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Meltzer's Musings: Clarke and Childhood Sports Heroes

August 13, 2013, 9:30 AM ET [230 Comments]
Bill Meltzer
Philadelphia Flyers Blogger •NHL.com • RSSArchiveCONTACT
Who was your first sports hero as a child? When I was growing up as a young Flyers fan in the 1970s, the entire Broad Street Bullies team was a collection of superheroes in my mind. There were two players among them who were a step even beyond that: Bobby Clarke and Bernie Parent.

From ages 3 to 14, I deified Clarke. So did all of my friends. Only the Lord saved more than Bernie, but Clarke was pretty much synonymous with God as far as we were concerned. Clarke, who was born on Aug. 13, 1949, celebrates his 64th birthday today.

Today's blog is dedicated to Clarke and the way that ones views of childhood heroes evolve and change over the years.

No angel, but a hockey deity

In a typical day in my life in the mid-1970s, I'd go outside to play sporting a short-sleeve "Bobby" t-shirt emblazoned with his photo or a long-sleeve #16 Flyers "jersey", which I recently gifted to my four-year-old-son, Benjamin. When I outgrew the shirts, I stretched them out as much as possible so they would to continue to "fit" me. My pants were held up with a belt that had color photos of various NHL stars of the 1970s, including Clarke.

On many days, I'd play street hockey with my friends right in front of the house or in the back patio with my orange-bladed Bobby Clarke Street Hockey stick with a sturdy wooden shaft and plastic blade. We'd use an orange Mylec street hockey ball or orange Bobby Clarke Street Hockey puck (each sold separately, of course). The prize would be a chance to lift the "Stanley Cup" -- actually my great-grandparents samovar they brought along when leaving Russia at the turn of the 20th century.

At some point, my mother would call me inside for lunch; a sandwich made from Bobby Clarke peanut butter (Bobby's Smooth Peanut Butter) and grape jelly. I'd wash it down with a glass of milk from a Flyers Stanley Cup commemorative glass, which originally contained sour cream. I'd wolf down the sandwich as quickly as possible and rush back outside to play some more street hockey.

If one of my friends wasn't over at the house or my neighbors Johnny and Timmy were unavailable to play that day, I'd simply shoot the puck into the empty net, laying a goalie stick horizontally in front. In some ways, I preferred it that way, because I ALWAYS got to be Clarke (we'd pick which Flyers player we were supposed to be. Also I never once was playing on the losing side in those solo games.

On rainy days, I often set up the hockey net in the narrow center hallway or the den or simply contented myself to play a "hockey game" with my hockey cards in my bedroom. I used a knotted up rubber band for a puck and two shoe boxes for the goals. The Flyers cards would play various NHL opponents -- always the better teams in the league, for whom Topps had printed enough player cards to have something resembling a lineup.

The Flyers went undefeated. Bobby Clarke averaged about 10 points per game. Bernie Parent yielded one goal for every four or five games he played (hey, I wanted realism and he was only human after all).

On the walls of my bedroom, there were three Bobby Clarke posters. I no longer have any of them, but I can still clearly picture all three of them in my mind. All three measured about 18X24, so they were smaller than the classic Sports Illustrated type of posters.

One poster showed Clarke about to take a faceoff. His face was the picture of concentration. Clarke's mouth was open slightly and you could see he was missing his front teeth. Toward the right hand side of the image, there was a linesman's head visible (but not the rest of his body). The photo was clearly taken prior to 1973, because Clarke had an alternate's A on his orange road sweater.

The second poster was a posed shot on the ice. Clarke, smiling and wearing his dentures, sprayed a massive show-shower toward the camera. He had his captain's C in this one and he was dressed in the Flyers' road orange uniform.

The third poster was my final addition. Likely taken in the same photo shoot as the second one, it is another staged on-ice shot. The camera lens was at ice level and you basically got the viewpoint of a down-and-out goaltender or defenseman who could only helplessly look up at Clarke and the arena lights off in the distance as the Flyers captain was in the act of shooting the puck into the (out of frame) net.

My bed had hockey sheets, featuring the logos of the various NHL teams of the mid-1970s. That included the Flyers of course, as well as the likes of the soon-to-be defunct California Seals. On a small book shelf next to my bed, I had Jack Chevalier's Broad Street Bullies, Bobby Clarke and the Ferocious Flyers, Bernie Parent's autobiography and other hockey titles.

