The Philadelphia Flyers wiped out a couple of their many worries last week. The first was that the Flyers no longer liked to hit anybody. That one was put to rest by rugged Right Wing Gary Dornhoefer, a charter member of the Broad Street Bullies, at the Flyer Fan Club's annual appreciation dinner, an event attended by players, wives and 350 ardent rooters at a restaurant in suburban Cherry Hill, N.J. The high point of the evening came when Dornhoefer stepped forward and called everybody's attention to the upcoming 50th birthday of the fan club's president, a gent in a green leisure suit named Lou Damia. Then Dornhoefer wickedly threw a cake in Lou's face. Well, a hit's a hit, right?
Meanwhile, a more pressing concern—the Flyers' leadership crisis—was eased by the return to action of Captain Bobby Clarke, who had sat out three weeks with a double fracture of the left thumb. It was the longest layoff in Clarke's nine-year NHL career. During his nine-game absence the Flyers won four, lost four and tied one, perpetuating a two-month-long slump in which they had dropped to second place in the Patrick Division behind the New York Islanders and to fifth in the NHL's overall standings. Just when it looked as though Clarke would never return to rescue the floundering Flyers, there he was—elbows up, stick up, dander up—flashing across the Spectrum ice and discounting suggestions that the Broad Street Bullies had degenerated into just another hockey team.
"We're not finished yet," Clarke vowed. "Our goal is to win the Stanley Cup again, and I honestly think we can do it."
To fulfill that objective, however, the Flyers must reverse the gradual slide they have been in since winning their second straight cup in 1975. They were the big bad Flyers in those not-so-distant days, but some of the sting has plainly gone out of them. They reached the Stanley Cup finals in 1976 but were routed in four games by the Montreal Canadiens. Last year they made it only to the semifinals before losing—again in four straight—to Boston. This season the Flyers got off to the best start in the NHL and boasted a 21-4-4 record in mid-December. Then came the tailspin.
The Flyers have won only 17 of their last 37 games, and their record is a merely respectable 39-17-11. Worse still, the team that once led the Islanders by seven points now trails them by seven. Particularly worrisome, too, is Philadelphia's season-long futility against the NHL's best—Montreal, Boston, Buffalo, the Islanders and Toronto. Until they beat the Bruins 6-2 Saturday afternoon at the Spectrum, the Flyers had won just one of their 16 games against those five rivals—a 6-4 home-ice victory over the Bruins back on Dec. 15.
The Flyers' skid has raised alarums in Philadelphia. The team still routinely sells all 17,077 seats at the Spectrum, but its sometimes desultory play has brought out the boo birds and inspired signs like one that appeared last week: WE'RE REALLY BULLIES NOW—WE ONLY BEAT THE LITTLE TEAMS. At the same time, the Flyer front office has noticed a decline in hate mail from other cities, indicating that the club no longer makes rivals' blood boil. Meanwhile, Philadelphia's four papers dutifully probe the burning issue of the day: What's wrong with the Flyers?
One answer is that they are victims of their own success. In winning back-to-back Stanley Cups, the Flyers got spectacular goaltending from Bernie Parent and Pattonesque leadership from Clarke but were otherwise a modestly talented crew kept in trim by Coach Fred Shero. Shero had the Flyers hustling, hitting and adhering to his disciplined "system," the unfortunate term for a grind-'em-down style in which free-lancing was out, executing assignments was in. Today, aping the Flyers, other teams grind 'em down, too, and everybody, of course, has a system. All of which the ofttimes cryptic Shero noted the other day in his tiny Spectrum office, where he had been poking through a tome called Handbook to Higher Consciousness.
"It's not that there's anything wrong with the Flyers," Shero insisted. "It's just that the rest of the league is better. When we won the Stanley Cup we weren't supposed to, but we surprised people by being better conditioned. Now everybody's well conditioned. Now you have to work like hell even to beat a team like Washington."
Yet, as Shero knew too well, something was wrong with the Flyers. Bob (The Hound) Kelly, one of the hard-hitting heroes of the Broad Street Bullies, had lost his attraction for the corners. Bob Dailey, the 6'6" defenseman whose searing shot had terrorized the league earlier in the season (SI, Jan. 9), had gone cold. The goaltending of Parent and Wayne Stephenson was not always reliable. And there were the continuing struggles of Rick MacLeish and Reggie Leach. MacLeish led the team last season with 49 goals, but only a recent revival has raised the swift center's season total to 29. Leach, whose 61 goals two years ago are the most ever scored by an NHL rightwinger, has but 22 this season, and Shero has kept him on the bench in many games.
Surveying these many woes, General Manager Keith Allen was openly questioning whether the Flyers had lost some of their old desire. "Most of our guys have tasted success, and it's only human nature that they'd be less hungry today," he said. Hoping to shake things up, Allen has been busy phoning in an effort to make a major deal before this week's trading deadline. The resulting trade rumors have sent chill winds through the Flyer locker room. "Things have been tense in here," admits Dailey, who was rumored to be heading everywhere from Los Angeles to Cleveland. "All the talk about trades has been hurting morale."