THIS IS A HAPPY STORY. It’s the story of a lot of all‑American boys from Canada and a Jewish vegetable hustler from Washington and Kate Smith and Ed Van Impe’s jockstrap. This is a story of fire on ice and a lot of the people who struck a match along the way to help heat this town to hockey fever. But mostly this is the story of Ed Van Impe’s jockstrap.
That’s how hockey hungry the people who follow the Flyers in Philadelphia have become.
Frank Lewis is the trainer. He is also equipment manager, traveling pharmacist and official blade sharpener. Frank Lewis has been around hockey for a long time here. He used to be trainer for the Ramblers, who used to play at the Arena and were the forerunners of either professional hockey or the roller derby. Frank Lewis has come a long way to become trainer of one of the fastest rising teams in the National Hockey League.
It’s Sunday night, and down on the white glaze of the Spectrum, the Flyers are putting it to the Pittsburgh Penguins, while up in the stands, 14,620 people are yelling and screaming and jumping up and down. One of the calmer ones is Frank Lewis’s wife. When you live as much hockey as she does, you get to take certain things in stride.
It’s between the first and second periods when most of the people in the crowd have headed out to the refreshment stands to cool themselves off from the heat of a continuing flow of emotional orgasms. Helen Lewis sits back in her seat to enjoy 15 minutes of open air, interrupted only by the casual conversation of the well-appointed, middle-aged, maybe matronly lady next to her.
“Your husband sure must do a lot of housework for the Flyers,” the lady said, “keeping those uniforms so clean and everything.”
“I ought to give him some of my laundry,” Helen Lewis said. “The team’s got better equipment than we do at home. I haven’t even gotten around to buying an automatic dryer yet.”
“Well, my dear,” said the lady, “don’t look any further. I’ve got an old one in perfect condition that I was just about to get rid of. If you want it, it’s yours. I’ll send my car around to drop it off.”
“Oh, I couldn’t do that,” Helen Lewis said. “Please let me pay you.”
“Well, there is one thing you could do for me.” “Sure, anything.”
“Well, your husband is very close to the players and he handles all their equipment, right?”
“Well, do you think he could get me a particular piece of equipment?”
“It might be a little hard, but I’ll ask him. Just what were you after?”
“Ed Van Impe’s jockstrap.”
Helen Lewis tried to keep a straight face. After the game she took her newfound friend down to the locker room area where she flagged down her husband, pulled him over to the side and told him the story. Frank Lewis didn’t bat an eye.
“Ask her if she wants the inner one or the outer one,” he said.
Helen Lewis carried out the orders. Her friend said she’d prefer the inner one.
“Wait here,” Frank Lewis said as he went into the dressing room. “Van Impe,” he yelled, “I need your jock.” “Why?” asked the Flyers captain.
“Don’t ask questions, just give me the damn thing.”
Van Impe threw the supporter over and Frank Lewis put it in a plain wrapper and brought it out to the well-appointed lady.
“Oh, thank you so much,” she said. “You don’t know how much this means to me.”
“Don’t thank me,” Frank Lewis said, “thank Van Impe. What a great guy. He’d give you the shirt off his back.”
THERE WILL ALWAYS BE something special about Ed Van Impe to the Philadelphia fans. He was the first Flyer, the first man the team drafted back in June of 1967 when the league began its expansion. He came from Chicago, by way of Buffalo, by way of Calgary, by way of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. At 30, he’s one of the old men on the team. Maybe that’s the reason for his appeal with the more mature fans. Ed Van Impe is not just another pretty face.
Like most of the guys on the team, Van Impe sleeps and eats hockey. Only in Van Impe’s case, it’s literal. He once caught a flying puck in the mouth. And when they got the rock of rubber removed, they helped the blood-gushing defenseman to the locker room where he took a couple dozen stitches without flinching and went back on the ice to finish the game.
Stitches become trophies in hockey. The more scarred lines on your face, the more notches in your nose, the more of a man you are. Ed Van Impe is a tough guy, but that’s on the ice.
“An occasional fight is good for you,” he says, “and I like to mix it up a little myself every once in a while. But for all the scars and everything, I’m really not a fighter at heart. I’m a lover.”
THE GROUPIES hang around section H at the Spectrum. Most of them are young girls in their late teens. Some are in their 20s. A few are pretty. The management has tried to crack down on the groupies this year by putting more guards around the corridor that leads to the Flyer locker room, but still they are there.
