THE BULLIES AREN'T BACK
ST. PAUL, Minn. - The Flyers' slogan this season is "Back with a vengeance." But after having five players suspended - one for 25 games, an NHL record - for delivering dangerous blows to the head, it's obvious they didn't mean it so literally.
ST. PAUL, Minn. - The Flyers' slogan this season is "Back with a vengeance."
But after having five players suspended - one for 25 games, an NHL record - for delivering dangerous blows to the head, it's obvious they didn't mean it so literally.
The Flyers have gotten such a reputation for cheap shots this season - two opponents suffered concussions and one is out for the season - that Gary Bettman, the NHL commissioner, put general manager Paul Holmgren and the players on notice. One more incident could result in serious fines and longer suspensions.
Bettman's message: Don't bring back the Broad Street Bullies.
"Every team is trying to get more physical," said Doug Risebrough, general manager of the Minnesota Wild, who just added muscle to his team.
In the Flyers' case, "they're saying, 'This is the essence of [our] roots to some degree,' " he said. "I don't think anybody there says, 'Let's bring the Bullies back.' They like the physical game. We made all these rules changes, which helped increase the speed of the game. But our game still sells contact."
Craig Button is a former director of player personnel who won a Stanley Cup ring with the Dallas Stars. He said the Flyers were "trying to get an identity as a hard-nosed, physical hockey club that captures the Flyers' image from its past."
"Anaheim won the Cup last year with the style of play that said, 'Come into our house and we'll dance' - tough, physical play," he said. "The Flyers want the same thing."
Physical hockey is one thing. Blows to the head are another, and the Flyers have paid a heavy price, losing five players for a total of 52 games and perhaps inspiring teams to seek retribution.
Holmgren acknowledged this week that the situation had gotten out of control, saying: "We want to play hard, but within the rules. . . . The way it's going, it has to stop."
Flyers president Peter Luukko said the organization's intent was not to be branded as a dirty hockey club.
"These were individual instances where our players made a mistake," Luukko said. "It's been addressed with the team, and it will continue to be addressed. We're under the microscope. We know that."
The suspensions began with rookie Steve Downie in the preseason. Downie, who has a history of similar incidents in junior hockey, was suspended for 20 games for a flying check on Ottawa's Dean McAmmond that resulted in a concussion. McAmmond has since returned to the lineup.
Jesse Boulerice, who also has a history of violent checks, was suspended for 25 games for cross-checking Vancouver's Ryan Kesler around the neck in October. Kesler was not seriously injured.
"What Downie and Boulerice did was not hard-nosed hockey," Button said. "That's not what the Flyers want. It was almost like hitting a guy out of bounds in football."
In late October, Randy Jones was suspended for two games for checking Patrice Bergeron into the boards when the Boston center unexpectedly stopped and bent over during a race for the puck. Bergeron wound up with a concussion and is not expected to play again this season.
"The old Flyers tried to intimidate you," Button said. "Randy Jones is not trying to intimidate Bergeron there. It was a hockey play that was unfortunate."
Last month, Scott Hartnell was suspended for two games for checking Boston's Andrew Alberts headfirst into the boards. Alberts, who was kneeling to play the puck, had to leave the game with a head injury but has since returned.
On Monday, Riley Cote was suspended for three games for slamming Dallas' Matt Niskanen in the head near the boards. Niskanen was not injured.
Brian Burke, general manager of the Anaheim Ducks, said the young Flyers needed to learn the difference between tough and dangerous.
Downie, Boulerice and Cote have NHL experience of less than 200 games among them, but nearly 4,000 penalty minutes in junior and minor-league hockey and the NHL.
They haven't been in the NHL long enough to "know where the line is drawn," Burke said.
Scotty Bowman, the Hall of Fame coach who won nine Stanley Cup championships, said the Flyers worked hard to assemble the talented team they have and don't need this distraction.
"They know they have to play right if they're going to win," he said. "You can't get away with anything in the league now."
Bob "The Hound" Kelly, a Broad Street Bully of the 1970s Flyers, bristled at comparisons between the Bullies and this year's team.
"We got suspensions for laying people low, not head shots," Kelly said. "Bullies? People forget, every night was a 20-minute brawl and 31/2-hour game" because of the fights. "Under today's rules, every hit from our era would be a two-minute or five-minute penalty.
"No way these guys resemble us or even act like us. There's no fighting here. It's hits. People forget what the mind-set was back in the 1970s."
That mind-set centered on intimidation and respect. Today's mind-set is to deliver a game with more skating, less obstruction and less fighting in an environment in which players are taller, heavier, and much faster skaters.
"The Flyers are trying to reestablish themselves as a physical team," Burke said. "What we've seen with the Flyers is an aberration. Paul Holmgren will get the team under control. The Flyer teams of the '70s didn't take head shots. Anyone who says they're trying to re-create themselves in that mold is dead wrong."
After the Flyers entered the NHL in the 1967-68 season, they were hammered, notably by the St. Louis Blues, in their early years. Flyers chairman Ed Snider vowed to toughen up, and when Fred Shero became coach in 1971, Snider insisted the team get bigger and tougher.
The Bullies nickname was cemented during the 1970s, when the Flyers brawled on the ice nearly every game and, in one instance, in the stands with fans in Vancouver.
Colin Campbell, the NHL senior executive vice president and disciplinarian, said he watched a classic hockey game on ESPN on Tuesday night, after the league's games were over. "Flyers vs. Canadiens, I think 1976," he said, mentioning Kelly, Dave Schultz, Andre Dupont, Don Saleski and Jack McIlhargey. It was "a reminder that this 1976 team is not the same team circa 2007."
Indeed, the '70s were about intimidation, not head shots and dangerous checks. Fighting was a staple of the game, and Schultz tied the NHL record with 472 penalty minutes in 1974-75. However, the Flyers, who often did not get credit for their talent, proved you could win with a bare-knuckle appetizer that set up a scoring meal of Reggie Leach, Bobby Clarke and Bill Barber.
One of the most famous violent incidents involving Clarke came when he played for Team Canada against the Russians in the 1972 best-of-eight Summit Series. With Team Canada in danger of losing the series, Clarke intentionally slashed - and broke - the ankle of Russian star Valery Kharlamov in Game 6, and the Canadians went on to win, four games to three, with one tie.
"The suspensions the Flyers are drawing now are not reflective" of the 1970s, Burke said. "And frankly, I don't think what is taking place in Philadelphia is something Paul Holmgren wants."
Todd Fedoruk used to be a Flyers enforcer. He has reprised that role in Anaheim, Dallas and now Minnesota.
"Players are looking at all those suspensions and saying, 'What's going on in Philly?' " Fedoruk said. "They've been known to play a certain way, but not like this. . . . They always played hard. But since the Downie and Boulerice incidents, the magnifying glass is on them. They're going to be critiqued."
Luukko, the Flyers' president, said the Bullies would never return.
"People suggesting we're another Broad Street Bullies, that was a different time, different players, a different hockey history," he said. "Paul has put together a team with speed and skill, not fighters. Yes, we want to play hard, physical hockey. But our team has a lot of speed and skill, and that's what the game is today."