Broad Street Bullies captures a team and city in black and blue
HBO's hour-long film traces the infamous Flyers' formative decade
The team changed hockey with its adoption of intimidation as a tactic
Success-starved Philadelphia has a fetish for athletes who sweat and bleed
With the Stanley Cup Final between the Philadelphia Flyers and the Chicago Blackhawks to begin this weekend, HBO has added more playdates for its hour-long documentary Broad Street Bullies, a look at the legendary Flyers' Stanley Cup championship teams of the 1970s. Dates include Tuesday May 25 (8:00 p.m.), Thursday. May 27 (7:00 p.m.), Saturday May 29 (11:00 a.m.) and Tuesday June 1 (7:00 p.m.). All times are ET.
In 1966, a 20-year-old student named David Lynch began experimenting with film at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Within the next several years, he wrote and directed Eraserhead, a trip of surrealist cinema that takes place in a desolate, post-industrial wasteland of ominous clangs and hisses and palpable, inescapable dread.
When asked years later to explain the inspiration behind his grotesque masterpiece, Lynch called it "my Philadelphia story."
That Philadelphia is the backdrop for Broad Street Bullies, the documentary about the Flyers' back-to-back Stanley Cup championship teams of 1974 and '75 that premieres Tuesday night on HBO (10 p.m. ET).
Before Rocky romanticized the rough-and-tumble Philly of the '70s, it was just another decaying city with all the symptoms of a national industrial collapse. The population waned and crime rose as factories and other major businesses skipped town or shut down. The rising ethnic tensions of the turbulent '60s sparked race riots in once-affluent neighborhoods. The provincial burg, once best-known as the cradle of liberty, became a symbol of economic downturn and urban blight. The film glosses over such grim details, casting Philly simply (or simplistically) as a "hardscrabble, beer-and-a-hoagie kind of town," but it doesn't compromise the big picture:
Before the Flyers' first title-winning season in 1974, sports offered little escape for the locals. The Phillies had churned a mind-numbing 91 years without a World Series title. The Sixers had traded hometown legend Wilt Chamberlain, sliding from NBA champs to the league's all-time worst team almost overnight. The Eagles did manage to win the NFL championship recently enough (1960) for most to remember, but the team went 63-110-9 in the decade-and-a-half after. Onto this stage -- a city starved for any form of success -- the Flyers strutted in 1967.
The hour-long film presents the history of the team's formative decade, from its inception through the 1976 Stanley Cup finals. The linear account is interspersed with portraits of the principles -- rugged enforcer Dave "The Hammer" Schultz, superhuman goaltender Bernie Parent and magnetic team captain Bobby Clarke -- as well as present-day interviews that place the team within the context of the times. Like most entries in HBO's "Sports in the 20th Century" documentary series, Broad Street Bullies is a general survey with high production values that doesn't stray outside the lines. Producer George Roy uses a clever mix of interviews and archival footage, while Liev Schreiber lends a sense of gravitas to the storytelling.
According to the film, the origin of the Flyers' raw-knuckled, lunch-bucket identity can be traced to back-to-back playoff losses to the St. Louis Blues in 1968 and '69. "We realized that we would have to become tougher, stronger and bigger," recalls Ed Snider, the one-time record company president who brought hockey to Philadelphia. "We decided that no team would ever intimidate us ever again, and we conducted our drafts and we conducted our philosophy in that direction."
That opened the door for working-class heroes like Schultz, Bob "Hound" Kelly, Don "Big Bird" Saleski and Andre "Moose" Dupont, a physical quartet that racked up penalty minutes like video-game scores. It was Schultz in particular, the mustachioed alpha dog who set records for fights and hours in the box, whose goonish ways proved most contagious.
Bullies also does its best to penetrate Fred "The Fog" Shero, the enigmatic coach who communicated with notes in players' lockers or cryptic fortune-cookie wisdom scripted in perfect cursive on the blackboard. (Samplings: "To avoid criticism: Say nothing, do nothing, be nothing" or "The person who has it made is only one step from being a has-been.") Shero also famously instructed his players to "take the shortest route to the puck-carrier and arrive in ill humor."
