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Meltzer's Musings: Clarke and Summit Series Anniversary

September 2, 2012, 10:01 AM ET [31 Comments]
Bill Meltzer
Philadelphia Flyers Blogger •NHL.com • RSSArchiveCONTACT
Today marks the 40th anniversary of the start of the landmark 1972 Summit Series between Team Canada and the Soviet Union. So much has been said and written over the years about the political overtones of the series of eight games and how much Canada winning the final three games in Moscow to capture the hard-fought series with a 4-3-1 record meant to the country.

The 1972 Summit Series was also the breakthrough for 23-year-old Flyers center Bobby Clarke to superstardom in the hockey world. Virtually every history of the Summit Series focuses primarily on Clarke's vicious slash of Soviet's top star Valeri Kharlamov's ankle in Game 6 and how, while vile in nature, the incident was also a key turning point in the series in the Canadians' favor.

More on the Kharlamov slash later. Let's focus first on the positive.

While Toronto Maple Leafs forward Paul Henderson may have been the (somewhat surprising) top offensive star of the series, Clarke was Team Canada's best all-around player on a game-in and game-out basis. The kid from Flin Flon was productive offensively -- third on the team with six points -- but he was also relentless on the forecheck and backcheck, strong defensively and dominant in the faceoff circle.

Before the start of the Summit Series, Clarke was still a fairly obscure player to the average hockey follower. Devoted hockey fans and the Toronto, Montreal, New York and Boston media knew he was a rising young NHL player, of course, but he was hardly the focus of widespread attention. Clarke didn't play for an Original Six team, so he really didn't matter in their opinions.

Yes, Clarke was coming off a 35-goal, 81-point 1971-72 season in the NHL. He finished 10th in the NHL in scoring that season. But he did it for a lowly Flyers team that finished with a 26-38-14 record (fifth in the weaker, expansion-team heavy Western Division) and missed the playoffs.

Thus, hardly anyone outside Philly, where the club averaged a commendable 14,379 fans per game at the Spectrum, paid much notice. Clarke finished eight in the 1972 Hart Trophy balloting, with five points. The only votes he received came from Philadelphia.

Forty years ago, the majority of Canadian (or American) hockey fans had barely seen Clarke play, and many had never seen him play at all. The Flyers did not have their Broad Street Bullies image yet.

Philly led the NHL with 1,233 penalty minutes in 1971-72. Fred Shero was the coach by that point, and the club had three players in the NHL's top 10 in penalty minutes. But the Flyers weren't public enemy #1 yet around the NHL. They were just another still-struggling expansion team. No one in Toronto, Montreal, New York or Boston truly started to hate the Flyers -- or criticize Clarke for his stickwork -- until the team started to win.

Funny how that happens, eh?

Likewise, Philadelphia was not yet a top road attraction. Hockey Night in Canada wasn't clamoring to show Canadian teams play against the Flyers, and the NHL did not have a regular season national television outlet in the United States. Select Stanley Cup playoff games were shown nationally on CBS, but the Flyers' season was over by then.

Whenever Clarke's now-legendary work ethic is discussed, people always focus mainly on how hard he worked on the ice. But Clarke, a diabetic, also set himself apart off the ice in terms of paying attention to things like diet and exercise. Clarke was no stranger to the inside of a gym in an era where that was not common for hockey players.

Forty years ago, many NHL players needed training camp to shed a few pounds of "summer weight" and gradually play their way into shape; at a fitness level inferior to what would get one of today's player pilloried for being fat and out-of-shape. That is part of the reason why the Soviets (who trained year-round) had the edge in the first five games of the series.

Clarke was different. He was physically ready to play from the opening faceoff of Game 1. Couple that with his intense hatred of losing -- and immediate dislike of the opposing Soviets -- and he played like a man possessed from the get-go. For many of his teammates, it took getting humiliated (1-2-1) in the games played in Canada to raise their intensity level to a comparable level.

By the time the Summit Series was over, everyone who followed or covered hockey knew who Bobby Clarke was and what he was all about -- both for better and for worse. There was no price too high to pay to win, and no tactic too vicious to resort to if necessary to attain victory.

