Clarke certainly looked different from his fellow Flyers when he suited up for his rookie season. His glasses had been replaced by contact lenses and his buck-teeth had long since been claimed by the hockey tooth fairy. But the blond hair was as short-cropped as ever and his dimpled visage suggested that he should be playing third soprano for the Vienna Boys Choir. And instead of growling menacingly, he kept saying things like, "I've never seen a place as big as Philadelphia before. I can't believe it. It's like a dream. Imagine, me being on the ice with Howe and Hull and all those guys. I just can't believe it."
Neither could a stewardess on a team flight to St. Louis. Noticing a cut on Clarke's cheek and a blackened right eye, she asked, "Were you in an automobile accident?"
"No," he said, "I'm a professional hockey player."
"Oh," she said, "I thought you were only a teen-ager."
It was a tough rap to live down, but Clarke managed it by making the NHL West All-Star team and being voted the division's Rookie of the Year. That spring, shortly after returning to Flin Flon, Clarke was in an automobile accident. Though no one was injured, it had a profoundly sobering effect on him. Clarke admits he was playing the NHL hotshot. "I was driving along with three girls in my big new car with the big engine one night," he says. "We'd had a few drinks, and all of a sudden I hit the gravel on the side of the road, the car flipped and I found myself on the roof."
The very next day Pittsburgh's Michel Briere, whom Clarke had beaten out for Rookie of the Year honors, lost control of his car on a Quebec highway, was hurled through the windshield and, after several months in a coma, died. "It made me think about a lot of things in a different way," says Clarke.
As Clarke's locks lengthened over the next two years so, too, did the lines of maturity. At the outset of the 1972-73 season Shero made him, at age 23, the youngest team captain in NHL history. "I don't care if you're 18 or 50," Shero says, "if you've got leadership qualities, you've got 'em. And Clarke's got 'em."
"Aaw, naaw," says Clarke, "he just did it to shake up the club."
Dutifully shaken, the Flyers rattled and rolled to their first winning season and battled all the way to the second round of the playoffs before being eliminated by Montreal. For his part, Captain Clarke won his first MVP trophy and became only the ninth NHL player ever to top the 100-point mark in a single season. Did the Flyers' revitalization have anything to do with the new leadership? "Aaw, naaw," said Clarke, "it's just a coincidence."
There was nothing coincidental about the Flyers' new image. Increasingly the following season they began attracting the kind of notices usually reserved for The Ring magazine. In its coverage of one game The Philadelphia Bulletin reported, " Dave Schultz took over with a series of jolting right jabs that ripped solidly into Bouchard's bloodied face. The big Frenchman ducked his head trying to wrestle inside, but Schultz went underneath and began scoring with upper-cuts." And no main bout was complete, it seemed, without a few words from the champ. "I hit him about eight times right in the yap," was Schultz' recap of one game. "He was bleeding like a pig."