Marie is a strawberry blonde from South Philly. She wears cakey makeup and gooky eyes and come-on clothes. She’s a hard-looking girl who comes to just about every game. She knows the game and she is very familiar with the players. She doesn’t need a scorecard to tell them apart.
A less swinging female fan happened by the ladies’ room one night when Marie was there. She couldn’t believe what she heard. “I felt like I was in a pool room with a bunch of guys, the way she was bragging about how many different players she’d been to bed with. She was telling everybody how her biggest score would be Lew Morrison, if she could land him. And the way she was talking, she didn’t seem to doubt that she could for a minute.” Morrison, who turns 23 this month, is a good-looking, hardly-scarred, second-year man. He is also one of the team’s few bachelors. Where the groupies are concerned, this gives him the pick of the litter.
Marie is only one of a flock of girls who follow the Flyers just about everywhere. When the regulations on hanging around the locker room got a little tighter, the girls took the show on the road and just across the Walt Whitman Bridge to a place called Rexy’s, just off Route 130 in the Cherry Hill-Collingswood area, where a lot of the players live during the season.
Rexy’s has good pizza and loud music and a star-studded bar. On any good game night, especially a winning one, you can find half the team there, closely followed by the groping groupies.
It’s a Wednesday night and the Flyers have just laid a loss on the top-running New York Rangers. Everybody is in a great mood. Dougie Favell, the part-time goalie and fulltime flake, didn’t play that night because of a twisted knee, so he’s the first one over after the game, since he’s already in his street clothes—a blossomy body shirt and a belled, pinstriped vest suit. There are a lot of reasons to celebrate. Bernie Parent, the other goalie, has played a great game. So have a lot of the others. But, most of all, it’s Bob Kelly’s birthday. The muscle-bound raw rookie with the brushed blond hair is 20 today. He’s already gotten four or five birthday cakes sent to the dressing room by thoughtful fans. Now he’s washing them down with a Coke (it had to be a Coke because you have to be 21 to drink in Jersey, right?) and a smooth-skinned, velvet-haired brunette. The brunette is saying how rough it must be to go out on the ice with very little protection and get yourself battered to a near pulp two or three times a week.
“Aw, no,” Bob Kelly says, flexing his brain, “that’s what it’s all about. You get used to the hitting. If you don’t, you shouldn’t be here.”
This is the same Bob Kelly talking who, a couple games later, caught an elbow in the face that knocked him unconscious and put a nice little crack in his cheekbone. And while they were X-raying him, they found out his nose had been broken in at least three different places from earlier injuries. This came as news to Bob Kelly.
The eyes of the brunette were melting pucks now, wide and soft, soaking up every bit of bravery. She was a smart-looking girl, though, not really typical of the pubescent puck teasers who frequent the Flyers.
“Jail bait,” says a defensive defenseman, “that’s all they are. Hell, they just hang on outside and we can just go out there and pick whichever one we want, if we want. I think there’s a point where your allegiance to the fans has to stop. Mine’s at the bedroom door.”
Maybe it should be noted that most of the Flyers are married. Well, maybe it shouldn’t be. But at least we can tell you that only the single players mess around, and that the married ones are all straight arrows, and that morality is the team’s middle name, and not to believe everything you read.
Just put yourself in their skates for a minute. They’re all Canadians, most of them are young, many of them are from the backwoods. They’re away from home more than half the year, visiting big towns with fast women. No wonder a lot of them are seeing action off the ice.
Sex, in fact, is no longer a dirty word in sports. It has become a tactic.
“We had a big game against Boston on a Saturday afternoon,” says Lou Scheinfeld, who is vice president of the Flyers, holds the brains behind the throne and wears funny shoes. “They flew in here the night before with nothing to do. Well, I figure their biggest threat is Derek Sanderson, and everybody knows how much he likes good-looking girls. So I get him this unbelievable broad and tell her to keep him going as long as she can. She even brought along her roommate to occupy another one of the Bruins.
“I called her a little after nine Saturday morning to see what time she got in. ‘A few minutes ago,’ she said. Beautiful. The game started at 1:30 and Sanderson couldn’t have gotten more than two hours sleep, if he got to sleep at all. He had to be dragging, right?
“Well, the only thing he dragged was us. All over the ice. He scored three points and Boston killed us. I got to thinking. Maybe our guys are a little too clean-living.”
