Cast your hockey-loving memory back to the 1970s, when the Philadelphia Flyers earned the scorn of many by bashing and brawling their way to a reputation for gross intimidation. The Flyers squad headed into this year's Stanley Cup final against the Chicago Blackhawks, however, bears little resemblance to those bullies. Gosh, there's even much to admire
How times change.
It was May 16, 1976 - back in a time when we all thought May was much too late for hockey playoffs - and the Montreal Canadiens had just swept the
Philadelphia Flyers four straight to take the Stanley Cup back to Canada after a two-year hiatus in a place then jokingly referred to in hockey circles as The City of Brotherly Love.
The Broad Street Bullies of Bobby Clarke, Dave (The Hammer) Schultz, André (Moose) Dupont and Bob (The Hound) Kelly were no longer at the top of the hockey world. Their stunningly effective style of physical intimidation - perhaps best exemplified by Eddie Van Impe on Jan. 11, 1976, when he stepped from the penalty box and knocked out Valeri Kharlamov with a vicious elbow, sending the Soviet Red Army team scurrying from the ice to the locker room - had finally met its match in pure skill.
"I hope we put an end to all the crap they stand for," Montreal's Serge Savard said at the time.
It did, in a way, but hardly completely. The Broad Street Bullies moniker never truly died. Who will ever forget the image of Flyers goaltender Ron Hextall racing out of his net to tackle Montreal defenceman Chris Chelios in the 1989 playoffs? And the Flyers' scoreboard - now high above centre ice in the Wachovia Centre rather than the Spectrum - still celebrates old brawls and hits more than goals and saves.
But today's Philadelphia Flyers, now headed into the Stanley Cup final against the Chicago Blackhawks, are far more the Broad Street Darlings than anything resembling bullies, with the obvious exception of 6-foot-6 defenceman Chris Pronger, who has cross-checked his way into 14 straight playoff appearances.
Despite the understandable embrace Canadians largely gave to the charming Montreal Canadiens in their unexpected run to the Eastern Conference final, there is also much to admire in the team that defeated them four games to one.
This is a team with the possibility of dressing as many as 14 or 15 Canadian-born players at a time, Pronger, of Dryden, Ont., included. It is a team led by fast, skilled francophone stars: Daniel Brière of Gatineau, Que., Simon Gagné of Sainte-Foy, Que., and 22-year-old sensation Claude Giroux of Hearst, Ont. The Flyers' captain, 25-year-old Mike Richards of Kenora, Ont., may be the best two-way player in hockey at the moment and was a key component of the Canadian men's team that won Olympic gold in Vancouver three months ago.
Unlike this year's Canadiens, much was expected of the 2009-10 Flyers, especially after they added Pronger to the defence and lured goaltender Ray Emery back from the Russian leagues. Many experts picked them to finish high; not a single expert predicted what was coming this year.
The litany of troubles is almost impossible to list.
Emery got hurt. The team stumbled so badly that at one point it stood 29th in the league out of 30 teams. In December, coach John Stevens was fired and replaced by Peter Laviolette. It immediately seemed the wrong solution.
"They weren't pretty," Pronger says of the first eight to 10 games under their new coach. "I don't think we were … I don't necessarily think ready is the right word … [but]we had to grasp it and understand it and play to a higher level. It's an aggressive, intense, high-tempo system and we needed to get into that rhythm. We all needed to learn and understand it so it became second nature, and you didn't have to think about it on the ice."
Laviolette, a 45-year-old native of Massachusetts, is a glass-is-quarter-full kind of guy, a coaching Eeyore who will publicly say his team didn't play well in a 6-0 romp, as happened in Game 1 against the Canadiens. He has, however, won a Stanley Cup, leading the Carolina Hurricanes over the Edmonton Oilers in 2006. History records that he smiled that day. Once.
"It's been a long climb," Laviolette says of his team's rise from the bottom. "When you're in 29th place and you're 14th in your conference and you're trying to fight your way out of it, it's almost like every game is so important. Every game has meant something since Christmastime. It's been a long grind. I think in the end it's now a strength of ours. We're a resilient group because of what we've been through."
It has been a team of troubles on the ice and off. They went through so many goaltenders that the current one, 29-year-old Michael Leighton of Petrolia, Ont., is the fifth to guard the Philadelphia net this year. Leighton is also the surprise of the Eastern playoffs, helping the Flyers to rebound from being down 3-0 against the Boston Bruins - a feat accomplished only three times in NHL history - and shutting out the Canadiens in three of their five games in the conference final.
"It's unbelievable to come where I've come from," says Leighton, a career minor-leaguer and backup who may finally have found a home. "To be here right now is pretty amazing."
Star players got hurt - previous Iron Man Jeff Carter, the team's best pure goal scorer, broke one foot, then the other. There were reports of dressing-room factions, and three of the players saw their marriages collapse during the season. Laviolette will only discreetly refer to "personal issues" on this topic.
But somehow, in the midst of all this turmoil, they found an identity. It wasn't the Broad Street Bullies and it wasn't the Montreal Canadiens - also a surprise team this spring - but the Philadelphia Flyers of today, a team that has continually improved as 2010 rolled along.
But it was oh so close to not being so. It is worth keeping in mind that the hill the 2009-10 Philadelphia Flyers had to climb was so steep that it came down to the final game of the season to decide which teams among the Flyers, the Canadiens and the New York Rangers would nail down the final two playoff positions.
The Flyers got in only because the Rangers botched a shootout against them. New York coach John Tortorella elected to send Olli Jokinen -poster boy for postseason futility - out for the final shot against Brian Boucher. The Rangers' best pure goal scorer, Marian Gaborik, sat on the bench, watching.
Such is karma, it seems, when you play for the 2009-10 Philadelphia Flyers.
"It's pretty amazing when you look back that we were a shootout away from going home," Brière says.
"And we're still standing here. We're still going."