In the mind's eye, the appropriate image to capture the core of the 1970s Flyers requires certain specific elements: There is a hockey player, helmetless. His hair is long and shaggy, and he might have a mustache that calls to mind the countenance of a bassist for, say, The Guess Who or Blue Oyster Cult. He lacks a full set of teeth; small stumps of white jut like askew fence posts from his gums. He wears the team's sweater, and the orange torso and the white sleeves and the black crest are blotched and streaked with blood.
This archetype defined a franchise that defined an era - from the Flyers' back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1974 and '75 to their flag-defending victory over the Soviet Red Army Team in 1976, from their rise in the decade's early years to their establishment as a perennial contender as the 1980s approached. The term "Broad Street Bullies" has gone from a kitschy newspaper-headline nickname to the embodiment of the franchise's ethos to an outdated cliché. And the Flyers' failure to win a championship in the 41-plus years since their second Cup has only enhanced those teams' allure and legend and the sentiment they still inspire today. Bob Clarke, Bernie Parent, Dave Schultz, Bob Kelly: They never go away because the Flyers' organization doesn't really want them to, and no one has come along to supplant them, anyway.
But if there's a drawback to the fondness and familiarity of those Flyers teams here and their infamy throughout the rest of North America, it's that few people understand or acknowledge just how innovative owner Ed Snider and general manager Keith Allen were in building them.
"To view them as simply 'The Broad Street Bullies'," hockey historian Jennifer Conway said, "is simply incorrect."
It's high time, then, to view what Snider, Allen, and coach Fred Shero accomplished through the prism of hindsight and in the context of what has become conventional thinking in professional sports.
Consider this: Paul DePodesta, who as an executive with the Oakland Athletics was one of the architects of "Moneyball," once defined the revolution that he, Sandy Alderson, and Billy Beane ignited not as Finding awesome players who happen to be inexpensive but as "the exploitation of stagnant systems." To be implemented successfully, the philosophy requires the rejection of tradition merely for tradition's sake. It requires the acceptance of risk, the patience to commit to an iconoclastic approach over the long term, and the guts to withstand the inevitable criticism and mockery.
By that definition, the Broad Street Bullies may have been the National Hockey League's first "Moneyball" team.
"You know what? I would totally agree with you," said Terry Crisp, a center on the Flyers' two Cup-winning teams and the head coach of the Calgary Flames' 1989 championship team. "But I don't want to let the secret out to the people who didn't realize what we were doing."
Everyone knows the origin story by now: In eliminating the Flyers from the 1968 and 1969 playoffs, the St. Louis Blues so pummeled them that Snider vowed his team would never be intimidated again. In the 1969 NHL draft, the Flyers selected three players - Clarke, Schultz, and Don Saleski - who played with the toughness and downright viciousness that Snider wanted to cultivate throughout the roster.
That draft marked the beginning of the Flyers' evolution, and it's striking to look back and see how snugly their approach would have fit among the models for sustained excellence that franchises often use now.
The Risk: As a diabetic whose health was so great a concern that he fell to the second round of the draft, Clarke was the consummate high-risk, high-reward prospect. Three teams passed on him twice before the Flyers picked him. The Boston Bruins, a juggernaut at the time, had three chances to draft him and didn't. If the Flyers took Clarke and his diabetes prevented him from having a long NHL career, or any NHL career, how much would it cost them? If they didn't take Clarke and another team did, would it haunt them forever? Without Clarke, without their captain and the franchise's greatest player, how different might everything have been for the Flyers?
"Bobby Clarke was as responsible as anyone for how we played because he was relentless and ruthless," said Flyers television analyst Bill Clement, who was Clarke's teammate for four years. "Being the great leader that he was, most players tried to follow."
The Patience: For all the quick fixes that Snider and the Flyers tried to effect after their two Cups, for all the times they "went for it," for all the praise that their fruitless sprinting on that orange-and-black hamster wheel earned them, it's worth noting something: After drafting Clarke, Schultz, and Saleski, the Flyers won 17 of their 76 games in 1969-70, Clarke's rookie year and the first of three consecutive losing seasons. It took time - and a 1973 trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs to reacquire Parent - for the Flyers to hoard enough talent to win consistently, to draft Bill Barber and Tom Bladon and Jimmy Watson, to grow into greatness.
