Originally published January 3, 1990.
The unimaginable began in uncertainty.
The Flames had defeated the Philadelphia Flyers, 9-2, and amid the taunts of Atlanta fans, who reveled in the misery of these humbled Broad Street Bullies, Pat Quinn led his team off the ice. Somewhere - maybe in the Omni locker room or perhaps on the flight home - the Flyers' coach hoped to resolve the doubts that were gnawing at him.
Having replaced Bob McCammon midway through the previous season, Quinn had encountered disaster in his first postseason when the New York Rangers dispatched Philadelphia from the second round of the playoffs in five games. That premature elimination stung even more for Quinn, since the Rangers' coach was Fred Shero, the man who had guided Philadelphia to consecutive Stanley Cups in the mid-1970s and whose success Quinn was expected to emulate.
And now, in the second game of the 1979-80 season, the Flyers had been embarrassed.
"I had lots on my mind that night," recalled Quinn, now the general manager of the Vancouver Canucks. "It was my first full season and I was doubting myself. Was I using the right goalie? Was I using the right lines?
"You get to thinking like that, and soon you start wondering if you're ever going to win another game."
Within a few weeks of that Oct. 13, 1979, debacle in Atlanta, though, the question around the National Hockey League was not whether the Flyers would ever win again but whether they would ever lose.
After that defeat, the Flyers would go two months, three weeks and five days without a loss. The 35-game unbeaten stretch that this collection of aging players and faceless newcomers compiled still stands as the longest such streak in the history of major professional sports. They would win 25 games and tie 10, and finish nearly half a season with just that single loss in Atlanta.
"It's impossible," said Buffalo coach Scotty Bowman after Philadelphia's streak hit 35 against his Sabres 10 years ago this week, Jan. 6, 1980. "But it's not impossible. They've done it."
Perceptions around the NHL to the contrary, the 1979-80 Flyers were hardly the Broad Street Bullies any longer. Many of the stars from those '74 and '75 Cup teams remained - Bobby Clarke, Bill Barber, Rick MacLeish - but such big, physical wingers as Dave Schultz, Don Saleski and Gary Dornhoefer had been replaced by smaller, quicker players, such as Tom Gorence, Ken Linseman and rookie Brian Propp.
"We were a team in transition," said Quinn. "We had a patchwork defense, a rookie goalie (Pete Peeters, who shared those duties with Phil Myre), lots of new faces. We were just trying to compete."
From a club-record 51 wins in both the 1974-75 and 1975-76 seasons, the Flyers' victory total had slipped to 40 in 1978-79. Because their brutish reputation lingered, the Flyers still packed road arenas, and losses there - before screaming, bloodthirsty crowds - had become particularly galling to a proud organization.
"When we started to slip, everybody loved to bury us," said Mel Bridgman, the 1979-80 team's captain, who retired from hockey earlier this season and now is attending Penn's Wharton School. "We were not the most loved team in the league, you know."
Quinn attempted to stem the slippage by instituting a more free-skating, European system. He realized that the Flyers, with players such as Paul Holmgren and Behn Wilson, were never going to resemble the Ice Capades. But he also knew the game now demanded more speed and finesse.
"Hockey is a flow game," said Quinn. "It's not like football, where you call 'X-43' . . . yell 'Hike' and run your play. In hockey, when you have the puck you're in control. The instant you lose it, you're no longer in control. The key is making that transition from offense to defense as quickly as possible."
The streak began against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Oct. 14, and the Flyers showed a sold-out Spectrum crowd that they had not yet abandoned their bump- and-grind style.
"It was late in the game and we were leading by two goals," said Quinn. ''We got a couple of penalties and had to play the last few minutes at a five-on-three disadvantage. Now that tough little left winger I had (Bob Kelly) decided that the worst thing another penalty could do was put another man in the penalty box; it would still be five on three. So he jumps over the boards and starts banging people around.
"The problem was he jumped on the ice too soon and we got an illegal- substitution penalty. They got a penalty shot and Lanny McDonald scored to make it a 4-3 game and there was still almost a minute to play."
