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Bobby Clarke, Bernie Parent and more analyze the Flyers’ agonizing 46-year wait to reclaim the Stanley Cup and why it may not end anytime soon

It’s been 46 years since the Flyers became Philadelphia heroes, forever, and won their last Stanley Cup. Microwaves were just starting to become staples in homes. The internet was decades away from being used by almost everyone. Same for cell phones, electric cars, and hundreds of other inventions.

Technology has made great strides since Bernie Parent blanked Buffalo, and Bob Kelly and Bill Clement scored third-period goals as the Flyers clinched the Cup with a tense 2-0 road win on May 27, 1975.

At the time, with consecutive Cups under their belt, no one would have thought it would be the Flyers’ last championship for almost 50 years.

But here we are. The Flyers again are struggling and a long way from being Cup contenders.

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Since their last championship, the Flyers have reached the Stanley Cup Final six times. They have lost all six. Sometimes they lost because they faced a legendary opponent (see Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers in 1985 and 1987, arguably among the best teams in NHL history). Sometimes they lost because they didn’t seem ready (a “choking situation,” coach Terry Murray called it as the Flyers were swept by Detroit in 1997), or because of a fluke goal (cue Chicago’s Patrick Kane in 2010).

Sometimes they were hurt by injuries (Rick MacLeish and Parent in 1976; Tim Kerr, who scored 58 goals in 1987) or just ran into a better team.

Lately, times have been lean for the Flyers, who have alternated between missing and making the playoffs over the last nine years. They had a 10-game losing streak recently, during which general manager Chuck Fletcher fired head coach Alain Vigneault and replaced him with Mike Yeo on an interim basis.

With that as the backdrop, The Inquirer consulted several people with long ties to the Flyers to see if they could shed more light on the Cup drought and where the franchise is headed.

The panelists:

  1. Bob Clarke, an NHL Hall of Famer and the greatest captain in franchise history, later the Flyers’ general manager and now a club adviser.

  2. Bernie Parent, the Hall of Fame goalie who had shutouts in the Cup-clinching wins in 1974 and 1975.

  3. Bill Barber, the Hall of Fame left winger who starred on the Cup championship team and later coached the team and is now an adviser.

  4. Lou Nolan, the longtime public-address announcer and the only person in the organization who has been with the Flyers since their start in 1967.

  5. Paul Holmgren, a current adviser who has spent more than 40 years with the Flyers in a variety of capacities.

  6. Brian Propp, the second-highest goal scorer in Flyers history and a former broadcaster for the team.

  7. Reggie Leach, one of the best goal scorers in franchise history (369).

  8. Joe Watson, a two-time Cup champion with the Flyers who spent 54 years with the organization.

  9. Harry Green, a diehard fan who as a 6-year-old went to his first game during the Flyers’ inaugural season, and whose family has had season tickets since.

Over the last few months, they took turns answering our queries regarding the drought.

Unfathomable drought

So, why the long drought?

“My first response would be: It’s a hard league,” said Holmgren, who played for the Flyers in the 1970s and 1980s and later joined management. “There’s a lot of good teams. I know when I first came to the Flyers, they had just won back-to-back Stanley Cups, and in ‘76, I was injured and we lost four straight to the Canadiens and it was a great series. Even though they lost four straight games, it was to a great team.”

When Holmgren was playing, “it was probably going to come down to four or five teams that were capable of winning it,” he said. “Now it’s spread out because of the salary cap, and with more good players going around, there are a lot more teams that can win it on any given year.”

Still, a 46-year drought seems unfathomable for a franchise that took the NHL by storm in its early seasons.

“Without making excuses, the number of series you have to go through now to win it is longer” — four, as opposed to three when the Flyers last hoisted Lord Stanley, Nolan said. “I think we probably had deficiencies throughout the years in different areas, whether it was the forwards or the defensemen. Or maybe we didn’t have the right goaltender. There seemed to always be a missing piece somewhere.”

“I just feel some of the other teams have made some moves to stay a little bit quicker than us. I think we need to stay young, stay quick,” said Green, 60, a season-ticket holder who lives in Lansdale. “If you asked me if there’s one thing [missing] over the years, I would say speed.”

‘Close calls’

Green said the Flyers “sure have had enough close calls in those 46 years, right? We’ve made it to the Finals, so it’s not like we’re never a winning product. It’s not like it’s been 46 years of terrible hockey.”

Since the Flyers’ inception, Montreal (11) and Boston (nine) are the only teams with more Stanley Cup Final appearances than the Flyers (eight).

In December, even with the Flyers in a free fall, Green wasn’t quite ready to tear the team down to its core.

