One by one, they struggled in from the cold of the parking lot carrying a large duffel bag of equipment and with a hockey stick or two tucked under an arm. The former Flyers who will play an alumni game on Saturday night at the Wells Fargo Center against a team of Pittsburgh Penguins alumni have to haul their own stuff these days and they move a bit slower than before, but they are Flyers forever and the fans never forget.
A small group of the faithful waited just inside the front door of the Skate Zone in Voorhees on Monday morning, bearing photographs and jerseys and hats and magazines and pucks and sticks and autograph books and every imaginable bit of orange ephemera from the 50 years of franchise history. Of course, being Flyers, they all stopped and signed.
The door opened once again and Brian Propp entered, bringing in a chilly blast reminiscent of his Saskatchewan boyhood home. He is 57 now and looks as unassuming as ever, a 5-foot-9 Everyman with a broad, open face and fading traces of freckles across his cheekbones. He stopped and began to sign his name for the orderly line of fans that formed when he was still halfway across the parking lot. The fans chattered excitedly with him and studied him as he bent to the task, but it's likely no one even noticed that Propp was signing with his left hand.
"He took the time to teach himself to do that," former teammate Mark Howe said. "It doesn't surprise me. That's who Brian Propp is."
Sixteen months ago, Propp was vacationing in Annapolis, Md., with his wife and two children when he awoke with a searing headache. He tried to get out of bed for aspirin, but the right side of his body was paralyzed and he collapsed to the floor, breaking two teeth in the fall. This healthy, active man who never lost a tooth in 30 years of playing hockey, including 15 in the NHL, was bleeding on the floor, the victim of a massive stroke.
The recovery has been long and difficult, and it is continuing, but Propp is much luckier than some who never regain the use of limbs or whose power of speech never returns. His right arm and hand still sometimes betray him, so he has learned to adapt. On the ice Monday with the other alumni, he skated with ease and, if you didn't know, you might not see the lingering effects. Propp is aware of them, though.
"I can still skate and still shoot, but not as well as I want to," he said. "I've been skating for eight months now and I play in a little morning league. It's not serious, but it's been really good for my health. It's been good for the mental part of things."
Late in the practice session on Monday, in a three-on-three cross-ice scrimmage, Propp took a pass from John LeClair in front of the net and flicked a shot past goalie Neil Little. The other players turned to watch and, sure enough, Propp glided toward the center line, put his right glove under his left arm, pulled his hand free, waved it above his head and said, "Guffaw." It was his signature, goofy move as a player, an homage to Canadian comedian Howie Mandel, and the way he celebrated many of the 369 goals he scored with the Flyers.
"I needed to get one in practice. That was good for me," Propp said.
Propp played 11 seasons with the Flyers and is still ranked second in franchise history for goals (to Bill Barber), second in assists (to Bob Clarke) and third in games played (Clarke and Barber). He was a first-round pick in the 1979 draft and played his last Flyers game in 1990, the same year the team drafted Mikael Renberg to help fill the left wing position the way Propp himself had eased the transition from Barber.
The generations hold hands within this organization and all of them will be represented on Saturday in a game that is part of the 50th anniversary celebration for both the Flyers and the Penguins. From Joe Watson to Orest Kindrachuk, from Reggie Leach to Clarke and Barber, from Tim Kerr to Dave Poulin, and on and on, the generations will link again, including more recent players like Danny Briere and Brian Boucher. To be on the ice together is special, but for Propp, every day is special.
"I've got a good story to tell and now I can help people who are not as fortunate with stroke and brain injuries," Propp said. "I get notes all the time from people, and I call them and help with advice. It's a tough thing people go through and they often struggle with depression. I'm very fortunate that I can still speak. I work with speech therapists every week and I have to concentrate to slow things down a little bit. But skating and being with these guys is great for me. They supported me when I needed it."
Across the small locker room at the Skate Zone, Howe sat on a bench and watched Propp talk with enthusiasm about his recovery.
"When I joined the Flyers, we became friends almost instantly," Howe said. "It's funny, because when we were on different teams we used to spear each other and curse at each other. But he's a very upbeat person, a very positive person and a great teammate to be around. What he's gone through had to be trying and taxing. To see him doing as well as he is makes me very happy."
Hockey makes them all happy. For Propp, hockey has also helped him heal. He isn't all the way back yet, but the ice is open in front of him and there is time on the clock. He doesn't ask for more.