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"PROFESSIONAL HOCKEY IN PHILADELPHIA: A HISTORY" (Book review)

October 16, 2020, 11:41 AM ET [3 Comments]
Scoop Cooper
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"PROFESSIONAL HOCKEY IN PHILADELPHIA: A HISTORY" by Alan Bass
A Review

For more then half a century now, the NHL Philadelphia Flyers have been the prime purveyors of hockey in William Penn’s "Greene Countrie Towne" -- and a very successful one at that being second only to the vaunted Montreal Canadiens in career regular season winning percentage among long standing NHL clubs. The Flyers have been far from the only pro hockey organization to call Philadelphia home since the start of the Twentieth Century however. In fact over the last 120 years ten other professional (and a variety of college and amateur) hockey teams to have represented the city with various degrees of success from the T-SHL Comets which never won a game in their single desultory season in 1932-33 to the AHL Phantoms that won a pair of AHL Calder Cups in their 13 year run between 1996 and 2009 during which they played before many SRO crowds as the Flyers’ owned and operated farm club.

As with the Flyers, each of these other teams had a colorful history of their own which for the first time have all been collected in words and images in one place in a concise, just released 227-page tome called "Professional Hockey in Philadelphia: A History'' by young local Philadelphia area writer Alan Bass who I have had the pleasure to help mentor for more than a decade now. As a pro hockey writer, broadcaster, historian and team staffer in Philadelphia for over half a century myself, I am finding this collection of "stories and stats" about our game in my home town a fascinating and invaluable resource.

Starting with the team picture of the 1976-77 NAHL Philadelphia Firebirds on the cover (which I am actually in at the left end of the middle row), the book is profusely illustrated with many rare historic images and photographs many of which have never been published before. (Many of these came from my own collections and appear on my own personal hockey history site, HockeyScoop.net.) But it is the many heretofore untold first person stories including those which Alan collected in personal interviews with the hockey people who lived them in Philadelphia that give the book special life.

"I realized that the sports fans of the region were missing a crucial piece of hockey history of the city," Bass notes in the Preface. "Numerous books have been written about the Flyers while other books have touched lightly on the other teams to grace the ice here, but no on had had yet taken the time to delve into the memorable, and sometime tenuous, history of the teams that paved the way for hockey's now successful hold on the hearts of Philadelphians today.

"Rather than discuss the history of hockey solely chronologically," he continues, "I have chosen to focus each chapter on the lifespan of each organization. ... The book is written to be read from start to finish so that one can truly appreciate the evolution of the sport into what it is today. However there is no doubt that certain readers, for a variety of reasons, will want to jump directly to a certain team lie flipping through the pages of The Hockey News to see what is written about their home team."

While as a long time Philadelphia hockey historian (and collector) myself who is obviously fascinated by and have also written about all these teams over the years, I am particularly interested and impressed in Alan's accounts of two clubs with which I had deep personal connections during their entire tenures in the city: the NAHL/AHL Firebirds (1974-79) of which I was that club's PR man, and the AHL Phantoms (1996-2009) which I both wrote about as well as worked on dozens of their CSN game telecasts.

At 28 pages the colorful Firebirds chapter is actually the longest in the book even though the team only played in the city for five years. For its three NAHL seasons the club was coached and managed by Gregg Pilling, one of the most colorful characters in our game both on and off the ice. As a then 19-year old junior in 1963, the Lethbridge, Alberta native had been a teammate of both Pat Quinn and Glen Sather with the CAHL Edmonton Oil Kings that won the Memorial Cup. During his eight year pro paying career Pil had also been coached by Fred Shero with the AHL Buffalo Bisons. The year before coming to Philadelphia he had coached the SHL Roanoke Valley Rebels to that league's 1974 playoff title. The cup winning goal was scored by future Flyers' coach Mike Keenan.

In his second season with the Firebirds in 1975-76, Pilling led that club to the NAHL's Lockhart Cup title before a sold out Civic Center Convention Hall crowd led by the Firebirds' leading scorer, RW Gordie "Roadhog" Brooks, who was also interviewed for the book Alan. (A dear friend for 45 years, Brooks just passed away unexpectedly on October 1st at age 70.) Pilling put Books on a line with center Bob "BC" Collyard who he had also played previously with with the Kansas City Blues, Denver Spurs and NHL St. Louis Blues, and former Toronto Maple Leaf LW Randy "Wizard" Osburn to form the Firebirds high scoring "NHL Line". Following the season two of the Firebirds' players -- Ray "Shooter" Schultz and Mark "Bosco" Bousquet - headed off to Johnstown, PA, home of one of the Firebirds top rivals, the Johnstown Jets, to appear in the classic hockey movie "SLAP SHOT".

The Flyers established the Phantoms in 1996 both as their new AHL farm team after a dozen years in Hershey with the Bears, and also to provide the Spectrum with a hockey tenant after the Flyers moved across the parking lot to the Corestates (now Wells Fargo) Center. In their 13 seasons there before the venerable now demolished arena was shuttered in 2009 after 42 years that club won a pair of Calder Cup titles under coaches Bill Barber in 1998, and John Stevens and assistant Craig Berube in 2005.

The Phantoms played before many sold out houses at the Spectrum especially in their early years and won the 2005 title before a crowd of over 20,000 at the Center. Bass fills his chapters on the Firebirds and Phantoms with lots of wonderful detail on both of these title teams.

Among the other former Philadelphia pro hockey teams covered in both stories and pictures is the first strictly pro club, the Can-Am League Philadelphia Arrows established in 1927 which like all the other teams to play in Philadelphia prior to the opening of the Spectrum forty years later in 1967 were based at the now long gone 1920 vintage, 5,526-seat Philadelphia Arena (which has its own chapter) located at 46th and Market Streets in West Philadelphia

Other hockey tenants there were the ill fated NHL Philadelphia Quakers which won a still standing league record for fewest wins (four) in its single season in the city in 1930-31, several incarnations of the Philadelphia Ramblers in three different leagues, the AHL Rockets which won just five games in 1946-47 despite player/coach Phil Hergesheimer scoring a then AHL record 48 goals, and the T-SHL Philadelphia Comets, a team that never won a single game.

This fine book should interest not only Philadelphia hockey fans, but those of the game elsewhere as it gives a fascinating picture of how pro hockey grew in the United States in both the minor pros as well as the NHL. Published by McFarland & Company, it is available for purchase online in both paperback and Kindle via Amazon.
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