The Coach: Hired in 1971, Shero was an innovation all by himself. He visited the Soviet Union frequently, studying the Russians' system and style of play. He hired, in Mike Nykoluk, the NHL's first assistant coach - a decision that made the Flyers' practices more efficient and that seems so elementary that, even now, it's difficult to think of it as groundbreaking, which it was. He had his players pass and stickhandle tennis balls and kick soccer balls during practice to foster hand-eye coordination and on-ice awareness. In a remarkable contrast to the savagery with which his team often played, he shattered the template of the typical pro head coach, of the tyrant from the 1950s and 1960s, from the minors to the NHL, who knew no other way to motivate a player except to scream at him.
During one game in his final season in the American Hockey League, for example, Clement sat in the locker room between periods and listened as his coach pointed his finger at another player on the team.
"He ripped him up and down - gutless, never make it, lazy," Clement said. "He spent 10 minutes stripping a player of any potential self-esteem he might have had. . . . All coaches ruled with the fist and the whip. Freddy pulled people as opposed to pushed people. He seldom raised his voice, and when he did, he did it collectively. If he had something to say to me between periods, he would say, 'First, it's this guy. Then, it's Clement. Then it's this other guy.'
"He would never leave you on an emotional island. He was very sensitive to players' feelings and their emotions. The whole room knew the comment was directed at me, but he didn't leave me alone. Freddy was a more cerebral leader. He understood that he could defeat some of his athletes."
The Circus: In drafting Schultz and Saleski, Snider and Allen made their first move toward forever changing the NHL. Having a few tough players was de rigueur for any club then, and fights would manifest themselves organically from a particular game's circumstances. But no franchise had filled its roster with players who, while possessing some skill, were on the team for the primary purpose of dropping their gloves. No team had dared to use fighting to gain a tactical advantage, to intimidate opponents, to protect and create room on the ice for its most gifted offensive players.
"We can have more policemen that anybody," Snider said during a 2010 HBO documentary. "Who said you only need to have one?"
Contrary to the stereotype, not every player on those teams had to fight or did so frequently. Barber, Rick MacLeish, Reggie Leach: Who wanted those guys in the penalty box for five minutes or more? But the presence of those who did fight increased the pressure on the Flyers' scorers to meet the measure of an important moment.
"We had to play our role," Barber said, "and our role was, if we needed a goal scored, we had to find a way to score a goal."
They usually did. Barber scored the winning goal in Game 4 of the '74 Finals, the victory that gave the Flyers a 3-1 lead in the series over the Bruins. MacLeish led the NHL in postseason points in 1974 and 1975. Leach's 19 playoff goals in 1976 remain the league record.
Still, the team's collective persona, the sense in every visiting arena that the barbarians really were at the gates, obscured those essential, if less violent, contributions.
"We didn't have to do anything but show up," Crisp said. "It would be like those movies, facing the Roman hordes. The drums are beating, and you can hear the sound for miles. 'What's coming?' That's what the media did for us. Genghis Khan and his horde were coming to town. We were long before WWE and ultimate fighting."
Hard as it might be to believe, that frightful circus was the equivalent of Alderson's accent on on-base percentage, the strategy (pioneered by former Eagles president Joe Banner and perfected by the New England Patriots) of signing promising young players to team-friendly contracts to stay under the NFL salary cap, the NBA's fixation on the corner three-point shot.
You can track the Flyers' ascent just by tallying up their penalty-minute totals, from the 1,052 they recorded in 1970-71 to their 1,970 (the most they had in any season during the decade) in 1975-76. They were the Smart New Thing, and their dominance over the NHL subsided only after other teams started adding enforcers of their own - only after their opponents recognized that, to beat the Flyers, you first had to copy them.
"I suppose," Schultz said, "it was all pretty unique."