WE DON’T WANT to make it seem here like all the Flyers do is booze it up and go to bed with pretty girls. This is not at all true. A lot of the time they play hockey. This is just to point up the love that has grown for the team in this city. It’s just to show that in a town where little kids learn to boo before they learn to talk, a new breed of fan has grown up. It’s a breed that knows the game. It’s a breed that has taken these Canadian boys to their bosoms and other parts. It’s a breed that gets all dressed up to watch a bunch of sweaty hockey players who never made it past high school sliding around on steel blades hitting a piece of rubber with a big wooden stick.
You can tell the sport by the people it attracts. Besides the size of the crowd, there’s one basic difference between hockey and other indoor sports in this town. In hockey, when you go out for a soda between periods, you can be pretty sure that your coat will still be on your seat when you get back. There are some significant sociological overtones here. The difference between the hockey crowd and other indoor sports crowds is like the difference between black and white. Hockey, though, as many would have you believe, is not an all-white sport.
“I remember this game last season,” a season ticket holder says, “when about six colored guys came in and sat all in one row. They stuck out like a sore thumb. Here it is a sellout, and there are almost 15,000 people in the stands and all you can see are these six black guys. It looked like somebody bused them in. Well, they start the game, and they’re about ten seconds into it when somebody takes a real hard shot that goes off the ice and over the glass and into the crowd and hits one of the colored guys right smack between the eyes. His buddies had to carry him out. You couldn’t help but laugh. All those people up there and look who gets it.”
No, hockey is not an all-white sport. There are even two black players in the minor leagues, only nobody is quite sure where or why. There are also a few American players in hockey, white boys. But just a few. Mostly, it is a roughneck game played by white roughnecks from Canada. It is where you separate the men from the boys.
THE HOCKEY FANS in Philadelphia have grown up with the team over the past four years. At first, all that most of them knew was that it was good when the guys in orange put the little piece of rubber in the goal at the other end of the ice. Knowledge has come with time. Hockey here used to be a game of pure emotion. Now it’s finesse. Now that the guys in orange have learned how to pass and shoot a lot better, the fans have become more involved in the intricacies.
The Spectrum, after an alteration or two, now holds an official 14,620. For a lot of games, the Flyers brass wish it could hold at least twice that. Tickets have been hard to come by this season. Just about every game has been a sellout or a near-sellout. And it looks like it’s going to be that way for a while.
“If I can get them,” says one regular, “I’m going to buy three season tickets next year. One for me and one for my wife and one for my son. It might not pay off too early because the kid’s only two years old. But by the time he’s old enough to appreciate the game, he won’t be able to get a ticket on his own. In a year or two, this city is going to be like Montreal and Chicago and Boston. The only way you’re going to be able to get a ticket to a game is to have one in the family.”
Philadelphia has been one of the biggest success stories to come out of the National Hockey League expansion, when four years ago the League went from six to 12 teams. You can thank good planning, you can thank a good, young brainy organization, and most of all you can thank a former vegetable hustler from Washington, D.C.
ED SNIDER is 38 years old and looking younger all the time. Success does that to a man. His once slicked back gray hair is now modishly parted and tapered. His glasses aren’t square any more and his old CPA suits are now natty double knits. Yes, Ed Snider started out as an accountant. Actually, he started out hustling wilting vegetables in his parents’ grocery store, but everybody figured that anybody who could push the price of tomatoes that high ought to be able to do something with books.
Ed Snider has been a hustler all his life. In college, he pushed everything from old records to Christmas trees. It was the record business that got him in the money-making groove. The record business finally got so big that he sold it to a Boston distributor. This left him with no job, only some money and some family. One of his family was Earl Foreman, who had married his sister while still keeping his engagement to Jerry Wolman, the builder. It was through his brother-in-law that Snider got to know Wolman. And Wolman got to know Snider well enough to stop him on the street one day in Washington and tell him that he was going to make a bid for the professional football franchise in Philadelphia. If he got it, Wolman said, he would need somebody to move there and run the financial end of the team. When Snider found out that Foreman would be Wolman’s partner, he agreed.
The Eagles story has been told. The three musketeers wound up more like the three mouseketeers and Jerry Wolman went down the drain and left a big ring around the tub. Foreman got caught up in the grime. Only Ed Snider came out drip dry. By that time he was in Philadelphia for keeps. After a few months here, he had sent for his wife Myrna and their two sons and two daughters. It was a hard-sell job. All Myrna Snider had ever heard about Philadelphia were a lot of bad jokes. Since they hadn’t heard any comedians knocking Lower Merion, they moved there—to a rolling stone rancher in Wynnewood, which used to be the home of Vic Potamkin, who sells cars. This was late in 1963.