On top of the book shelf, I had a wind-up "movie viewer" with the inserted cartridge featuring "Bobby Clarke's Hockey Instruction." The viewer hand-cranked the viewer to advance each frame and could go as slow or fast and even in reverse. I had it til I was about 8 when my cousin, Wayne, broke it.

On top of my dresser, I had cardboard cutout "stand-up" (although they never stood up very well) figures of various Flyers players. My mother got me the Clarke one first, followed later by Parent, Bill Barber and Rick MacLeish.

Get the picture? When I was a kid, "Clarkie" could do no wrong. I would get livid when I read or heard anything remotely critical of him or his sometimes ruthless style of play. Fortunately or unfortunately, I grew up and realized that he was no angel.

Bobby Clarke sometimes played a dirty brand of hockey. Not all the time. Not even most of the time. But if he couldn't beat you with his skill or sheer stamina and hard work, he'd leave his mark with his stick. Often, he was rather sneaky about his stick work, doing it behind the referee's back. Other times, he was downright blatant.

Clarke's slashes weren't love taps; he was perfectly willing to rare back with a two-hander as if the stick were a hatchet, and he always went for vulnerable areas. He'd high stick to intimidate or retaliate. He deliberately butt-ended and speared opponents more than once over the course of his career.

But to this very day, that's not what I think of when I think of Clarke as a player. I think of one of the NHL's all-time great playmakers, two-way players, hardest workers and most dedicated captains. Plain and simple, if Clarke had never been a Flyer, the entire history of the organization would have been very different, and I don't know if there would have been any Stanley Cup championships to celebrate.

Clarke was the ultimate team player, caring nothing for personal stats and willing to do anything for victory – whether it meant spilling his own blood, inflicting pain or fighting for the puck as though his very life depended on it.

While the debate over Clarke’s legacy as a general manager will always raise arguments, no one who grew up watching him as a player would utter a word of dispute over the fact that Clarke was the heart and soul of a team that almost never got outworked.

Bobby vs. Bob

I have always considered Robert Earle Clarke to be two distinct people in his professional life: Bobby Clarke the hockey player and Bob Clarke the executive.

Very honestly, the first role was the one he always seemed happier to perform. His love for being a member of a hockey team -- especially a winning one -- was always so deep and genuine. I don't think a single day of his playing career ever felt like a job to him. The GM role, especially toward the end, seemed to bring him less joy. I have no doubt there were many days where it felt very much like a job rather than a passion for which he also happened to get paid.

As a player, the smiles come naturally rather being forced. The off-ice demeanor was so much more relaxed and comfortable when he was dressed in hockey attire close by to his comrades rather than when he was wearing a suit and tie, reluctantly discussing trades, injuries or especially contract negotiations. I think Clarke, in his second tenure, made himself into an above-average GM in the pre-cap era. Even so, he was never as good of a GM as he was the Flyers captain and on-ice leader.

Back on the magical New Years Eve afternoon of the Winter Classic Alumni Game in Philadelphia we saw Bobby Clarke come back for one day. Yes, I know, he never liked to be called Bobby even as a player, but tolerated it just as the late Rich Asburn -- who, like Clarke, was also nicknamed Whitey among his teammates and close friends -- disliked being called Richie. Nevertheless, to Flyers fans who grew up watching him play, he'll always be Bobby or Clarkie.

Going down to locker room after the Alumni Game was something I will never forget. To see most of the best Flyers players of the 1960s to 2000s gathered in the same room was incredible. I will never forget how surprised and moved I was to see Clarke get so emotional after the game.

He always wore his heart on his sleeve on the ice and shot from the hip when directly asked for his opinions, but there was always a thin wall of stoicism and mental toughness where he never wanted to show a hint of vulnerability. Clarke has always been very modest and even shy when it comes to accepting praise for his accomplishments but is also someone with tremendous personal pride. On that one day, he allowed himself to be vulnerable in public both on and off the ice.

One thing any of Clarke's former teammates or close friends will tell you is that his focus was always on the team, whether it was in a playing or GM capacity. The easiest way to incur Clarke' wrath was to suggest that he (or someone else) had done something that did NOT serve the best interests of the team that employed him.

From Clarke's old-school hockey standpoint, this was the root cause where and why he butted heads with the Lindros clan, who had a different perspective on what was best for the team.

