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No one seemed quite certain what was growing there in the Cradle of Liberty. Terry Crisp called it a juggernaut. The Bruins' forward, Terry O'Reilly, said it was the Roller Derby on ice. But whatever the label, there was no ignoring the two-fisted upstarts from Philadelphia. Indeed, while becoming only the third team in league history to win 50 or more games in a season, the 1973-74 Flyers also set attendance marks in five NHL cities.
So there they were on the threshold of their first Stanley Cup triumph and who could believe them? There was Mr. Fire, saying,' 'It's come down to a test of character." There was Mr. X, saying, "If we win the cup I'm going to return to law school. I think that the law properly exercised can save the world." There was the Hammer, saying, "I'll take on five or six guys at once if I have to." And there, most improbable of all, was Kate Smith, saying, "What could be better than being linked with something so wholesome as good clean sport?" Toss in Goalie Bernie ("Only Jesus saves more than Bernie") Parent, mix well with several thousand rabid fans, orchestrate to the strains of God Bless America sung by a 65-year-old Valkyrie and—crunch!—you have the Incredible Flying Machine.
More incredible still was that it was happening right there in Philadelphia, City of Losers and the butt of the national joke ("You're sure, General, it hasn't already been bombed?"). True, the town had its championship moments: the pennant won by the Whiz Kids in 1950, the Eagles' NFL title in 1960, the 76ers' NBA triumph in 1967 and the Atoms' North American soccer victory in 1973. But those were lonely hurrahs in a canyon of defeat, exceptions that proved that the city did not feel it had had anything to really cheer about since the Union army won at Gettysburg.
Or at least that was the popular notion fostered by everyone from W.C. Fields to the late Jimmy Cannon, who once wrote, " Philadelphia is an old wino sleeping it off in a doorway littered with busted dreams. Its teams are doomed to lose and its fans are cruel and crabbed."
And so it almost seemed when the Flyers opened at the Spectrum in 1967 with a scant 1,200 season tickets sold. The only roof they raised was their own—a windstorm tore away a section of the Spectrum ceiling, causing the building to be temporarily condemned and the Flyers to play their last month of "home" games in places like Quebec City, WHERE, OH WHERE ARE OUR WANDERING BOYS TONIGHT? wondered a headline in the Bulletin. They were at the top of their expansionist West Division in the end, but who could get excited about a bunch of absentees? Nobody.
There were other embarrassments, like the time the Flyers' inept play moved NHL President Clarence Campbell to berate the team publicly for lack of competitiveness (words he would live to rue). Or the night the St. Louis Blues' Red Berenson single-handedly scored six goals against the Philadelphians. Or the 80-foot goal by the Minnesota North Stars' Barry Gibbs that locked the Flyers out of the 1970 playoffs. Or the long shot by Buffalo's Gerry Meehan that eliminated them with only four seconds left in the 1971-72 season.
The Flyers, it seemed, belonged in the City of Losers. But then Clarke, who wept after that last-gasp disappointment in 1970, and Shero and Schultz and Parent and Kate and the gang started to come to the fore and with them a city-wide spirit of revival. And when the underdog expansionist Flyers finally won the Stanley Cup in 1974, the effusive words of the NHL president did not tell the half of it. Campbell, who earlier in the series had chastised the Flyers for their pugnaciousness, pronounced their victory "Probably the biggest event that ever happened in hockey."
To a degree unexpected by anyone, the Flyers' triumph touched off a night of wild revelry in Philadelphia the likes of which had not been seen since V-E day. Caravans of cars, with horns blaring, clogged the streets. Buses were overturned. Streakers were everywhere. There were bonfires, fireworks, mummers' bands and conga lines. At Clarke's home in New Jersey a crowd of 2,000 uprooted shrubbery and tore off souvenir shingles until restrained by police. The next day what was planned as a 45-minute victory parade turned into a five-hour orgy in which some two million people besieged the Flyers, in some cases caving in their convertibles, and forcing Clarke and other players to flee for their safety.
No one is quite sure why, but, like the Amazin' Mets of 1969, the Flyers' young, underdog, oft-maligned, come-from-no-where image seemed to strike a responsive chord in the hardest of hearts. Philadelphians, denied respect for so long, identified with the losers turned winners. They loved it when Clarke did not know how to open his bottle of victory champagne. And the boys in the South Philly bars nodded in knowing agreement when Shero said of the new champions,' 'These guys don't like champagne. They'd sooner drink beer. That should tell you something about this club."
"The Flyers have skated that loser image into the Delaware, and a lot of cruelness and crabbiness has sunk along with it," said an editorial in the Bulletin. "They've given a tremendous lift to civic morale. They've provided an example, an incentive to excel in all our endeavors." The Philadelphia Inquirer added, "Perhaps, and this may be a daring thought to some, it is Philadelphia and its people who are striving mightily to become No. 1."