As St. Louisans looked over the sports pages last week they could note with satisfaction that the Blues were in their accustomed place in the West—on top and threatening to pull away. They could also see that the rest of the division was engaged in a cutthroat fight for the remaining three playoff spots. Nowhere were the blades sharper or the fans louder than in Philadelphia, where a Huck Finn of a rookie named Bobby Clarke was pumping some excitement into the heretofore colorless Flyers. The fact that Clarke is a diabetic made him all the more precious to the Philadelphia fans, who believe he can win Rookie of the Year honors anyway.
In their first two years the Flyers had not done badly in the standings, finishing first and third, but they played pretty dull hockey. During the summer, Coach Keith Allen was eased into the front office and fiery Vic Stasiuk took over. A former member of Boston's famed "Uke" Line—and of five championship teams in Detroit—Stasiuk wanted more hitting from the Flyers. At the June meetings in Montreal he picked up the rugged Hillman brothers, Wayne and Larry, and New York's pesky Reg Fleming
Above all, though, the Flyers needed some scoring punch. Even so, in the amateur draft they caused acute surprise by taking 20-year-old Bobby Clarke on the second round. It was not that hockey people doubted Clarke's potential; indeed, his poise, hustle and 52 goals at Flin Flon in an amateur league had reminded more than one scout of Norm Ullman, the Toronto stalwart. What bothered them was the diabetes.
"It was a gamble," said Bill Putnam, the Flyers' president. "We discussed the boy for days. But we felt he was the best young player in Canada, and when our doctors assured us that—under a watchful eye—he could stand up to the grind, we grabbed him. Actually, we wanted him so bad we'd have taken him on the first round if we had to."
Clarke went to camp and, teaming with Fleming and another promising rookie, Lew Morrison, up from the Quebec Aces, left the Flyers with no choice but to keep him. "From the start, they were our best line," Stasiuk said. "Bobby passed out twice in training camp," Frank Lewis, the club's trainer, recalled. "But both attacks followed morning workouts when he had skipped breakfast. If there's one thing an athlete needs, diabetic or not, it's a good, solid breakfast. But Bobby knows now that we've got to be frank with each other. I'm not out to make a big project out of it when he needs something, but we both know we've got to work together on this thing."
The fact that diabetics can be highly susceptible to infection doesn't appear to bother Clarke at all. "I've been carved up all over the face," he says. "Once I needed 15 stitches around my eye, but I was back the next game." Working spectacularly with Morrison, Clarke has become a favorite for the rookie award.
When 13,081 turned out last week to see Clarke, Morrison, Goalie Bernie Parent and the rest of the Flyers lose a tough 4-1 game to Montreal, they lifted the club above a 12,000 average for the first time in its brief history. Philadelphia had shown steady progress at the gate—averaging 9,625 fans a game the first year and 11,275 the second—and this may be the year the franchise becomes every bit as hot as St Louis and Minnesota. The team is plugged liberally on television and radio, and three, four, sometimes even five hockey stories appear in a single newspaper. On the day of the Montreal game, the tabloid Daily News ripped the headline KIDNAPPERS GET RANSOM, KILL BOY off the front page of a late edition in favor of a hockey picture, score sheet and banner head billing FLYERS vs. MONTREAL. The Blue Line Club, a dining room and bar in the Spectrum, is jammed before and after games, and reservations for dinner must be made two weeks in advance. Bill Putnam, an ex-banker who saw his first hockey game in Fort Worth, Texas in 1946, is one of the few who are not surprised at how the Flyers have caught on; in fact, he predicted it.
" Philadelphia's a good sports town, and it always has been," Putnam said as he sipped a highball after the Montreal game. "The first thing people want to do is knock the town, which is O.K. But they can't knock it as a sports town. When I looked around and saw cities like Detroit and Boston and Chicago playing to 96% of capacity with hockey, there was no doubt in my mind that we could make it go here, where we can draw on almost five million people. At $2 million, the franchise price was right, too." Keith Allen, now assistant general manager, agreed. "They're just starved for a winner. The Eagles are sold out, and wait until you see the Phillies in their new stadium. You give Philly a winner and you won't find an empty seat in this place."
The Spectrum is an unlovely building with unpainted cement trim along the balconies, orange seats and red and white 76er pennants hanging from the roof—which the wind blew off two years ago. Yet the sight lines are superb, and what the building lacks in beauty it has in hockey feel. "It's alive," said Larry Hillman, who played in Montreal last year. " St. Louis and Minnesota's arenas are, too. You skate onto the ice before a big crowd here and you want to play. That's not always true in places like L.A. and Pittsburgh; those buildings are too quiet.
"The city isn't pretty," he continued, "but from what I've seen the organization is really topflight. In a way it reminds me of the Canadiens. They've got some good bright men in the front office."