Both of them ultimately wanted the same things -- for the Flyers to win a Stanley Cup with Eric Lindros playing a key role -- but their views on how to accomplish those goals proved to be incompatible.

It took many, many years for Clarke and Lindros to make their public peace with one another, but at least they finally got some closure. They'll never be close and they don't have to be. But now that Lindros is no longer playing and Clarke is no longer the Flyers' GM, there was no reason that the two men could not coexist in embracing their respective key roles in team history.

Thinking back to Clarke's emotional interviews after the Alumni Game, I think it stemmed from his pragmatism. He knew that he may never again play in a hockey event of any lasting significance. As a man in his 60s, he's no longer physically up to training and playing (to win) even in Alumni Games. The outpouring of love and respect he received from the massive Philadelphia crowd in attendance that day may have been Clarke's final uniformed appearance, at least in the public realm.

Clarke has always described himself as basically a simple person. I have always viewed him from afar as a rather complex man.

I once saw the Bobby/Bob dichotomy myself in one of my own interactions with Clarke. I rode up on the elevator with him before a November 2001 game against Edmonton. I said hello. I told him that I hoped he didn't mind me telling him that I grew up thinking of him as the perfect team-oriented hockey player; that he was always held up as the model of how to play with heart and courage even more than skill. He looked me in the eyes and thanked me. I know it's stuff he's heard a million times before but I also know that he never takes lightly or for granted how much his career meant to so many Philadelphians.

Then I made a mistake. I switched subjects and asked Clarke if he thought recently called up rookie Ruslan Fedotenko had done enough to stay with the big club when some injured veteran players returned. Clarke got a pained expression on his face and was silent for a long, uncomfortable moment.

"I don't know," he finally said, his voice ice cold. "We'll see. It 's only been a few games."

It was a very innocuous question, and a legitimate one to ask a GM. But it was also poorly timed. I always regretted not simply to sticking one topic or the other. Before he spoke, Clarke's eyes hardened a bit as though he was sizing if I'd tried to flatter him and then to get him to divulge information about his upcoming roster plans, and that was not my intent at all.

I was being sincere as someone who grew up loving the Flyers and then I jumped back into the journalist realm. Clarke, however, didn't know me well enough to stand in a freight elevator and step into both worlds with me. Unless you have that sort of personal rapport with a subject, it's better to stick to business.

It was a lesson learned. Ever since then, whenever I've dealt with someone such as Paul Holmgren or Dave Poulin, I stick only to one line of discussion -- either the present day teams they are associated with or questions related to their playing days in Philly. I don't try to cross over into both worlds unless it's specifically part of a biographical article.

Bob Clarke had his flaws as a general manager. In his second tenure, I think he got a little too concerned at times with trying to collect as many big bodies as possible. He was a bit cavalier at times about the importance of high-end goaltending. In his first tenure, I don't think he traded well in his first tenure, and the Flyers drafts of the mid-to-late 1980s were some of the worst in franchise history. In both tenures, I think he sometimes let personal feelings negatively affect his handling of certain disputes. In his first tenure, there was the Brad McCrimmon trade. In the second, there was Lindros.

With that said, I think Clarke did a good job overall in his second tenure. He rapidly built a Stanley Cup contender out of a team that had missed the playoffs five straight years. In particular, if not for the gutsy decision to trade Mark Recchi to Montreal in the deal that brought Eric Desjardins and John LeClair to Philadelphia -- an unpopular deal in Philly on the day it happened -- I wonder if the Flyers' teams of the mid-to-late 1990s would have even been contenders.

If you are going to criticize the things Clarke did wrong as a general manager, you also have to look at the things he did right. The Flyers teams of 1995 to 1997 and the 2003-04 squad were some very good ones.

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Flyers Travelogue: Whitney Forum

At some point in my life, I want to take a trip to Flin Flon, Manitoba, and take in a game at the venerable Whitney Forum. The small hockey rink gave rise to two of the most important players in Flyers history.

Named after the lead character, Professor Josiah Flintabbatey Flonatin, from a J. E. Preston Muddock novel entitled The Sunless City, the small mining town of Flin Flon, Manitoba was founded in 1927 by Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting Company. The town's creation came about as the result of the discovery of exceptionally large deposits of copper and zinc ore in the region.

