Donnellon: 1980s Flyers thrill and spill in unfulfilling decade

LIGHTNING FLYERS
Goalie Ron Hextall was a big part of the Flyers success in the 1980s.

DAVE POULIN figures he has nearly 1,000 teammates. You do the simple math, factoring in-season trades and players who bridged eras, and there are probably at least 1,000 men who have worn the orange and black in the 50 seasons the Philadelphia Flyers have existed.

They're all his teammates, said Poulin. It's a concept that surely traces to the paternalism of the team's owner, Ed Snider, but it's also a concept that was forged during his time in the mid-80s when Poulin captained those overreaching teams that came oh-so-close to adding a third and fourth Stanley Cup to the team's history, a team that dealt with the tragic death of its franchise goalie and nearly overcame two of hockey's greatest dynasties.

"If you were a Flyer even for a little time, you were a Flyer,'' Poulin, now a broadcaster in Toronto, was saying recently. "To this day I'll be talking to a former Flyer in a press box somewhere and people will walk by and say, 'Oh, those are Flyers.'

That's whether he's talking to Mark Howe or Danny Briere or even an original Flyer, Joe Watson. It extends before and beyond that, and it bridges generations of players who wore the orange and black jersey ever-so-briefly. And while the Cup-winning players of the 1970s set the standard of excellence for sure, in many ways it was those teams of the '80s, butting up against the Islanders and Oilers dynasties, that defined more precisely the code that has bonded five decades of hockey players.

Effort. Playing hurt. Overachieving. Three times in that decade, Flyers teams - two of which had a hockey bag full of good excuses - battled their way to the Stanley Cup Finals. Poulin battled through knee and rib injuries to score a two-man disadvantage goal to close out Quebec in the semifinals in 1985, but the 1984-85 Oilers, with six future Hall of Famers, simply overwhelmed them in the Finals. Playing after their best scorer, Tim Kerr, busted a knee and with Poulin, their captain again playing with broken ribs, the 1987 team rallied from a 3-1 deficit to push the historically talented Oilers to seven games. Facing an Islanders team at the start of its four-year run of Cups, the Flyers were undone in the spring of 1980 by some critical calls, including an unheard-of-at-the time penalty in overtime of Game 1, and Leon Stickle's infamous no-call of an offsides that led directly to a go-ahead goal in the deciding Game 6.

"Really, there were two calls in that game,'' said Bill Barber, one of the Cup-winning Flyers from the '70s whose career stretched into that 1980s run. "Everyone looks at the offsides, which was really blatant. And I think there was a high-stick goal there that was allowed that shouldn't have been allowed.''

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"Really though, what cost us more than anything else was that we split those first two games at home,'' said Barber. "We were waiting around.''

Owners of a historic 35-game unbeaten streak that season, the Flyers breezed through the first three rounds, losing just two games. They were notably healthy for that time of the year, but it created a five-day gap between their five-game semifinal dominance of Minnesota and the start of the Finals.

They lost Game 1 at home to the Islanders when Denis Potvin scored on a power play in overtime. "We were on a roll as a team all year and then we had a timeout there,'' Barber said. "That lull cost us. It cost us Game 1 at home. Everybody was feeling good and you wanted to just keep going. You wanted to be playing every day or every second day and you just wanted to get on with this. But we waited around and waited around and I think it cost us.''

Their six-game loss in the Finals that season marked the start of the Islanders four-Cup run, and officially marked the close of the Flyers' remarkable '70s era, when the Islanders reached the Finals four times in five seasons. As New York took ownership of the NHL's top perch, Barber retired, Bob Clarke morphed from player to general manager, and new young faces replaced grizzled old ones.

Brian Propp, Kerr, Poulin, Rick Tocchet, Mark Howe – Miroslav Dvorak was the only player on the 1984-85 Flyers roster to have celebrated a 30th birthday. They were young, Clarke had fit the pieces masterfully, and in any other era, they would have been the best team in pro hockey.

But this wasn't any other era. Edmonton had six Hall of Famers, those Islanders had five. "We did not have a Bryan Trottier," said Howe, who is also in hockey's Hall. "We did not have a Mike Bossy. And Denny Potvin was one of the best all-time defenseman. We had a lot of pieces, but then you hit Edmonton . . . we didn't have a Gretzky, we didn't have a Messier . . .

