SI Vault
Mark Mulvoy
October 22, 1973
Can a boy from a small mining town in Canada find happiness in the NHL? You bet he can, if his name is Bobby Clarke, his bankroll is gorgeous and he enjoys an undiplomatic immunity from harassment
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October 22, 1973

The Flyer From Flin Flon

Can a boy from a small mining town in Canada find happiness in the NHL? You bet he can, if his name is Bobby Clarke, his bankroll is gorgeous and he enjoys an undiplomatic immunity from harassment

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So you want your son to be a doctor or a lawyer or a wheat farmer. Forget it. Go buy him a pair of ice skates, a curved stick, some protective equipment and send him to Flin Flon to be a hockey player. As a new season gets under way the average salary for players in the National Hockey League is $55,000 and climbing, and a 45 year old man named Gordie Howe skates out the front door of the Hall of Fame to play in the World Hockey Association for $150,000. When will the money madness end? Never, perhaps. The NHL rinks are filled every night, except in California, and the WHA needs NHL players at fancy fees to sell its product. A Ken Dryden can leave his $130,000 job in the Montreal goal to take a $7,000 position as a law clerk because he knows that next season, when both leagues expand, he can command $250,000 for stopping flying pucks. The Boston Bruins desperately want to give Bobby Orr $2 million before some WHA team offers him more. Bobby Clarke, the young man at right, recently had the pleasant task of deciding how and when he wanted to receive a million bucks. Which is a sum a modern hockey player can get his teeth into—after adjusting his dentures, of course.

For years fans of the expansion West of the National Hockey League have wanted a star. Now that he has arrived, they find it difficult to get him into proper focus, because this paragon is not only relatively small in stature, a diabetic and weak of eye without his contact lenses, he looks like too nice a guy to be a party to hockey's inevitable violence.

Ignore the innocence of his angelic face and his all-I-want-for-Christmas smile. To place Bobby Clarke in proper perspective, he must be viewed in several cities. Moscow, for one. There was Team Canada staring at disaster, down two games to the Russians with only three to play. As the action swept up ice, Clarke happened to be trailing the Soviet star, Valeri Kharlamov. "It suddenly hit me that Kharlamov was the guy who was killing us while I was only holding my own," Clarke recalls. "I realized immediately that someone had to do something about him." In the heat of that realization Clarke swung his stick and connected with Kharlamov's ankles. The consequence was considerably more damaging than the mere discipline and shaking up Clarke had had in mind. The Russian was out for the rest of that game and all of the next one. Clarke drew a two-minute penalty for slashing. The NHL All-Stars rallied to win the last three games—and the series. "It's not something I was really proud of," Clarke says softly, "but I honestly can't say I was ashamed to do it."

Now move to Philadelphia. Bobby Clarke is not booed in Philadelphia, which is a distinction in itself. "You've got to like this kid," says a beer drinker at Rexy's. "He's the first classy athlete we've had around here since Norm Van Brocklin retired." As captain of the Broad Street Bullies, also known as the Philadelphia Flyers, Clarke centers the first line, directs the power play, kills penalties and moderates the nightly disputes between the Bullies and their adversaries. Although he tries to maintain a low fighting profile in front of his home crowd, Clarke is adept at squirting gasoline on incipient fires. One night Keith Magnuson of Chicago smashed the unsuspecting Clarke into the boards.

" Clarke, you're sick," Magnuson snarled.

"I can't help that, you dummy," Clarke replied, "but you're stupid, Maggy, and you can do something about that. Now buzz off—or else I'll send Schultzie after you." Schultzie is Winger Dave Schultz. He is large and menacing. He has a winger pal named Hound Dog Kelly. Hound Dog can bite. Clarke enjoys a sort of undiplomatic immunity, because if unfriendly people like Magnuson press their attentions on Clarke, one of the bullyboys comes calling. "Guys stay away from me because they know Schultzie or Hound or someone will beat them up," Clarke says candidly. Or as Schultz, the NHL's reigning heavyweight champion, explains, "We've got to protect our leader at all times."

Finally, see Clarke in Flin Flon, Manitoba. "I'm pretty reserved when I'm with strangers," Clarke says on the long, winding drive from the airport to the Flin Flon Hotel, "but I swear, drink beer and drive too fast when I'm with my own kind." Clarke is in Flin Flon for a brief August visit with his own people in his hometown so that they may honor him—the NHL's Most Valuable Player—with a Bobby Clarke Day. Upstairs in the hotel, huddled around three cases of cold Molson's beer, two dozen men ranging in age from 20 to 60 wait patiently for Clarke to finish signing autographs in the lobby and join them for a bull session.

"We told Bobby when he was here on vacation in June that we wanted to have a big testimonial dinner for him at the end of the summer," says Pat Ginnell, the coach of the Flin Flon Bombers, the town's junior hockey team. "But he told us he wouldn't hear of such a thing. He got mad, in fact, and said we didn't owe him anything, that he owed us everything. We argued about it for a few days. Finally Bobby suggested that we hold a benefit game instead, with all the money directed to youth hockey in Flin Flon. That's the only reason he's here now."

Over in a corner of the room Jim Bryson, a former Bomber trainer who for years was the undisputed boxing champion of all the caf�s within a goodly radius of Flin Flon, nods his head. "Modest, that's what he is," Bryson says. "He comes home every summer and doesn't bring any airs with him. You see him in the pub buying a round of beer when his turn comes, and you see him sitting high in a corner down at the rink, with a bag of popcorn in each hand and about 50 kids surrounding him. When he played for the Bombers, Bobby was the calming influence on all the hotheads. They'd always want to run into the Northern Caf�, drink a few beers and get into a fight, but he never let them. The trouble is, they don't make kids like Clarkie anymore."

Clarke appears a little later, resplendent in his Flin Flon summer outfit—Levi's, a golf shirt and a pair of clogs—and Bryson immediately offers him a Molson's. "OF Jim Bryson," Clarke says, pumping the man's right hand. "He had 101 fights and won all but the 101st. Tell us about them, will you?" Bryson grins appreciatively. "Sure," he says, "it'll only take about a minute."

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