Philadelphia Flyers, 1984-1990, 1994-2006
Minnesota North Stars, 1990-1992
Florida Panthers, 1993-1994
Patrick Division Titles, 1984-1987
Atlantic Division Titles, 1994-1996, 1999-2000, 2001-2002, 2003-2004
Playoff Appearances: 1985-1989, 1991-1992, 1995-2006
Stanley Cup Finals Appearance: 1985, 1987, 1991, 1997
If Bobby Clarke had not been inducted into the HHOF as a player in 1987 he still would have still earned induction later on as a builder—he was that great a great manager.
Although he never managed a Stanley Cup winner as a general manager, he built teams which made it to the big dance four times; including his first season as a GM. Clarke displayed a shrewd eye for talent: both playing and coaching talent.
Considering that he started his managing career midway through the 1980s he was still the sixth best GM of the 1980s and 1990s. He ended his managerial career early in the 2006/07 season but still managed to end being the 7th best GM of the 1990s (had it not been a bad season Clarke would have ranked higher).
Considering the fact that Clarke never managed a Stanley Cup winner, Clarke’s decade values are not bad at all.
Even more significantly his Average Season Rating of +5.762 is 19th among all NHL GMs with at least five seasons of management experience; again, not bad for a GM who never managed a Cup winner. (Clarke’s career ASR is superior to the following: Punch Imlach, Scotty Bowman, Art Ross, Glen Sather, Lester Patrick, and Cliff Fletcher to name a few).
At his peak during the 2005/06 season, Bobby Clarke was the 9th greatest NHL GMs of all time (according to my rating system) but in recent years has been surpassed by two active NHL GMs today whose names will be revealed in the weeks to come.
Bobby Clarke is one of the game’s greatest legends: born in Flin Flon; overcoming diabetes; passed over completely in the first round of the NHL draft by the entire NHL before being drafted in the second round by Philadelphia.
(The what-if scenarios are compelling. The Bruins had three chances to draft Clarke in the first round but didn’t. Montreal and the Rangers had two chances. The Minnesota North Stars had two opportunities to draft Clarke but failed. Toronto passed over Clarke and drafted a player who never played a single minute in the NHL).
Clarke swiftly became the greatest Philadelphia Flyers player ever. Gritty, determined, hockey-mean, dangerous with his hockey stick; selfless with the puck (twice he led the NHL in assists); magnificent two-way skills; dangerous in penalty-killing situations (twice Clarke led the NHL in short-handed goals); and adept at forcing the opposition into committing penalties (usually in retaliation against Clarke’s chippy play) he made the Flyers great. Thrice he was awarded the Hart Trophy.
Sparking the Flyers two Stanley Cup wins in four tries, Clarke spent his entire 15 seasons in Philadelphia becoming a sports icon; forever loved.
But what to do when the final buzzer on his playing career ends?
Amazingly, Clarke was hired by the Flyers to become their GM, replacing Bob McCammon (who had succeeded Keith Allen). It was unheard of for a player to become a manager immediately after retiring as a player without even coaching in the interim. It was a daring gamble by Flyers owner Jay Snider.
And yet in the beginning it paid off handsomely.
His first big decision was in hiring a new head coach. After carefully screening the candidates Bobby Clarke reached down and pulled a rabbit out of his hat by the name of Mike Keenan—thus launching one of the greatest coaching careers in NHL history. Keenan led the Flyers to the finals twice (more than any other Flyers coach since Fred Shero). Twice Keenan fell short of winning the Cup but he made the Flyers into a formidable team.
How did Clarke succeed so early?
It wasn’t through the amateur draft. Clarke’s early draft picks (with the exception of Scott Melanby) did not contribute anything dramatically to the Flyers good fortune. Those draft picks that did make it in the NHL were usually quickly traded to other teams like Gord Murphy, Murray Baron, and Greg Johnson.
Actually the players who formed the soul of those 1980s Cup teams were already in place by the time Bobby Clarke took over as GM: Ron Hextall Jr., Ron Sutter, Dave Brown, Peter Zezel, and Rick Tocchet.
Bobby Clarke’s greatest draft picks were Derian Hatcher in 1990 (when Clarke was managing the North Stars) and Rob Niedermayer in 1993 (when Clarke was GM in Florida); and, later, during his second reign as Flyers GM when he drafted Simon Gagne, Dainius Zubrus, Justin Williams, Jeff Carter, and Mike Richards.
If Bobby Clarke had a flaw as GM it was that the Flyers were very much behind the curve when it came to harvesting hockey talent from Europe. When the Europeanization of the game began in the 1980s and really took off in the 1990s, Philadelphia never acquired major European talent like Detroit and Pittsburgh did.
Was this a prejudice on Clarke’s part or, more likely, Clarke acting in consonance with the wishes of Flyers owner Ed Snider? As a Flyers fan I tend to think it was more of the latter but still that reluctance to acquire European talent compromised the Flyers chances of excelling in the playoffs and winning the Stanley Cup.
With regards to trades, Clarke’s biggest trade had to have been the acquisition of John LeClair and Eric Desjardins from Montreal in exchange for Mark Recchi. LeClair teamed up with Eric Lindros to form part of the Legion of Doom Line. Desjardins was a solid defenceman who augmented the Flyers blue-line corps splendidly.
Clarke spent six seasons in Philadelphia before being fired by Ed Snider in 1990. Clarke went to Minnesota and managed the North Stars to their second Stanley Cup appearance in their franchise history.
Clarke was in on the ground floor when the Florida Panthers were formed; becoming the team’s first GM. His selection of Roger Neilson was inspired. Neilson coaxed the Panthers to finest debut season in NHL expansion franchise history.
In 1994 the Flyers were in freefall and needed rebuilding. Ed Snider brought Bobby Clarke back to where he belonged. Clarke brought with him another inspired coaching choice: Terry Murray and got the best years of Murray’s coaching career out him; leading the Flyers to the 1997 Stanley Cup finals.
It was after that the things began to get tougher for Clarke and the Flyers. The Flyers underachieved in the playoffs. Clarke got into controversies with Flyers star and team captain Eric Lindros for several reasons: 1) the acrimonious negotiations with Lindros’ agent-father Carl; and 2) the handling and treatment of the Lindros’ injuries and concussions; Clarke also showed a sad and improper lack of sensitivity towards Roger Neilson when Neilson was diagnosed with the cancer that eventually killed him (if ever there was an argument against sainthood then that episode stands as evidence).
Clarke tried to rally by hiring Ken Hitchcock and for a time the team did respond but when the 2006/07 season began the team was in freefall. Ken Hitchcock was hired and Bobby Clarke was allowed to resign gracefully (to be replaced by Paul Holmgren).
Bobby Clarke remains a part of the Philadelphia Flyers family, kicked upstairs. In many ways he could have been greater than he was but what he did accomplish was pretty darn good, given the limitations he had to manage under.
Even if you take away his sterling playing career, Bobby Clarke’s managerial career was worthy of HHOF consideration as well.
(Next week’s column will feature the tenth greatest NHL GM of all. I’ve decided to keep the top ten GMs names a secret until they are revealed in order to heighten suspense.)