The Flyers employment of intimidation as a tactic changed hockey. As former Sports Illustrated managing editor and hockey writer Mark Mulvoy recalls, "It was all part of the strategy: 'We're just going to go out and annihilate people, and by annihilating them, we're going to render them ineffective, and that's how we're going to win.' And it worked."
The success of the Broad Street Bullies kicked off an arms race around the NHL, as teams sought brawny, less skilled players capable of going up against Philly's enforcers. At the time, there were no rules against instigating, third man in, or bench clearing. Former referee Bryan Lewis compares the floppy rule book to today's textbook-thick counterpart, suggesting the Flyers played no small part in the league's rule changes.
They were ahead of time in more ways than one. Says center Bill Clement: "We were just ultimate fighters without the cage around us."
The Flyers' violence is celebrated through evocative language and graphic images. The team was derided as "animals on skates" and despised everywhere outside Philly. Clarke, the "ruthless, toothless rink rat" and three-time NHL Most Valuable Player, says they got death threats. "In any great drama, you need heroes and villains," Schreiber narrates. "The Flyers were both." But the film disproves the notion that this was a one-dimensional team of thugs -- emphasizing the necessity of skill players like Clarke, Reggie Leach and Bill Barber. The idiosyncrasies and fashions of the age also get a worthy showcase. (Confesses backup goaltender Bobby Taylor, "We all looked like porn stars.")
The worm's-eye view from local sports personalities like radio host Anthony Gargano lends invaluable street cred to the production. Even Howard Eskin, one of Philly's more insufferable media types, provides telling insight into the intimate connection forged between the Flyers and their fans -- a bond that kept the team among league's top five in attendance through work stoppages and waning league-wide popularity in subsequent decades.
Most of the plotlines are familiar to Philadelphia sports fans -- from Schultz's eccentric personality to the team's unlikely kinship with Kate Smith, the forgotten '40s singer whose recording of "God Bless America" became a talisman for the nascent franchise. (The Flyers were 35-3-1 when Smith's recording was played before their home games; and her live performance of the song before the Stanley Cup clincher against the heavily favored Bruins in 1974 remains among the most stirring moments in the Philly sports folklore.) But the documentary also leaves screen time for lesser known arcana, like when the Spectrum roof literally blew off during the team's inaugural campaign, and the infamous Fog Game in Buffalo during the '75 finals.
Philadelphia gunned for a third straight title in 1976 and Roy casts that year's Stanley Cup finals against the Montreal Canadiens as a sort of battle for hockey's soul -- a stylistic clash between the sacred and the profane. (With Parent and Rick MacLeish sidelined, the Habs won in four.)
The Flyers' run caused hockey's popularity to explode within city limits and the team remained one of the league's biggest draws on the road for years to come, leading the NHL to turn a blind eye to the extracurriculars. But the negative aftereffects of that benign neglect, while hinted at, go largely unexplored. "They brawled their way to the Cup," longtime Toronto Star hockey writer Frank Orr recalls. "To the purists, they represented everything evil about the game. They were a disgrace."
Bullies is presented as a feel-good story. And there's nothing wrong with that. The grainy images of two million Philadelphians celebrating a Stanley Cup title -- men and women, white and black, from all classes, backgrounds and generations -- don't require an overwrought voice-over to underscore the power of sports to bring people together across social divides, and we're smartly spared one.
Philadelphia fans are awfully particular about their sports heroes. It's always been a town where the exertion of effort matters most, where figures like Eric Lindros, Ricky Watters and Chris Webber are vilified as wasted talents, while Aaron Rowand gets a lifetime pass for running into a wall to catch a baseball. Broad Street Bullies effectively captures the city's fetish for "guys who sweat and bleed" and explains just why those Flyers personified the city so well.