Clarke won the first of his three Hart Trophies in the season immediately following the Summit Series. His 104 points (second in the NHL to Phil Esposito's 130 points) and Philadelphia reaching the playoffs certainly made a strong case on Clarke's behalf. Even so, had there been no Summit Series, Clarke probably would not have had enough league-wide cache to capture his first Hart Trophy until 1974-75.

By that point, of course, the marauding Broad Street Bullies were Stanley Cup champions and everyone else had no choice but take notice of Clarke. The 1972 Summit Series just showed the hockey world ahead of time what the Flyers already knew.

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When I was growing up as a Flyers fan in the 1970s, Bobby Clarke was my first sports idol. In fact, from ages 3 to 14, I deified him. So did all of my friends. Only the Lord saved more than Bernie Parent, but Bobby Clarke was pretty much synonymous with God as far as we were concerned.

In a typical day in my life at the time, I'd go outside to play sporting a short-sleeve "Bobby" t-shirt emblazoned with his photo or a long-sleeve #16 Flyers shirt, which I soon outgrew but tried to stretch out to continue "fitting" me. My pants were held up with a belt that had color photos of various NHL stars of the 1970s, including Clarke.

On many a day, 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 a corresponding orange Mylec street hockey ball or orange Bobby Clarke Street Hockey puck. 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 a) I ALWAYS got to be Clarke (we'd pick which Flyers player we were supposed to be) and b) I never once was on the losing side in those solo games.

On rainy days, I frequently 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 (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 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.

The most infamous incident of Clarke's career happened in Game 6 of the Summit Series, when he injured Valeri Kharlamov -- a supremely skilled but also sometimes ruthless player in his own right. There has been so much mystique and misinformation put out over the years about that one play that is not always easy to separate fact from fiction.

First of all, Clarke did not "shatter" Kharmalov's ankle with the slash. In reality, the winger suffered a deep bone bruise that kept him out of Game 7 and had him at far less than 100 percent in Game 8. But no hockey player, no matter how brave -- or shot full of pain-killers -- can support enough weight to skate on a shattered ankle.

In fact, Kharlamov got up shortly after the slash and (to his credit, I might add) to confront Clarke and exchange cross words with the Canadian bench before limping to the Soviet bench. He later returned to the ice.



A little more context about the Kharlamov incident: Up to that point in the series, Kharlamov had racked up seven points in the series. Throughout Game Six, Team Canada attempted to target Kharmalov, as well as Boris Mikhailov and the more pacifistic Alexander Yakushev.

In some versions of the story, Team Canada assistant John Ferguson exhorted Clarke on the bench to go after Kharlamov, telling him "that guy is killing us -- we need to do something. I think he needs a tap on the ankle." Ferguson himself advanced that version of the story, while Clarke himself has always maintained that he had no recollection of the slash being ordered by the bench and it was just something he did in the heat of battle and was neither proud nor especially ashamed of doing.

Video footage of the game pretty bears out Clarke's version. He and Kharlamov tangled several times during the series, and things started to heat up again in the second period of Game 6.

In one shift, Kharlamov knocked Clarke to the ice. In retaliation, Clarke face-washed him and the two punched each other (with the gloves on). Detroit Red Wings defenseman Gary Bergman came to Clarke's immediate defense, jostling and jawing with Kharlamov all the way back to the bench on a shift change. On Kharlamov's next shift, he was greeted by a Peter Mahovlich elbow. As Mahovlich went to skate away, Kharlamov tripped him.

That set the stage for what came next. Clarke hunted down Kharlamov in the defensive zone, deliberately targeting his already-sore ankle with a two-handed chop. He was not penalized.

As noted above, Kharlamov eventually got up to go over and yell at the Canadian bench before hobbling off to the dressing room. Kharlamov soon returned to the ice and finished the game. After sitting out the next match, the Soviet star played in Game 8. He was largely ineffective. Canada won Games 6, 7 and 8 to capture the series.

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Clarke was involved in an equally vicious -- but largely forgotten by history -- incident right after the Summit Series. When the Summit Series was finished, Team Canada traveled to Prague to play one game against Team Czechoslovakia.

Throughout the game, Clarke did battle with star Czech defenseman Frantisek Pospisil, a standout two-way blueliner for HC Kladno who likely would have been an NHL star on the order of Sweden's Börje Salming had the political climate of the times allowed for Pospisil to play in North America.