"We had guys who were pretty close. Timmy Kerr was huge for us in the goal scoring. I don't think people gave us enough credit for the ability some of our guys had. Pelle Eklund, Murray Craven, Brian Propp, Ilkka Sinisalo. These guys were highly skilled players. They were good players. They just weren't great players. They were underrated though, at least in my view.''

Not all the fault for that lies in the dwarfing talents of their foils. The fates and feats of two Flyers goaltenders during that era overshadowed their achievements too. After a breakout season in which he was awarded the Vezina Trophy, Pelle Lindbergh backstopped the Flyers' run to the 1985 Stanley Cup Finals, where this time they met the Edmonton dynasty in full bloom. After his first full season of work and three rounds of playoffs, Lindbergh appeared to wear out by the finals, and the Oilers won in five games.

Still, the Swedish-born star was only 26, was still improving, and when he left the Spectrum the night of Nov. 9 after a home victory over the Boston Bruins secured a 10th straight victory, team owner Ed Snider recalled 25 years later that "I was thinking that this was the best team we ever had. I was thinking they would be even better than the Broad Street Bullies."

"Pelle was not only arguably our best player," said Brian Propp. "He was one of the best players in the league."

Said Snider, in a 2010 story, "The contrast between that night and the next morning was extreme."

Lindbergh was left brain-dead when his Porsche smashed into an elementary school wall in Somerdale, N.J., his estimated speed (80 mph) and blood-alcohol level well above the legal limit.

Two passengers were injured but survived. It was a different era, and he was not the only player who drove when he shouldn't that night, but he paid the ultimate price for it.

The price to the team was an emotionally exhaustive season that ended with a first-round playoff knockout. "Looking back," said Tocchet, who was in his rookie season, "I was a walking zombie."

Ron Hextall recalls being in Rochester, N.Y., playing for the Flyers AHL Hershey affiliate, when the story of Lindbergh's death broke. He had met him a few years earlier in training camp, was a fan, but it's impossible not to link the fate of the two men. If Lindbergh was indeed their franchise goalie, then where would that have left Hextall two springs later? On the bench? On another team?

For that matter, where would he be now?

Hextall of course filled the void and then some as a rookie in 1986-87. He played in 66 regular-season games, won the Vezina Trophy, and played so out of his mind in the Stanley Cup Finals that the Flyers, despite a pile of injuries that diminished or eliminated key pieces, rallied from a 3-1 hole and pushed the Oilers to a seventh game.

"They should have won based on talent," Hextall said the other day. "But I truly believe we should have won. Because I felt we deserved it. We played way harder than they did, and we had way less skill than they did, and put way more into it than they did. We played six and seven games each round. They swept through everyone.

"You can argue they should have swept right through us. But I think our '87 team might have been as good a team as there ever was . . . We were banged up. So many guys played hurt."

One, the team's leading scorer Tim Kerr, never even made it to the Finals. Not that he didn't try.

"I remember playing when my shoulder was going out and I couldn't even keep it in at night on the bed," said Kerr. "So I had to wear a brace just to sleep. To the point where if I took my hand out of my pocket, my shoulder would dislocate again. And I played with it like that through the Rangers and Islanders series."

Said Hextall, "We were so banged up by the time we even got to them, and we pushed them to the brink. To me that's a sign of a team that is determined to do anything they can do to win. That's special. You don't get that a lot. I mean, I played 15 pro years. You don't get that a lot. That team was special."

Said Kerr, "What guys did – Dave Poulin with broken ribs – it was amazing. So I don't look back and say what if this or that. I gave it what I had. And I think everybody would say that. It didn't work out, but believe me when we left that rink we were sore and respected each other for what each of us brought to the table."

It wasn't just them. After rallying to win Game 6, "We were like rock stars," to the fans, Hextall recalled. If the effort didn't put them on par with those '70s guys, there was at least a mesh, especially as so many of them have located in the Delaware Valley permanently, as their predecessors did.

The tone, the grit, the personality of those two eras built the dynamic that exists even today, said Poulin, allowing a Flyer from one generation to commiserate with another as if they had once played alongside of each other.

"All the different threads of fabric that wove through in different players and personalities,'' said Poulin. "And the envious nature from guys who never got to experience it. And they still talk today about going into the building, into the Spectrum, and what it was like. And the fear factor.

"I can tell you in my role with the Leafs as vice president of hockey operations, we'd be going in there with one of the two coaches I managed while I was (there) and they'd be talking about them as if they were still the team they had played against. I'd be like, 'They're not that tough anymore.' Those guys are gone.''


donnels@phillynews.com

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