While it was Hall of Famer Bobby Clarke taking the responsibility for the recent failure of the Philadelphia Flyers, the real causes of the problems that plague the once-proud franchise are far more profound. Yes, it was Clarke who signed players like Derian Hatcher, Mike Rathje and Nolan Baumgartner in the past two off-seasons. But Clarke is also responsible –along with now-fired coach Ken Hitchcock – for getting an injury-riddled squad from 2005-06 into the playoffs with a 101-point season.
True, it was under the leadership of Clarke and Ed Snider that the team bet the new NHL would be more like the old NHL. Historically, the changes the NHL had made to the game never resulted in such wholesale changes. Considering Snider sat on the competition committee – and looking at the Flyers’ past success – who would have doubted a team plan for the new NHL that swiftly replaced a battered and slow Jeremy Roenick with the best forward in the NHL in Peter Forsberg?
As recently as the start of last season, the Flyers were the Vegas favorites to win the Stanley Cup. Yet the Philly faithful and the Philly miserable (a.k.a. the media including the local papers and talk radio) quickly jumped off the bandwagon when injuries occurred and the officials actually kept calling the obstruction penalties.
Many people consider Philadelphia to be a great sports town, and in many ways it is. While the fans are as “glass half empty” as any you can find in America, they are also bitterly loyal. Despite the fact that the Phillies haven’t made the playoffs since 1993, they pile into a beautiful new stadium to watch a baseball team that refuses to spend money on pitching.
When Terrell Owens tossed his coach and quarterback under the proverbial bus – precipitating a horrible 6-10 season – fans still make it out to another beautiful stadium to freeze their cheese steaks off in unreasonable temperatures. Philadelphia fans are loyal, perhaps even to a fault. But at the same time, they long for a championship team so badly (the last Philly champions were the 1983 Sixers) that they put undue pressure on the franchises, players, coaches and team executives of the city’s teams.
Forget breaking out a violin for Boston: they have recent championships from The Pats and the Red Sox to remember. Chicago fans can remember the Bulls of the 1990s and the White Sox from last season.
Philly fans who constantly complain about Bob Clarke on the air waves of WIP quickly forget the lowly days of Russ Farwell, when the Flyers would lose one-goal game after one-goal game. The callers on WIP and many of the writers of the local papers quickly forget that while Clarke was in Minnesota with the North Stars, he took a small-market team to the Cup. He then moved to Florida, and built a team that also went to the Cup.
Upon retuning to Philly, Clarke built a playoff contending team each and every year he was here. In the old NHL – with two of his better defensemen out and his best defenseman playing with a broken hand – the Flyers fought the eventual Stanley Cup champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning, to a one-goal Game Seven defeat.
History proves that Clarke is a winner, a champion and a manager who could not only build a team under a salary cap, he could even do it back when not all teams were capped.
Winning Teams Versus Championship Teams
It is important to understand the difference between being a winning team and a champion team. To consistently win takes a solid understanding of the architecture of a successful team. It requires the ability to develop new talent and solve immediate problems through trades, signings and beyond. Clarke’s track record proved he could do all of that.
When it comes down to actually winning it all, it often boils down to very small factors. Call it luck if you will. Others might call it fate or destiny. With all luck, fate and destiny aside, a winning team has to be true to the method that got them in contention to win.
While writers and fans alike loved to second guess Phil Mickelson when he hit driver on the 72nd hole of the U.S. Open this year by saying “he could have teed off with a four-iron and made a par to win.” He didn’t get in position to win because he hit four-irons off the tee the past three plus days.
But then people who have never played themselves into contention in anything will interview a player (or in this case a GM) questions like “how does it feel to be the best player to never win a major?” or “how can you compete with Tiger?” While this kind of second-guessing sells papers or magazines and gets people to tune into a sports wrap-up show, true winners and ultimately champions stick with their successful ways, believe in it and move forward. Sadly, with Bob Clarke likely leaving the Flyers, it is possible he will now take his winning ways elsewhere.
The Philly Media and Bob Clarke
While critics of Bob Clarke rightfully suggest he could have used a 16-week Dale Carnegie course on how to win friends and influence people, his actions as the team’s GM were not all that different than the character of play that won him two rings, an induction to the Hockey Hall of Fame and a big role in the Flyers being one of the winningest NHL franchises (only behind the Habs) over the past 40 years.
His Machiavellian handling of “The Next One” who really wasn’t was only one of Clarke’s perceived problems. The local papers, who second guessed Clarke at every single decision, never acknowledged the reality that Eric Lindros was never as good (or healthy on the ice) as Lindros, his father and or his mother thought he was.
In fact, after the playoff run in 1997, Lindros played in only seven of a total of 24 games yet it was Clarke who to this day still gets criticized for not signing an $8,000,000 goalie in Curtis Joseph when John Vanbiesbrouck was standing on his head in a Toronto series while the Flyers scored woefully few goals.
Specifically, the Philly papers – clearly biased against their winningest franchise and the local hero at the helm – got their way and got rid of Clarke. As a lifelong Flyers fan, this situation absolutely reeks. Agendas rule over news, and results are ignored over ideology. And so the Flyers find themselves judged by a biased media that ignores their tremendous success.
In the end, what matters more than performance? For Philly fans, very little. Ironically, in terms of performance, Knight Ridder recently sold the two main Philly papers to a local group that is trying to breath new life into the properties. On Friday it was the new ownership of the Philadelphia Inquirer that said that large layoffs at the paper were “unavoidable.” Perhaps bashing proven winners and lauded sports heroes over personal vendettas doesn’t sell as many papers after all?