In one sequence, Pospisil slashed Clarke on the hand in retaliation for an earlier chop taken by Clarke. On their next shift, they exchanged high sticks and slashes behind the play. An enraged, Clarke then skated up next to Posposil, jawing at him and raring back with his stick. Clarke butt-ended Pospisil in the head.

Fortunately both for Clarke and Pospisil, the blow ended up glancing off the bottom of the Czech's helmet, knocking it to the ice. Pospisil "got his bell rung" and suffered a superficial cut near his temple but was otherwise OK. He stayed on his feet. Although dazed, he did not miss a shift. If the main point of contact had been anywhere else on Pospisil's head, he could have been severely injured.





The game ended in a 3-3 tie. Clarke, who had an assist in the game, drew derisive whistles from the Czech fans every time he stepped on the ice thereafter. The next day, a state-controlled newspaper in Prague wrote that Clarke should be arrested as a criminal if he ever set foot in the country again.

The newspaper also conveniently failed to mention the fact that the crowd greeted Team Canada captain Stan Mikita -- who was born Stanislaus Guoth in current day Slovakia and whose parents sent him out of the communist country at age 8 to live with his uncle and aunt in Canada -- with the largest pre-game ovation of any player on either team.

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Something else that is forgotten about the Summit Series is the fact that during the break in between Games 4 and 5, Team Canada spent several days in Stockholm to play two games against Tre Kronor (Sept. 16 and 17, 1972) and conduct a hockey clinic with Stockholm-based boys teams of players born from 1958 to 1960.

The Team Canada trip marked the first time that a young Stockholm boy named Pelle Lindbergh saw NHL players in person, and stood on the same ice as his future Flyers teammate and general manager Clarke.

The following is a partially unpublished excerpt from Chapter 4 of the Behind the White Mask manuscript:


Pelle Lindbergh and his buddy, Björn Neckman, can hardly believe their ears: Many of the NHL’s biggest stars are coming to Sweden – and they’re coming to right to the boys' neighborhood in the nearby Johanneshov’s Ice Stadium, no less!

In September 1972, Team Canada comes to Stockholm for two exhibition games against Tre Kronor in preparation for the upcoming Summit Series against the Soviet Union. A local newspaper holds a contest in which the winner gets the opportunity to see Team Canada practice before the exhibitions. Björn wins the contest and brings Pelle along.

In addition, prior to the first exhibition game, Pelle and the majority of Hammarby’s ’58 Gang get to meet the Canadian players for a mini-ceremony in which the youngsters presented Swedish gifts to the Canadians. Several players returned the favor by giving the kids hockey presents.

Among the players Pelle meets is Bobby Clarke, the 23-year-old burgeoning star center for the Philadelphia Flyers, for whom the Summit Series marks a breakthrough in his career. Pelle’s friend and teammate, Anders Lånström, receives Clarke’s stick as Lindbergh stands nearby.

During the game, Bobby Hull puts on a jaw-dropping display of his shooting skills with his banana-curved stick.

“We were extremely impressed by a goal that Hull scored. He skated up to the red line and fired a rising shot that went right up under the crossbar,” Neckman remembers.

Even Pelle – who, in his hockey fantasies, can stop any shot at any time – can’t fathom how it’d be possible to stop Hull’s guided missile, despite the distance from which he shot it. The puck has wicked movement on it, starting ankle high and ending up going over the goalie’s shoulder in the blink of an eye.

Team Canada wins the first game by a 4-1 count. The team’s tie the second game, 4-4. Both are sloppily played games with a lot of penalty minutes. Play turns a bit nasty after Canada’s Wayne Cashman catches a high stick from Ulf Sterner flush in the mouth, going off for 50 stitches after spitting out two teeth.

“Cool!” the young Hammarby players exclaim.

Cashman and the other Team Canada players don’t exactly share the kids’ sentiments. In retaliation, Canada's Vic Hadfield deliberately cross-checked Swedish captain Lars-Erik Sjöberg in the mouth, opening a bloody cut that sent him off for stitches.

During the second intermission, Team Canada players scuffled with Tre Kronor players in the runway leading to the dressing rooms. Stockholm police separated the enraged combatants before the situation escalated into a full-scale brawl.
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