At Shawinigan, Shero also learned Rule No. 1 for coaching success: always carry a beer can opener. "The sign of the minor-leaguer is a beer can," he said. "We'd get on a bus after a game, reach for the beer and then cut ourselves to pieces trying to open the cans. I still carry an opener with me because you never know when you'll get one of the old-fashioned cans instead of a flip-top."
One afternoon Shero was walking around Shawinigan and stopped in a drugstore to buy razor blades. When the attractive teen-age salesgirl asked Shero what he wanted, he said, "I love you. We're going to get married." About three months later they did, and if you believe Shero—a master of the semantic shuffle, remember—he hasn't told Mariette "I love you" since. "She knows I love her," he says. "I know women like to hear it, but I feel like I'm giving her a lot of doubletalk when I say it."
Shero became a disciple of the Russian school of hockey while coaching at St. Paul in the mid-1960s. "Anatoli Tarasov's book became my bible," he says. "I've read it at least 100 times. Even now I still don't know all there is to coaching. I'm still learning, which is why I went to Russia for a coaching clinic last summer. At least I realize I don't know everything. Trouble is, most coaches don't know—and certainly won't admit—that they don't know everything about coaching. We have all these meetings here in the NHL, and all the coaches are at them, but we never meet in the same room at the same time. What we ought to have are coaches' seminars where we can exchange ideas and discuss methods." He shrugs his shoulders. "I guess enough people aren't interested."
Once Shero, a onetime defenseman, began to read and grasp Tarasov, he gradually altered the style of his minor league teams, converting them from ad-lib shooting clubs into fine-honed units that followed a definite "system" at all times. "When I came to Philadelphia in 1971," Shero says, "I forgot about my system because I had too much respect for big-league players. After all, I hadn't been in the NHL for about 20 years, and even then I only played for less than three years." Shero's first team in Philadelphia missed the playoffs in the final four seconds of the regular schedule. "I could think of a million excuses," he says, "but late in the summer I realized these were the same type of men I had coached in the minors and that I should coach them the same way."
Technically speaking, the Philadelphia system is simple, and in truth varies from versions adopted by the New York Islanders and the Los Angeles Kings only in that the Flyers have Parent and Clarke. "There are four corners in a rink," Shero says, "although a lot of players don't realize it, and there are two pits, one in front of each net. To win a game, you've got to win the corners and the pits. You give punishment there, and you take it, which is why we have more fights than most teams. Once we are on the move with the puck, no defenseman can be more than one zone—or two stick-lengths—behind the puck carrier. In other words, once Clarke gets to center ice, I want Ed Van Impe, say, at the blue line. When Clarke reaches the far blue line, I want Van Impe at the red line. Once Clarke is 10 feet inside the zone, Van Impe must be stationed at the point."
The second aspect of the system is partly a product of Shero's mind—the idea of short shifts for his players—and partly the unit system of five-player substitutions that Tarasov perfected in Russia. "I want my players to skate like hell and then get off the ice," Shero says. "If they're on for even a minute, that can be too long." At practices, Shero spends the first 45 minutes working on moving the puck out of his team's defensive zone. Once he is satisfied he allocates only about 20 minutes to plays in the offensive end. His workouts are devoid of routine, and Shero occasionally cancels hockey practice completely and conducts a badminton tournament instead.
"Man for man, I don't think we are among the top five teams in the NHL," he says. "Collectively, I think—I know—we are the best. Why? Because we execute the system." Philadelphia's success with the system style of hockey, along with the emergence of the Islanders and the Kings as winning teams, is prompting some of hockey's old-line thinkers to reevaluate their game plans. Montreal's Scotty Bowman intends to install systemized hockey next year at the expense of the Canadiens' speed skating and shoot-shoot-shoot tradition. The Boston Bruins, who generally play both Orr and Phil Esposito a minimum of 40 minutes per game, have been so impressed with Philadelphia's success that they ordered Esposito to interrupt a Florida vacation and make a trip to the Spectrum to scout the way Clarke and the other Flyer centers work. "That's how Phil's going to play—about 80 seconds per shift, not three minutes," says Boston Managing Director Harry Sinden.
Shero reflected on his system one day last week. "It destroys me when I see someone like Orr having the puck all night," he said. "I ask, 'Is this a team game? Or is this golf or tennis?' Orr is a great player, sure, but you've got to get players to use their talents for the good of everyone. You've got to get them to fit into a pattern. Of course, some teams don't have a pattern, but that's their fault."
Quite obviously, if one stays around Shero long enough for the fog to burn off, his course becomes clear.