That thought, however, was at least creeping into his mind.

“My patience is running a little thin, but I still have some optimism,” Green said. “We’d rather have this happen earlier in the year than later so we can possibly make some corrections and possibly make a playoff run ... I’m not ready for a full rebuild yet. I think I would make some tweaks and get healthy — and if it doesn’t improve throughout the year, then it’s time for a total rebuild.”

To win a Cup, “you have to have the stars line up, first of all, and if you look at all the injuries we’ve had over the years, we just haven’t had a break,” Barber said. “Look at the start of this year, for instance, and the injuries. A lot of that contributes to not winning. You have to have everyone healthy to win — and you have to have great goaltending.”

Leach said with all the talent that has passed through Philly over the years, it’s a “big surprise” that his 1975 team was the last to win a Cup.

Clarke had an analytical view of the drought.

“I’m not quite sure that frustrating is the right word,” he said. “We’ve had great players and great teams for most of those years. We had four or five years where we weren’t very good, but [other than that,] we’ve always been a good, competitive team. But when you get there and don’t win, that’s basically your own fault, right? You got there, you got the chance, and you didn’t finish it off.”

» READ MORE: Alain Vigneault was not the Flyers’ problem. Their issues go much deeper | Mike Sielski

Goaltending woes

The Flyers probably would have won the 2010 Stanley Cup if they had good goaltending. Fact is, they probably would have won with just average goaltending.

But Michael Leighton, a journeyman who had three shutouts in the conference finals, played poorly in the Final, in which the Flyers lost in six games. Chicago goalie Antti Niemi struggled in that series as he compiled a 3.41 goals-against average and .882 save percentage, but Leighton was even worse (3.96 GAA, .876 SV%).

“Everybody knows how important goaltending is. When we won our first Cup, we never would have won without Bernie [Parent],” Watson said. “The second Cup, I think we were good enough and cocky enough that it was a little easier to play for our team. We had lots of ability on our team and weren’t given enough credit for that. They thought we won because of our [intimidating] style of play, but we won because we had very skilled players.”

Goaltending has been a sore spot for most of the years since Parent retired in 1979.

Oh, there were occasional bright spots, but for the most part, it has been an overarching problem.

There was an exception. Goalie Ron Hextall was amazing against Edmonton (and others) in the 1987 playoffs, but the Flyers ran into a stronger team.

“I don’t know how any goalie can play any better than Hexy did in the ‘87 playoffs,” Holmgren said, “and we lost in seven games [to Edmonton]. We had a 1-0 lead in Game 7 and we had multiple chances to make it 2-0. You don’t get the goal, and all of a sudden they get a goal and then they get another one. Were they the better team? Maybe. I don’t know. But Hexy was the Conn Smythe Trophy winner that year, so it wasn’t because of goaltending.”

And then there was management’s ill-fated 2012 decision to trade Sergei Bobrovsky, who later won two Vezina Trophies with Columbus. The Flyers’ search for a goalie after Bobrovsky lasted until Carter Hart came along.

“I’m reluctant to put it on any one thing,” Holmgren said of the Flyers’ long drought. “Ideally you want to put yourself into a position to win the Stanley Cup, and I think over the years the Flyers have done so, and we’ve been bridesmaids more often than not.”

Barber, who was a Flyers assistant for four years and their head coach for parts of two seasons in the early 2000s, didn’t want to point exclusively at goaltending, either.

“When you get down to the fine print, it comes down to injuries, it comes down to goaltending, it comes down to luck a little bit, too — who you draw in the first round. Every year, a good team gets knocked out early,” Barber said.

» READ MORE: Flyers playoff flashback: Bob ‘Hound’ Kelly gets to fill up his Corvette after his Cup-clinching goal

The Flyers have won only one playoff round in nine seasons. Is it bad management, bad drafting, bad team chemistry, bad leadership, or mediocre players? Or some combination of those factors?

Aiming too low?

From interviewing many of the longtime Flyers connections, there seemed to be a common theme: just get into the playoffs and anything can happen.

Back when the Flyers were winning Cups, they had much loftier goals. Back then, it was almost a given that the Flyers would get into the playoffs. Their goal was to bring home a Cup — and not just sneak into the playoffs and hope everything fell into place.

For every team like St. Louis, which won the Cup in 2019 after a furious second-half surge, there were more champs that were outstanding for an entire season.

“Just making the playoffs seems to be a trite expression that is brought out when we’re not that good,” said one Flyers connection who asked to remain anonymous. " … Just making the playoffs is one thing, and what does that do, make your fan base happy for a little while? For three or four games? We shouldn’t settle for that.”