As legend has it, famed prospector Tom Creighton, who found gold in western Canada, happened upon a discarded copy of the book in the Canadian wilderness and carried it with him on his ultimately successful exploration. He named the site of his discovery "Flin Flon". In the book, Flintabbatey Flonatin, discovers a strange underground world lined with gold.

The dream of riches brought impoverished farmers from Saskatchewan and Manitoba to leave their farms and work in the mines of what grew into a small town (population 5,592 as of 2011). For most of the males in the town, life revolved around two things -- working long hours in the mines and, for recreation, playing hockey.

The local hockey team, the Flin Flon Bombers, was founded in 1927. Now a club in the Junior A-level Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, the Bombers were once a force in Canadian junior hockey, winning the Memorial Cup in 1957 and remaining a strong team in western Canadian junior hockey for many years.

The Flin Flon team's golden era (pun intended) spanned the late 1960s to early 1970s, when the team won the MJHL title in 1966-67 and then captured the WCHL championship in back-to-back seasons (1968-69 and 1969-70). The coach in those years was the late Pat Ginnell, who later became a scout for the St. Louis Blues.

The star players for the Bombers: A diabetic Flin Flon boy by the name of Bobby Clarke (son of local mine worker, Cliff) and his linemate, a half-Cree teenager from Riverton, Manitoba, by the name of Reggie Leach. In those days, Clarke wore #11 and Leach was #9. Both numbers were later retired by the Bombers.

Whenever the Bombers played a home game in those days, the stands at Whitney Forum would be packed with the players' parents, friends and just about everyone else who lived in or near Flin Flon. Built in 1958, the rink is still in use by the Bombers to this day.

It has often been said that places shape people as much as people shape places, and Clarke has always been a Flin Flon boy at heart, embodying the values his father taught him. Bob Clarke has always been hard-working and unassuming but also fiercely (even sometimes ruthlessly) competitive. He put his team first, and loyalty to one's employer was given unequivocally. It wasn't so much that Clarke loved winning, but he regarded losing as a fate worse than death.

For both Leach and Clarke, hockey was a ticket out of lives of drudgery. Clarke, a bright young man but a poor student who dropped out after the ninth grade, spent every possible hour at Whitney Forum or playing hockey outdoors. He had no use for school and no interest in spending his life working in the mines.

The young Clarke wasn't even especially covetous of playing in the National Hockey League; he only cared about the next game. It wasn't until shortly before the 1969 Draft that he realized he might be able to have a pro hockey career.

Clarke at least came from a stable, working-class home. Leach came from a broken home and a life of poverty. Born in 1950 to unmarried teenage parents, Reggie Leach never really knew his father, who went off to work in the mines before he was born. His Cree mother soon left, too, moving off to start a new life in Edmonton.

Leach was raised by his paternal grandparents, along with twelve of their own children. They were extremely poor and the poverty was exacerbated by rampant drinking. Several members of the household died alcohol-related deaths.

As with Clarke, Leach was a poor student in school and found his salvation in playing hockey. Using borrowed equipment, Leach spent hour after hour playing hockey. When he wasn't in an organized game, he'd go off on his own to skate and shoot.

At the age of 13, Leach was recruited to play with adults on a semi-pro club. News of the talented youngster's abilities spread quickly. Leach soon joined the Bombers, who had become the top junior club in Manitoba by that time. He and Clarke developed a friendship off the ice as well as their incredible chemistry on the ice.

Clarke was drafted seventeenth overall by the Philadelphia Flyers in 1969, while Leach, a year Clarke's junior, went third overall to the Boston Bruins in 1970. Four years later, the defending Stanley Cup champion Flyers acquired Leach from the California Seals and placed him on Clarke's line, along with Bill Barber. The rest was history.

If you want to visit the hockey arena where Clarke and Leach got their start and see the current-day version of the Bombers play, the team's 2013-14 schedule can be accessed by clicking here.

************

Former Flyers forward Ian Laperriere, now the organization's Director of Player Development, will be participating in the Ironman Mont-Tremblant: North American Championship on August 18. Apart from competing in the triatholon, Lappy is raising funds for a variety of charitable causes: the IRONMAN Foundation, Ronald McDonald House, the National Pancreatic Cancer Foundation and Go4theGoal Foundation- Tunes4Teens. For more information or to make a donation, click here.

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