are sixth in AHL attendance despite the NHL team's presence), each had three home games. Combined attendance: 78,046. "People don't come here to see the Ducks because they won the Stanley Cup," Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren says. "They come because the Ducks are playing the Flyers. It's always been like that." Indeed. Despite missing the playoffs five straight seasons in the early 1990s, the feckless Flyers sold out 94 of 202 home games in that stretch. And although the Flyers were the worst team in the NHL last season, they still played to 98.7% of capacity at the Wachovia Center.
Bob Clarke, the Flyers' senior vice president, stands up for his team's honor now almost as aggressively as he did as the star of the Broad Street Bullies. "When Detroit was bad [in the 1980s], the Red Wings couldn't put 3,000 in their building and they were giving away cars," he says. "Buffalo had to file for bankruptcy. St. Paul looks like a huge success [now], but Minneapolis was awful when the North Stars were there. [Clarke was the North Stars G.M. when the team reached the Cup final in 1991.] This is pro Hockeytown."