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Bob Clarke's number is up. He would like it down.
Earlier this season, before yet another ceremony commemorating his retired number 16, the old Flyers captain suggested the team give it to a current player. "No man," he says, "owns a number." Clarke obviously is as comfortable in his own skin as he was in the jersey that once swaddled it—"I was rewarded, awarded, hung up, and all of it was wonderful"—but does not want Philadelphia to be hung up by numbers that hang in the rafters. "The teams that won in the 1970s," says Clarke, now the Flyers' senior vice president, "have kind of been hanging over our teams here a long time."
The Broad Street Bullies and Philadelphia might be the sweetest of sporting love affairs. Has any professional team cast a longer shadow in its city? Brooklyn's passion for the 1955 Dodgers never faded, but the franchise odometer was reset when the Bums were transplanted to Los Angeles. The Lombardi Packers are venerated eternally in Green Bay, but the legend of Bart Starr properly yielded to Brett Favre and now Aaron Rodgers, and the power sweep is not the default topic of conversation among football fans in Wisconsin. New Yorkers shiver at the memory of Willis Reed limping onto the court for Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals, but they have moved on—mostly to complaining about Knicks owner Jim Dolan. Philadelphia ... well, it decidedly has not moved on. It is not always sunny in Philadelphia, but it is always 1974 and 1975 at the rink. Those Stanley Cups have insinuated themselves into the civic DNA, trapping the past like a bug in amber, a shade very close to Flyers orange.
"Those guys left such a mark," marvels Flyers center Danny Brière, born two years after the last hockey parade down Broad Street. He speaks in a figurative sense but could be talking literally. The Bullies, a distinctive collection of skilled and strong-willed players who gleefully practiced hockey's darkest arts, were led by Clarke, as ruthless as he was toothless, and goaltender Bernie Parent (ONLY THE LORD SAVES MORE THAN BERNIE PARENT was the bumper-sticker summation) and backed by a potent sergeant-at-arms in Dave (the Hammer) Schultz. Parent was the playoff MVP in 1974 and '75, recipient of the Conn Smythe, although to the rest of the disgusted NHL the goalie might as well have been awarded the Genghis Khan Smythe. The Flyers were the barbarians at hockey's gates, as utterly reviled outside Philadelphia as they were adored within.
"You have to look at the timing of it relative to the emotional needs of the city in that era," says Bill Clement, who scored 21 goals for the 1974--75 team. "The city was New York's ugly stepsister, and people here were tiring of it. Philly was a tough town, a little rough around the edges. This is a town that still says 'Screw you' to your face, and that's the way our team was. I don't think there's ever been [such] a dovetailing of a team's style ... [and] the fabric of its city."
The mirror might have been no more truly reflective than one in a fun house—hockey had not made significant inroads into the African-American community, which comprised a third of Philadelphia's population in the mid-'70s—but the bruising nature of the successes became the blueprint for Philly hockey. The contemporary Flyers were not contestants in the NHL's unseemly Gong Shows in the second half of this season—in 2010--11 they finished seventh in penalty minutes and a tepid 13th in fighting majors—but Flyers fortitude is an institutional memory. (The team marketing slogan for the '08 playoffs, you might recall, was Vengeance Now.) "It doesn't matter who you are," Brière says. "My role isn't to go out and fight, but everyone has to bring some kind of toughness to the team."
Of the 26 Flyers players whose names were engraved on the Stanley Cup in 1974 and '75, the organization counts 15 who remain in the area. They are working in marketing or management or broadcasting, but they are never far from that orange aura. Like the Kate Smith God Bless America that's cranked up on the video board for virtual duets with anthem singer Lauren Hart, history speaks—and sings—to the current Flyers. They hear the echoes. This is the joy of being a Flyer. This is the yoke of being a Flyer.
If sentiment matters as much as sediment—grit is an essential playoff attribute—maybe you should root for favored Vancouver to become the first Canadian-based Stanley Cup winner since 1993 or for Pittsburgh to welcome back Sidney Crosby, still recovering from a concussion, on its way to a championship. But a Philadelphia title surely would be the most liberating, providing closure on a hockey era that, given the current outcry over head shots, deserves finally to be tucked away in the foot locker of memory.
"So," Clement asks with mock indignation, "you're saying that if [the 2011 Flyers win] the blight on the game will have finally left and it'll all be forgotten?"
Not at all. We merely reference his Broad Street Bullies teammate, Bob (the Hound) Kelly, who works in Flyers community relations: "We've been honored, thanked, pedestaled. It's time. New blood."