The hottest ticket in Philadelphia these days is the one to an off-Broad Street revival of a popular mid-'70s show. Featuring some snappy cast changes, a new director and a few plot twists, "Flyers 1979-80" has opened its NHL run with a 13-1-2 record and drawn rave reviews from the critics. Of course, the original version also was a smash, but in a more literal sense: battered bodies and penalties galore were the rule as Philadelphia won the Stanley Cup in 1974 and 1975 and earned the nickname Broad Street Bullies.
But the current Flyers scarcely resemble their brawling forebears. The new Flyers take—but don't break—the body, pile up wins like poker chips and average 17 penalty minutes per game. On one occasion, the old Flyers took 18 penalties in a single period.
"Sure we've changed," says Bobby Clarke. "Part of it is because hockey has changed so much—the Russian influence, the Canadiens' style. But our personnel is different, too, with different talents. We used to play very physical, tough, defensive hockey, because that's what won games. Now the emphasis has shifted. You can't compare this year's Flyers to any other Flyer team."
No, you can't. Gone are Bernie Parent, Gary Dornhoefer, Don Saleski, Dave (Hammer) Schultz. People named Bathe, Barnes, Busniuk, Peeters, Linseman and Propp are now on the roster. Gone is Fred (The Fog) Shero, replaced behind the bench by jut-jawed, cigar-smoking Pat Quinn. Gone, too, is Kate Smith, whose God Bless America was the Flyer theme song for nine years. Now the pre-game anthem is The Star-Spangled Banner, via a recording by Canadian tenor Roger Doucet.
The recasting and remodeling job didn't occur overnight. In 1976, Montreal routed once-dominant Philadelphia 4-0 in the Stanley Cup finals, signaling hockey's return to a skating game. The Flyers were unprepared for such a turnabout. "We didn't panic after losing to Montreal," says General Manager Keith Allen, the chief architect of the Flyer reconstruction, "but we did realize we'd have to make decisions about established players who, while good enough, were not likely to improve much."
After the Flyers lost to Boston in the 1977 semifinals, Philadelphia established the Maine Mariners of the American League as its private farm team. The Mariners began to pay for themselves immediately, winning two straight Calder Cup championships. Meanwhile, the Flyers floundered again in 1977-78, failing to win their divisional title for the first time in five years, and lost to Boston in the 1978 playoffs.
At that point, Shero left to become the guru of the New York Rangers, and a trial-and-error housecleaning began. Maine Coach Bob McCammon was promoted to the head job in Philadelphia, but he returned to the Mariners 50 games into the 1978-79 season and was replaced by his successor in Maine, Quinn, one of Shero's assistants in 1977-78.
"The wheel is turning," says Quinn, 36, who played defense for three NHL teams in his nine-year career. "The static style that worked a few years ago doesn't cut it anymore. Look at Montreal. When other teams turned to defensive or fighting styles, Montreal kept skating—and winning. Now everyone copies Montreal. Hockey, more than ever, is a game of motion."
Quinn wanted the Flyers to play a more offensive, wide-open game, but realized such an adjustment would take time, especially for a team so accustomed to a restricted, brawling style. Complicating matters was the fact that Philadelphia had a goaltending crisis. Supergoalie Parent was forced to retire after suffering an eye injury last February, and by the time the Rangers had eliminated the Flyers in the quarterfinals of the 1979 playoffs, Philadelphia had exhausted three goalies.
But during the off-season Allen and Quinn stocked the Flyers with players promoted from the Mariners, added first-round draft choice Brian Propp at left wing, acquired veteran Goalie Phil Myre from St. Louis and appointed Clarke as a playing coach. Quinn also rewrote the club's training manual and instituted a mandatory togetherness day each Monday. Rather than practice, the players meet on their own to play touch football or basketball or soccer. And Quinn also listens to the players' suggestions.