By 1965, there was talk that the National Hockey League might expand, and that Philadelphia might be a prime spot. The credit for initiating the bid for the Philadelphia hockey franchise goes to either Wolman or Snider, depending on who you talk to.
It’s sort of a moot point, though, because the letter to NHL Commissioner Clarence Campbell was signed by Bill Putnam. Putnam, as vice president of Morgan Guaranty Trust Company, had helped Wolman finance the Eagles. The letter listed Ed Snider and Jerry Schiff, a builder and Snider’s other brother-in-law, as Putnam’s “associates.” The only mention of Jerry Wolman was that he would build and own the arena the proposed new team would play in. Later, when Wolman was having money problems, he asked Snider to mortgage the Flyers and was turned down. Wolman says that Snider and Putnam and Schiff sort of gave him the shaft. Yet there are no harsh words between any of them now. Nobody holds any real grudges. Certain members of Wolman’s family are still cursing the hell out of Snider, but Wolman is too much the pussycat to bark.
There’s been a lot of hassling involving both the ownership of the Flyers and the ownership of the Spectrum. Snider wound up with 60% of the team. Beer baron Joe Scott got 15% when Schiff shifted out. Putnam got out last Tune, his 25% bought up by socialite moneyman F. Eugene Dixon Jr.
Putnam left his mark, though. Among other things, he and then general manager Bud Poile sold the Quebec Ramparts junior league team to a group of Quebec locals for the token price of one dollar. It was a charitable backstab. The Ramparts were the wrong team to give away. The Flyers own another hockey team in Quebec, the minor league Quebec Aces. The junior league Ramparts are now drawing close to 10,000 fans a game. The Aces are lucky when they get 3000.
The Quebec quandary has been mostly responsible for the fact that, up until this year, the Flyers organization has not made a profit. Last year it lost a fast $300,000 in Quebec. It made money in Philadelphia, but it wasn’t enough to balance the books. This year, with so many sellouts already in line here, it’s figured that the whole operation will make a slight profit. The Flyers are convinced, though, that they’ve taken enough of a beating in Quebec. Something has to be done by next season.
The other bad scene is the Spectrum ownership hassle. When Wolman went under, the stadium fumbled right into receivership. The wise got out. Lou Scheinfeld, then Spectrum vice president, moved right over to a fulltime spot with the Flyers. Scheinfeld, a former Daily News reporter, met Wolman when he was covering the early hasslings of the stadium. It was Wolman who introduced him to Snider. Hal Freeman, another former newspaperman, stayed on as Spectrum president.
“It’s gone from some bitter feelings to an out-and-out cold war,” Scheinfeld says. “They’ve been making it pretty rough here for us. We’re their number one tenant and we’re treated like shit. The team has to do its practice skating over at the Cherry Hill Arena, we can’t even use the ice here during the day. I think we’re just resented because of what we’ve built up here. I think they’re afraid we’re going to buy the place and kick them the hell out.”
The thin ice of the battle has started to thaw a little now as it’s become pretty clear that the ARA food concession people (those wonderful folks who brought you the 30-cent Coke) were planning to buy the Spectrum. ARA, which already runs the Spectrum’s sparkling Blue Line Club plus all the snack stands and all the vendors, might be the sane alternative to battle. At least both sides think the possible purchase won’t be too hard to swallow.
THE FLYERS have managed to sweetly use adversity. Ed Snider and friends like to sit back and watch power plays on the ice, not in management. The last office coup they had was headed off two seasons back with the exiting of Bill Putnam and general manager Bud Poile. Putnam has laid low. Poile, an old-line hockey man, took his road show to Vancouver to help start a surprisingly solid franchise in that new expansion city. Keith Allen, then the coach, eventually made it up to vice president and general manager. And Vic Stasiuk, then the coach of the Quebec Aces, moved in to manage the mother club. Despite the fact that, thanks to a year-end dive, the Flyers didn’t make the Stanley Cup playoffs last season, everybody’s been pretty happy with the new arrangement. There are no murmurs of anyone going over the wall in the Flyers camp. The organization has often been called one big happy family, mostly by its father, Ed Snider.
