It's noon of game day at the Spectrum, and hoo boy, is Keith Allen ever upset. Here his Philadelphia Flyers are off to the best start in the NHL, and what does the man across his desk want to discuss? The wondrous goaltending of Pete Peeters? The shrewd drafting of General Manager Allen and his staff? The effect of a Reagan Presidency on the Flyers' power play? No, the visitor wants to talk about the spearing, slashing, high-sticking and fighting incidents that follow the Flyers across the length and breadth of the NHL schedule like a very bad cold. He wants to talk about Paul Holmgren, Behn Wilson and Mel Bridgman—three of the most notorious hitmen and intimidators in hockey, players who have restored the name "Bullies" to the team from Broad Street. He wants to talk about the Flyers' style—the premeditated mayhem that distinguishes their approach from that of the other 20 teams in the league. He wants to talk about violence, Philadelphia style.
"I don't want to get up on a soapbox," Allen says, "but there's more violence in one football game than there is in an entire hockey season, and nobody ever talks about that. It's always hockey." He pauses briefly. "And in hockey the Flyers are always the whipping boys. We're the ones that always get it. I just wish someone would tell me why."
Got a few hours? Check out pages 120 to 123 of this year's NHL Guide, in which the league lists nine categories of penalty records, and guess what? The Flyers have a piece of them all, including most penalty minutes for a season, game and period. Beyond that, the Flyers have led the NHL in penalty minutes nine straight seasons. Through 16 games this season, Philadelphia led the NHL in penalty minutes with 509, an average of 31.2 minutes per game, as well as in five-minute majors with 22. So it's there in black and white and red, as in blood, all over.
Last Thursday night the Flyers and the Los Angeles Kings engaged in one of the tamest matches of the NHL season: the teams were assessed just seven minor penalties by referee Wally Harris, the Kings receiving four en route to an 8-2 defeat. Still, there was the inevitable incident. Late in the first period, L.A.'s Billy Harris was standing by the boards, without the puck, out of the play. In other words, he was an inviting target. Bridgman, the Flyers' captain and a renowned cheap-shot artist, skated by, did a two-hand stick press to Harris' face and cut him above the lip. The referee never saw it.
"I admire the Flyers for the way they work hard," says New York Ranger Ulf Nilsson, "but they have three or four players who wouldn't worry about hurting somebody, and that's really scary."
"If you were to take a poll of the players as to which team starts the most brawls, uses their sticks the most and still gets away with the most, the Flyers would win in a landslide," says New York Islander Goaltender Glenn (Chico) Resch. "There wouldn't be another team that had any electoral votes." Seymour Knox, the chairman of the board of the Buffalo Sabres, says, "It seems to me only one team is involved [in violence and brawling]—Philadelphia."
For the most part, Resch's constituents are a silent majority. They all complain privately, but very few hockey people are willing to go on record with their criticism of the Flyers. Why? "The Flyers are sort of like organized crime," Resch says. "It's as if they've got informers all around the league, and will have someone waiting for the next time."
The NHL worries that player-filled penalty boxes is bad for the game, and it is precisely this fear that allows the Flyers to play their intimidating stick games. The Flyers operate under the sound theory that there's no way the referee is going to call everything—or see everything—so pretty much anything goes.
"A guy doesn't mind taking a nasty shot as long as a penalty is called," says Resch, "but when calls aren't made, players begin to wonder if it's worth it. The Flyers' whole strategy is based on the fact that everything won't be called, and that all of their intimidation is going to leave an effect. It's such a part of their system, it's a natural thing."
Who's responsible for this Philadelphia system? Owner Ed Snider? Allen? Coach Pat Quinn? The referees?