Done in by dynasties

Teams that turned into dynasties thwarted the Flyers shortly after they won their consecutive Cups in 1974 and 1975. First, it was Montreal, which won four straight from 1976 to 1979, followed by the Islanders’ taking the next four Cups from 1980 to 1983. From 1984 to 1988, Edmonton won four of five.

Since the Oilers’ run in the 1980s — “If we faced anybody but Edmonton [in the 1985 and 1987 Finals], I think we would have won those two Cups,” Clarke said — no team has won more than two straight championships. And since the salary cap was instituted in 2005-06, there have been more teams winning Cups, including first-time champs Carolina (2006), Anaheim (2007), Los Angeles (2012), Washington (2018), and St. Louis (2019).

St. Louis’ title gives teams hope, even to this year’s Flyers (11-12-5).

In the 2018-19 season, the Blues had the fewest points in the NHL on Jan. 3. They regrouped after the promotion of rookie goalie Jordan Binnington, reeled off 11 straight victories post-All-Star break, and eventually won the Cup over Boston in seven games.

“Funny things happen,” Holmgren said in November. “It’s a well-balanced league. A lot of teams have a chance to win it. Why not the Flyers? That’s how I look at it. As I said, you get to the dance, anything can happen. And I think a lot of teams feel the same way.”

“I feel for the Flyers’ fans, but I think we’re headed in the right direction, as far as taking those steps toward winning a Cup,” Barber said before the team’s swoon started last month.

When the injured Ryan Ellis returns, perhaps later this month, the Flyers “have a solid defense,” Holmgren said. “I think they have good goaltending, and they have some depth up front now that they maybe haven’t had for the last few years.”

Why do Green and his family keep coming back each year?

“It’s just a great experience to walk into the stadium,” he said. “I think the Flyers do an amazing job of putting a product on the ice that isn’t always a Cup-winning team but is always exciting. The whole experience is truly a great night out. And we’re always optimistic that this is going to be the year they break through.”

Where are they now?

Nolan thinks the Flyers are on the right path because Fletcher “has not been afraid to change things.”

His comments came before the Flyers’ long losing streak, one in which they had problems scoring goals and their power play was an exercise in futility. Fletcher’s bold offseason moves have been trumped by injuries to Ellis, Kevin Hayes, Wade Allison, Derick Brassard, and Joel Farabee.

Asked early this season if he thought the Flyers had enough offense to make a Cup run, Holmgren said Colorado and Tampa Bay were more explosive. “But you take out those two teams, I think the Flyers are [right there] … There’s a lot of things in their grasp this year.”

During the skid, Parent said the Flyers played more like individuals “and tried to do too much by themselves instead of doing things as a team. Even a guy like Wayne Gretzky or Bobby Orr couldn’t win on their own,” he said. “They had to be a part of their team. I think that’s what has to be focused on and you have to play with passion. That’s how you’re going to win a championship. You get there by the whole team playing together. Sometimes we forget that when things are going rough.”

Last month, Clarke said Hart’s resurgence had been the biggest plus thus far.

“Good goaltending is where it has to start,” Clarke said. ” ... And if you’re going to win, your power play has to score.”

Barber said it’s a lot tougher to win a Cup today than in his playing days because of the simple math. Back in the mid-’70s, there were 14 teams in the league; now there are 32.

“Everything has changed in the game,” Barber said. “It’s like apples and oranges.”

“Other than a few teams, most teams in the league are in the same pack, and let’s see who comes out of it,” Clarke said. “And the league has been able to distribute star players. [Connor] McDavid ends up in Edmonton, [Auston] Matthews in Toronto, and on and on. Obviously, to win, you have to have those top-end players, and Tampa has three or four of them.”

“Every team now has a chance,” said Propp, now a Flyers ambassador. “Look at St. Louis a few years ago. As long as your goaltender gets hot and you score at the right time, it gives you an opportunity to win.”

The last few years, the Flyers defense “was a little too tiny, but they changed that this year and I think they’re on the right track with a more physical defense,” he added. “I think they just need a consistent scorer.”

Barber said he will be “very excited when the Flyers win the Cup and pass the torch” someday. The members of the 1975 team, after all, are getting tired of holding it.

Just like their fans are getting tired of hearing about the good ol’ days.

Staff contributors
Reporting: Sam Carchidi
Editing: Gustav Elvin
Digital: Kerith Gabriel
Photo Editor: Rachel Molenda
Graphics: John Duchneskie
Copy editing: John Roberts, Jim Swan