Nobody keeps any particular hours around the Flyers office. They just give it what it takes, and that’s usually 10 or 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week. For Ed Snider, make that 24 hours a day, eight days a week. When it comes to the Flyers, and it usually does, the man is nuts. This is the exception in the National Hockey League and in most of professional sports. The owner is supposed to be the guy with the money who sits back in some big office and smokes hand-rolled cigars while he watches the bread roll in. He is not supposed to get involved with day-to-day matters. He is not supposed to get involved with the semi-educated, numbered mountains of muscle at the playing end of his payroll. He is not supposed to get his custom-made suits spoiled by the smell of the locker room after a good game. These are the unwritten rules of being an owner, and Ed Snider breaks every one of them.
A couple months back, Snider was on vacation in Maine, supposedly leaving it all behind him. No radio, no television, no meetings, no decisions, no nothing. No luck. It was a game night and Snider just couldn’t take it. He drove all the way down through the slush and traffic to get to the Spectrum in time to catch most of the last two periods.
ED SNIDER’S OFFICE is plush enough—the paneled walls plastered with hockey sculptures. Mostly, it’s a working place. The day is full of meetings, often with co-owners Scott and Dixon. The morning is over before it starts. The hours on the phone keeping tabs on everything do that. If there’s time for lunch, it’s usually just down the corridor to the Blue Line Club, and it’s usually business.
In the afternoon, Snider, Scott and Dixon talk of the future. They’ve got a great gate here, but they’ve got to do something about that Quebec situation. The talk is long and involved and there are a lot of suggestions being fired from all curves of the conference table.
“Maybe we should dump the whole operation up there. It’s killing us.”
“We can’t, the league says we’ve got to keep at least a working agreement with one minor league team.”
“Then why don’t we sell most of our interest up there and just keep enough to have the working agreement?”
“Or we could always move it to another city, one where we won’t be in such stiff competition. There must be a dozen cities that would want the team.”
The meeting carries through the late afternoon. There will be many others like it before Quebec is unloaded. But this meeting has made it obvious that there will be a move next season, either financially or logistically. Ed Snider, the main owner and majority stockholder, will be responsible for the ultimate decision. But Snider isn’t one to pull rank. Scott and Dixon will help him make the decision.
“Both Gene and Joe have been beautiful since the day they walked in this office,” Snider says. “They never say no when the good of the team is involved.”
While the Ed Snider trio is making the money decisions, Lou Scheinfeld takes care of the day-by-day stuff. There are the thousand quickie conferences with just about everyone in the office. And there is always some paperwork to be gone over with his secretary Marsha Jean Rossi, who is one big hunk of blonde. She’s typical of the run. The Flyers just might have the best-looking group of secretaries in the city, probably the league and maybe the world.
The Flyers go first class. The girls class up the office and make the long hours a little easier to take. In less than four years, Lou Scheinfeld has become one of the best inside organization men in sports, certainly one of the most creative. It was Scheinfeld who came up with the concept for the Spectrum. It was Scheinfeld who singlehandedly saved the place from being called the Keystone Arena, and saved the team from being called the Quakers. Both names won out in the voting. Only Scheinfeld’s fast-talking sell job saved this city from another double dose of mediocrity.
Scheinfeld’s creativity has rubbed off on the people who work around him. Joe Kadlec, now press and PR man, used to be a minor league writer for the Daily News. Now he’s one of the best press agents in the league, one of only two who travel every game with the team. Kadlec, like Scheinfeld, has been with the Flyers from the year one (1966) . Harlan Singer is a more recent addition. Singer, as producer-director of all the team’s broadcasts, is trying to make the radio and TV end of the organization into a moneymaking proposition. When the Flyers first started, no electronic media man would touch them. They had to buy time on local stations to be seen or heard. Now that they’ve proven themselves to be a pretty fair ratings grabber, they’re still buying time—but only because they can make more money by packaging their own games, rather than selling the rights outright to any one station. This season, it’s Channel 29 for TV and WCAU for radio. Eventually, Singer hopes to build up a permanent crew at the Spectrum to handle all visiting television feeds, a job now handled by just about anybody who’s available. The Flyers like to work with their own people. That’s why the announcers are paid by the team, not by the station. That squat tower of babble named Gene Hart handles most of the radio games. Hart, an history teacher from New Jersey, gets some help from WCAU’s Hugh Gannon, who calls the game ice hockey, just so the home fans don’t think the guys are running around with field sticks.
On the road, Hart is joined by Stu Nahan, who is imported from Los Angeles, where he is the West Coast’s answer to Howard Cosell. Nahan worked in Philadelphia when the Flyers first started. He was, at one point, the entire staff of Channel 48—playby-play man by night and Captain Philadelphia for the kiddies by day. All of that is very far behind him now. And Nahan, a former minor league goalie, has turned out to be one of the best hockey broadcasters in the business.
