As appeared in Philadelphia SportsWeek on Dec. 10...
THE LAST TIME Bernie Parent strapped on his pads, he thought it would be his last.
“It was about 2 or 3 years ago, but then 2-year-old kids were shooting on me at the [Flyers wives’] carnival,” Parent remembered.
On New Year’s Eve, the shots will be a little bit more powerful, rocketing off the sticks of Mark Messier, Brian Leetch and Stephane Matteau when Parent will make his triumphant return to the ice against the Rangers alumni at Citizens Bank Park.
Originally scheduled to just be an ambassador for the game, Parent decided earlier this week — after prodding from fans in public and on Twitter — that he would actually play in the game.
Even though Parent, now 66, last played for the Flyers in 1979, he said he felt a certain amount of pressure to “perform well” in front of the fans. His No. 1 jersey was retired by the Flyers upon his retirement; he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1984.
Joking that he was still in his prime — “You may question that, but I’m not,” Parent said — he admitted it took a little time to swallow his pride knowing that he hasn’t stopped a puck in decades.
“At first, I didn’t feel like it,” Parent said. “Then I thought about it and thought about it and you look at the fans and [decided] you can’t be selfish about something like this.
“Why not go out and wave to the people and maybe play 10 minutes? That’s why I made the decision.”
As the last line of defense, goaltenders are always hard on themselves. Parent said that he used to have trouble stopping Bob Clarke or Reggie Leach in practice, but once he allowed a goal to Bob Kelly — now his fellow team ambassador at home games — he knew “it was the end” of his career.
The good news for Parent is that the Flyers alumni roster is made up of many of his former teammates, all of whom will be in the same boat. Of the 29 players on the roster, 11 played for the Flyers in the 1970s. Clarke, Bill Barber and Joe Watson have been skating regularly in preparation for the rapidly approaching game.
Luckily for Parent, fellow goaltenders Mark LaForest and Neil Little will handle the bulk of the workload in net. Believe it or not, Parent will be wearing all of his original equipment, including pads, glove and blocker, and mask.
Parent said Watson had been recommending that the Flyers play an “old timers” game for years, but with the franchise’s original crop of players getting up there in age, Parent said they should be focusing on golf instead. Watson, 68, is the game’s oldest player. Coach Pat Quinn, also 68, and assistant coach Mike Nykoluk, 77, will be the oldest participants.
Parent said the biggest thing that would likely change is his pregame ritual. In the old days, he would eat a big steak in the afternoon and then take a nap. When he woke up, Parent would watch an episode of the Three Stooges.
“That’s terrible, but that’s the way it was in those days,” Parent said. “That brought results, so that was my philosophy.”
Growing up in Montreal, Parent first started skating outdoors like everyone else. His biggest wish for New Year’s Eve is a cold day to “bring back some good memories.” He started skating at the age of 12 and somehow made his way into the net.
“I wanted to become a defenseman . . . You go around the ice and depending on your time, the coach puts you in a position,” Parent recalled. “Most players went around the ice in 14 seconds, I did mine in 21 seconds. He looked at me and said ‘goaltender.’ And then in the first game, it was an outdoor game, I had 21 goals against and then he looked at me again and said, ‘Get out of here.’ ’’
After his first stint with the Flyers from 1967-71, he linked up with his idol, Jacques Plante, as his backup in 1971-72 with the Maple Leafs, late in Plante’s career. Plante made him into the goaltender that backstopped the Flyers to back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1974 and 1975.
Nonetheless, Parent is excited that there will be plenty of fathers and sons shivering in the ballpark seats and passing on each player’s exploits and memories as they skate by — albeit slower — in front of them. You can guarantee that at least one sign in the Citizens Bank Park stands will read, “Only the Lord Saves More Than Bernie Parent.”
“The sad part is, there will be grandfathers, too,” Parent said. “It’s been a long time. Guys are getting older now. They’re not in their mid-50s, they’re getting close to mid-60s. A lot of those [fans] were there when we won the Stanley Cup. It’s a very strong feeling for people to see a lot of former all-stars from the Rangers and Flyers. That’ll be awesome.”
Parent is grateful to the fans who have asked him for one more shot at a standing ovation. He knows this opportunity will only knock once.
“They made me realize, why not go one more time?” Parent said. “At the beginning, I was putting too much pressure on how I should perform. You go out there and wave to the people and let them see you one more time. Probably the last time.”
For the latest updates, follow Frank Seravalli on Twitter: @DNFlyers