Suddenly the losing streak has given way to a mean streak that runs from the front office down to the dressing room and onto the ice. Now, these are the Flyers. Clarke wears a suit and tie and a full set of teeth these days, but he brings a familiar passion to the organization. A lot of fans and players see Clarke as a link to Philadelphia's glorious past, a reminder of what was once good and could be good again. Clarke himself gives the idea a disdainful shrug. Tough guys don't have time for nostalgia. If Detective Andy Sipowicz of NYPD Blue were a hockey guy, he would be Bob Clarke. "That was 20 years ago," Clarke says of the famed Bullies. "The game has changed."
Naturally, Clarke's not thrilled with all the attention Philly has received recently. A few hot weeks in the regular season are not about to impress a guy who played in 136 playoff games and won two Stanley Cups. "What have we done? You tell me. Have we done anything yet?" says Clarke in his office at the Flyer practice rink in Voorhees, N.J. "I don't know why all of a sudden everyone wants to make a big deal out of this. I mean, people are getting carried away."
Clarke became Philadelphia's general manager in 1984, after 15 years as a player, all with the Flyers. Under his guidance Philly won three Patrick Division championships in six seasons and went to the Cup finals twice, but team owner Ed Snider fired him in '90 after the Flyers went 30-39-11 and failed to qualify for the playoffs for the first time in 17 years. Clarke spent two seasons as general manager of the Minnesota North Stars and a season in the front office of the expansion Florida Panthers while the Flyers struggled to four more losing seasons. Clarke's Panthers finished ahead of the Flyers in the standings last season.
Clarke brings the same no-nonsense approach to Philly that he used in Florida. "Rebuilding is an excuse for losing," he says. "This is professional sports—you are paid to win, and the other guy is paid to beat you. In Florida we said we weren't going to be fodder for the rest of the league, and the players bought it."
Throughout Clarke's travels, there was always a feeling in Philadelphia that he was working his way back to Broad Street. When the Flyers won just twice in their final 10 games last season, dropping timidly out of playoff contention, a call went out to Florida. Do you think we could have our legend back? Snider agreed to give the Panthers a second-round draft pick, and Clarke came home.
"It's like apple pie and a glass of milk, or something like that," says Hartford Whaler coach Paul Holmgren, who played and roomed with Clarke in the 1970s and '80s. "Clarkie and the city of Philadelphia just belong together. The fans love him, and he loves them."
Many of his current players have a warm spot in their hearts for Clarke too. "The guy up there?" says Lindros, pointing toward Clarke's office. "He's the best. He helped me out even before he came back. You want to know why things are turning around for us? He's a big reason."
Lindros takes questions about the Flyers' recent success, and you swear you've heard these answers before. Lindros sounds a lot like another young, cocky first-line center and captain who once wore a Philadelphia uniform. He even gives you the same cynical shrug. "What the hell have we done? Nothing," says Lindros. "As far as I know, there isn't a parade tomorrow."
Lindros turned 22 in February, about six months after Clarke and new coach Terry Murray made him the youngest captain in the NHL, but he has seen plenty in his short time in the league. He came to Philadelphia in June 1992 in a celebrated trade. He had refused to play for the Quebec Nordiques, so the Flyers sent six players, two first-round draft picks and $15 million to the Nordiques in exchange for his rights. Lindros still gets booed in Quebec, but, then, as a bruiser and a high-profile player, he gets booed in a lot of places. "Been getting booed all my life," he says, smiling.
Lindros has virtually no weaknesses as a player, but his greatest asset may be his attitude. On the ice he is mischievous and mean, and he seems to enjoy putting an opposing player through the boards as much as scoring a goal.