There have been a lot of rumors going around that Hart and Nahan don’t get along at all—that Hart calls Nahan a prima donna and an egomaniac, and that Nahan calls Hart a cheap, blabbering pain in the ass. Maybe it’s about time that all those rumors about the unrest between Hart and Nahan were finally cleared up. They are all true.
Maybe it is only a dedication to the team that keeps them smiling. Dedication means a lot to the Flyers organization.
THE DEDICATION melts away all the formalities. And the melting goes right up to the ice. If it weren’t for hockey, Vic Stasiuk, the coach, would be a deaf mute. Hockey is all he hears, all he talks about. Off the ice, Vic Stasiuk is a lovable bulldog. Get him over a drink or two and he’ll story-tell you into hockey heaven with great remembrances of his playing days with three different NHL teams. What Bobby Hull is really like, how Gordie Howe got himself messed up in a big business deal. Everything you ever wanted to know about hockey and more. Vic Stasiuk remembers all the big goals and all the big fights and probably every minute of every one of the 742 NHL games he played in. For the past eight years, Vic Stasiuk has been a coach, and you can bet he remembers every one of those games.
This year, the Flyers are helping him remember them even better. Harlan Singer has set up a videotape machine in Stasiuk’s bedroom. Every Flyer home game is put on tape and Stasiuk is given the can every night before he goes home. There is no way he can leave the game at the Spectrum. His wife Mary has become a proficient technician at the art of instant replay. In his bedroom Stasiuk leans back and watches the game for the second time in one night. When he gets to a bad play, he stops it and has Mary run it back to see what went wrong. Sometimes, Mary says, he’ll forget he’s watching it on tape.
“He’ll see a bad play and yell something at the player like, ‘Get your stick the hell down next time.’ Then he’ll tell me to replay the same play, and he’ll watch it more closely and yell, `Stop it, for Christ sake, he did it again.’
“Sometimes, he’ll watch the same play a half dozen times or more to see what went wrong. One night he was trying to figure out what this one player was doing wrong. He watched one play over and over until the tape almost wore out. Finally, he jumped up in great excitement and yelled, ‘I’ve got it. I figured out what’s wrong. The poor bastard’s just plain stupid.’ ”
Vic Stasiuk is an iceberg of emotion. You watch him during a bad game and you hope you never get to see the bottom. Watching the descent is rough enough. Stasiuk paces in back of the bench. He points, he yells, he pleads, he screams. After a game, the locker room door is closed and guarded. No one—including Ed Snider and God—is allowed in. It’s a standing arrangement. If the Flyers win, the waiting press people are only held up a few minutes. If it’s a loss and a bad squeeze every minute they could out of that 11 o’clock curfew. The day of the game is a sobering experience highlighted by a team meeting, which serves as a combination bed check and pep talk.
The Chicago Arena is an ancient firetrap that burns the hell out of visiting teams. The last time the Flyers were in, they got singed seven to one. This time, they hoped, things would be different. The first two periods were even and calm, a little too calm. You expected something to break out at any minute. It did. It was Chicago. They won by two.
It’s another 20 minutes of staring at the locker room door. The newspaper guys know it, so they don’t even bother to come down from the press box. Vic Stasiuk’s post-game interview of himself is heard only by a lonely magazine writer. Stasiuk points at the writer. “You’re the goalie,” he says. “You’ve got one of their guys winding up on a breakaway. What the hell do you do? Do you stay there and establish your position or do you come out of the nets and let him shoot at you off guard?” “Well,” mumbles the writer. “Well, nothing,” barks Stasiuk, “you stay right the hell where you are. I tell that to Bernie and he thinks I’m nuts and that’s why we lose.” It goes on, right on to the dead silence of bus to the airport and right on to the chartered funeral flight back. Vic Stasiuk goes down, but he goes down fighting.
“It’s what I always tell my men,” he says, “they’ve got to be fighters. They can’t let anybody intimidate them. They just weren’t rough enough out there and they lost. That’s what this game’s all about. Some people criticize it for being too violent. Hell, you need violence. You need a good fight every now and then to let the other teams know you’ve come to play. Sure I encourage our guys to fight. That’s what this game is all about. The tougher you are, the longer you last.”
