"The Fog is everywhere," says Clarke. "Turn a corner and he's there. Go into a bar down an alley and he's there, he's everywhere. And never ever will he say hello to you. What can you say about Freddie? We went from nothing to the Stanley Cup once we got him. If we lose he never comes in and gives us hell. He treats us like men. We love Freddie."
And the City of Brotherly Love loves Robert Earle Clarke. It must, for why else would it adopt as its favorite son an alien who lives in New Jersey and hails from a place called Flin Flon? That's Flin Flon, Manitoba, which can be reached by hanging a right at Winnipeg and proceeding 500 miles northwest to the first rocky mass spilling over the Saskatchewan border.
Named after Josiah Flintabbatey Flonatin, a prospector in a dime adventure novel, Flin Flon is a subarctic redoubt where most of the 12,000 inhabitants work for the Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting Co., including Clarke's father, who is a drilling inspector. Scratching around for copper and zinc 5,000 feet below ground was not Bobby's idea of a fun job. "In Flin Flon you either play hockey or you work in the mines," he says. "There's no way I wanted to work in those mines."
So, often braving numbing temperatures of 30 and 40 degrees below zero, he played hockey, hockey, hockey. His mother recalls, "Bobby learned to skate on an open-air rink and he lived there morning, noon and night. Of course, that still wasn't enough hockey for him, so we had another rink out in the garden. Many's the time he'd shoot the puck off the side of the house—and a few times through the window."
Clarke learned that he was diabetic when he was 15. To determine if his hockey career would have to be curtailed, his father took him to Winnipeg for further checkups. But Bobby had already decided to play hockey whatever the doctors said. "He'd never seen the bright lights of the big city before," his father recalls. "It was just before Christmas and I said we'd take him downtown to see all the lights. But he already had his skates on. He was going for a skate on some rink on the outskirts of town."
Pat Ginnell, former coach of the Flin Flon Bombers, first saw Clarke in 1966. "He was wearing glasses, had buckteeth and looked kind of thin on the ice," says Ginnell. "But once he started moving, there was no doubt in my mind that this was going to be one of the best kids I ever coached."
Quitting school at 17, Clarke joined Ginnell's Bombers and for the next two seasons led the Western Canadian Junior League in scoring. Ginnell recalls, "Bobby's leadership qualities really came forward his last season at Flin Flon, even in practice. One day a bunch of the guys were goofing off during a scrimmage and that got Bobby good and mad. I want to play hockey for a living and you guys are hurting me and the team. Shape up!' he said. By setting an example Bobby made sure everyone fell into line."
By 1969, when he became eligible for the NHL draft, Clarke was considered the best junior in Western Canada. Nonetheless, though he was armed with a Mayo Clinic report confirming that he was capable of competing, his reputation as "that diabetic centerman" had preceded him. Most NHL teams rejected Clarke without bothering to check his medical records, leaving him, to their undying regret, to be snatched away by the Flyers as the No. 17 pick. Though he felt snubbed at the time, Clarke now says, "If nobody drafted me, I would have sneaked out and played pick-up games. It didn't make any difference."
The Flyers had reason to doubt the Mayo Clinic when Clarke, reporting for his first practice at the team's training camp, fainted on the ice. "They thought he was drunk," a Flyer says, "and they were about to throw him out until somebody explained that, it was the diabetes thing. So they called an ambulance."
Diagnosed as a failure to eat breakfast—a must for a diabetic—the collapse caused the Flyers to keep an attentive eye on Clarke's daily regimen ever since. He is supplied with scheduled doses of sweetened Cokes and orange juice at each game and his weight is checked almost daily to make certain that it stays within the acceptable range of 178 to 183 pounds. "There's no problem," insists Clarke, who cites the success of other diabetic athletes such as Billy Talbert and Ron Santo. "I have to do some things, other players have to do other things. Some play with bad backs or knees. Some play with plates in their skulls. I don't feel unusual in any way."