That’s the way most of the fans like their hockey players, rough and tough. They don’t all come looking for blood. This isn’t wrestling. But they do come looking for a hard fought game, and if it takes a good fight to do it, well then, all the better. The Flyers, like every other team in the league, have their policemen—the guys who are put in the lineup mostly to throw a little muscle around. The big cop this year has been Earl Heiskala, who can’t shoot or skate very well, but sure knows what to do with his elbows in the clinches. The fans know it. That’s why the Flyers Fan Club awarded Heiskala a badge, a cap gun and handcuffs at a recent gathering.
Yes, there is an official Flyers Fan Club. Officially, they number a few hundred. Unofficially, there is just no counting. Everybody from city officials to construction workers, from mothers to millionaires. They know the players better than any other sport. There is an intimacy about hockey that makes that happen, players banging on the boards with only a thin sheet of Plexiglas separating them from the fans. You just don’t get that close in any other sport. You don’t get sucked in like that and you don’t get hooked for good. That’s the way it’s been with hockey in this town. It took a while before a lot of people realized that you can’t judge the game by what you see on television. Video coverage of hockey is almost universally bad and boring. It’s just too fast a game for the cameras to really follow. That’s the main reason why hockey has never really made it big time on television. The owners, though, hope it never does. All television coverage has done for the other major sports is dominate them and pour in so much money to inflate salaries to more than twice what most hockey players make.
Except for the hockey superstars, of course. That’s the one thing the Flyers really lack. But then superstars come with time. And most of the Flyers have plenty of that. Bobby Clarke, last season’s divisional rookie of the year, is only 21. Parent and Favell, two of the best goalies in the league, are both 25. Bob Kelly and Serge Bernier, this year’s two top rookies, are 20 and 21. The Flyers will have their superstars, but things like that can’t be rushed. There is no such thing as instant stardom in hockey. Even the newspaper writers, homers that they often are, can’t do it. One of the Sunday supplements tried with defenseman Larry Hale a while back. The biggest splash Hale made this season was in the first pre-season game at Hershey when he tried to climb over the boards and fell flat on his face on the ice.
The Flyers can be pretty thankful, though, to the press here. “When we first started out,” Lou Scheinfeld says, “the guys who were assigned to cover us got sucked in like everybody else. A couple of them even came to us and asked if they could wear the orange blazers like the staff wears. Christ, it was embarrassing. In the long run, though, I guess we were lucky. I mean they could have sicced George Kiseda on us.”
Whether it’s been luck or skill or a combination of the two, the Flyers have been making it and making it big. You see it not only at the obvious places like the gate, but down in the crystal sanctity of the Blue Line Club before or after any game, where you find a good 2000 people eating and drinking it up. There is class down there. You see it in the clothes they wear—the women in their Rudi Gernreich pantsuits, men in Bill Blass jackets. You see it on the faces in the crowd, from the screaming young kids to the politely clapping oldsters, from the people who scrounge up the three bucks to sit in the upper balcony to the classy big shots who pay at least $600 a season for a seat in the Super Box.
THE SUPER Box is Ed Snider’s baby, a plush 50-seat black vinyl and shiny chrome pleasure-dome where a lot of big money people sit in the comfort of swivel chairs, their feet on thick carpet, their backs to a mirrored cocktail room with a BYO bar. How classy can you get? Ice on the rocks.
Hockey is like that. There are so many people drinking in the Blue Line Club before the game that the stands, even on a sellout night, are about half empty up until about five minutes before game time. Even the players cut it close. They show up no more than an hour and a half before the game—just enough time to suit up and warm up. Then, just as fast, they play the game, shower, get dressed and leave.
The players and the fans keep their heads about them while down in the office everything is in a state of orderly chaos. Wives and families in every corner, last minute crises at the ticket window, 40 million things to check, and a call from the guy who runs the record player. “Does Mr. Snider want the national anthem or Kate Smith?” The way things have been going, this could be the biggest decision Ed Snider makes all day. Kate Smith has been good to Ed Snider, but he doesn’t want to abuse a good thing, so he uses her only when the passion strikes.
KATE SMITH was Lou Scheinfeld’s idea. “I looked around the Spectrum one night when they played the national anthem and I saw that hardly anybody was singing. It’s a hell of a way to get a crowd going. So I suggested to Ed that we play something people could sing along with better, like ‘God Bless America.’ Ed agreed, everybody sang and we won the game. From then on, using his own emotional instincts, he would play Kate Smith sparingly. And, damn it, just about every time he plays her we win.”
Tonight, because the Flyers needed a win, Kate Smith was in the starting lineup. She got a bigger ovation than Bobby Clarke. Ed and Myrna Snider are in the Super Box watching.
The Flyers are skating good, good enough to score, but they’re not. Snider is getting edgy. He takes a few nervous drags on a cigarette and smashes it in the ashtray in front of him. He has one of the Flyerettes, those cute little things in the orange sweaters and skimpy skirts, bring him a drink. He sips it and his hand goes through his hair and he slurps it and he pounds the seat and the Flyers have the puck. It’s Lesuk in the corner out to Jimmy Johnson on a breakaway and Ed Snider slams down his drink and Jimmy Johnson’s one-on-one and Myrna Snider grabs Ed Snider’s arm and Jimmy Johnson winds up and everybody gets up and Jimmy Johnson scores and Ed and Myrna Snider hug and jump like little kids and the house comes down.
It was like that all night. There is nothing quite like a good clean goal to bring out the animal in a hockey fan. Jimmy Johnson kept them howling. He scored three goals, a neat feat, and the Flyers and Ed Snider and Kate Smith won. After the game, while family and friends stopped by for the usual cocktails in his office, Ed Snider was down the corridor in the sweat of the locker room pounding backs and shaking hands and acting like the kid he really is at heart. “Boy, we’re going to keep winning now,” Snider kept saying. Somebody brought up the party-pooping fact that the Flyers’ next opponents were the almost unbeatable Boston Bruins, so hard to beat that when the California Seals finally did it, owner Charley Finley bought each player a new suit. Ed Snider wasn’t about to be outdone. He put his arm around Jimmy Johnson and announced, “You guys beat Boston on Saturday and I’ll buy every one of you two new suits.” It was a thoughtful gesture that almost cost Ed Snider 10,000 bucks.
No, the price of suits hasn’t gone up that much. It’s just that word of Snider’s promise somehow reached the league office. And the league has rules about offering special incentives to players before games. The call from league president Campbell came less than an hour before Saturday’s game. The message was very clear: withdraw the suit promise or pay a $10,000 fine. Ed Snider agreed. It would have been a costly win, but not near the costliest. A few days later, overjoyed at a great victory over the New York Rangers, Snider decided to reward himself. Right after the game, he jumped in his car and drove it over to his local Cadillac dealer and traded it in on a $16,000 station wagon, all in the thrill of victory.
The suit promise, as it turned out, wouldn’t have been kept anyway. The Boston Bruins, as they usually do, won. It was one of the toughest games the Flyers have played. Ed and Myrna Snider did very little hugging. Ed Snider kept jumping out of his seat and running down to the front of the Super Box and yelling things at the referee about what looked like some pretty bad penalty calls. “Jesus Christ, what the hell’s the matter with you, you goddamn bastard, you ought to be shot.”
The Flyers played their hearts out and lost to a better team. Someday the Flyers will be that good, someone said. After all, Boston wasn’t built in a day. It was little consolation. Bobby Clarke, the super sophomore, had scored two good goals for nothing. He was on the ice almost the whole game. When it was over, he skated off tired and sweaty and, most of all, crying. He tried to keep his head down so the fans near the runway wouldn’t see it. But it was hard to hide. Bobby Clarke was crying like a baby. Some of the fans who saw him started crying too, swept away by the down current of a salty sea of emotion. They tried to console Bobby Clarke by yelling things like, “We’ll get ’em next time.”
But Bobby Clarke just shrugged his shoulders and slumped into the locker room. Twenty minutes later, when Vic Stasiuk opened the door, Bobby Clarke was sitting there with nothing on but a frown. This is the same Bobby Clarke who, two years ago, was playing his hockey in a place called Flin Flon in Manitoba in Canada. Now he was in the big leagues and, at the age of 21, trying to carry a whole hockey team on his back. He never went to college. He wasn’t an All-American. He didn’t have all the girls chasing him. He is a small-town kid from nowhere who has come to a city of two million and made people scream and made people cry.
You would not find Bobby Clarke over at Rexy’s tonight. The groupies would have to hang on the other guys. There was nothing to be happy about, no reason to party. He scored two goals, but his team lost. A lot of people put their faith in Bobby Clarke and, in his head, he let them down. The people went home sad. Some of them were crying. This is what hockey is all about. It is not just another game. It is a passion. Bobby Clarke hung his head low. His curly hair was mussed and dripping and his eyes were burning red.