The Flyers hung on and their drive toward hockey immortality was under way. It would not end until Jan. 7 - of the next decade.
With their still-mundane streak at seven, the Flyers traveled to Montreal for a Nov. 3 matchup at the Forum with the team that had won the last four Stanley Cups. It would prove to be one of the most important games in their record run.
Trailing by 2-1 in the third period, the Flyers pumped four goals past Montreal goaltenders Denis Herron and Michel Larocque in a 6 1/2-minute span to score an emotional 5-3 victory.
"After that win our confidence really started to build," said Barber, now the Flyers' director of pro scouting.
The Flyers won five more in a row before they got another scare. Squandering a 3-0 lead in St. Louis, they hung on for a disappointing 3-3 tie and headed for three games on the West Coast.
The tie with the Blues extended the streak to 14 - just half the '77-78 Canadiens' then-record total - but now the rest of the league was starting to take notice. So were the Flyers.
"We didn't think much about the streak early on because, to be honest with you, we had so many questions about that team," said Quinn. "But after about 15 games we all started to realize that this was something special.
"On the bench, the guys were starting to stand up for the entire third periods of close games. They were beginning to get excited. They just didn't want to see it end."
And as the streak grew, so did the questions about how a team populated by so many unknowns was managing it.
"I knew a lot of people around the league," Quinn said, "and I can't tell you how many times people came up to me that year and said, 'How the heck are you guys doing this? With mirrors?'
"They'd look and see defensemen with names like Norm Barnes, Mike Busniuk and Frank Bathe and a winger like Al Hill, and they just couldn't understand how we were able to play so well."
By this point in the season Quinn's confidence had returned. He had developed answers to his early-season questions and he certainly knew the response to why his team was playing so well.
"It all grew out of the kind of organization the Flyers had built," said Quinn. "These new people came in and saw the Barbers and (Bobby) Clarkes working their tails off at practice and on every shift and they knew right then and there what was expected of them. If someone didn't live up to Flyers' standards, those veteran players let them know about it.
"There were no star clusters on the Flyers, none of that 'save-your-own- ass' mentality you see so frequently among the higher-paid players in this league. That's not to say there weren't factions or that everyone got along off the ice," said Quinn. "But in that locker room, they were all united by a single purpose - the business at hand."
The business at hand soon became a matter of dealing - every game - with an opponent determined to end the streak. "Everybody was primed for us," said Clarke, then in his first year as a playing assistant coach and now the team's general manager.
Six times in the nine-game stretch that ended with Philadelphia tying Montreal's record 28-game mark at the Spectrum on Dec. 20, the best the Flyers could manage was a tie.
Perhaps all the effort employed to maintain their stretch of marvelous hockey had taken a toll and now, as they attempted to overtake the Canadiens' record on Dec. 22 at Boston Garden, they were emotionally spent.
Clarke said pressure had been noticeably absent during most of the streak, but that before the game against the Bruins it was almost palpable in the locker room.
"The only time I really felt the tension (throughout the streak) was in Boston," he said. "Damn, we came through that day."
And in that record-breaking performance by the hard-working team he had come to symbolize, the 30-year-old Clarke provided the Flyers' spark.
He beat Bruins goalie Gilles Gilbert early in the first period, and Barber added another goal less than three minutes later. Ken Linseman scored early in the second period, and the Flyers nursed that 3-0 lead into a 5-2 victory.
At game's end, the hard-bitten Boston fans stood and applauded.
To Quinn, the Flyers never played better than on that Saturday afternoon.
"It was a masterpiece of a game," said Quinn. "It was maybe as good as the team ever played during all my time in Philadelphia. As I said at the time, you could measure our desire that day in the number of stitches we took."
Wilson, Holmgren and Dennis Ververgaert were among the Flyers who required postgame facial repairs.
"Right now none of us feels a thing," said Ververgaert at the time. ''This record just soothes it all."
Afterward, the Bruins joined those who had been shaking their heads in amazement at the accomplishment of the team in the musty locker room just across the Garden hallway.
"My God, it's almost halfway through the season and they have only one loss," said Bruins coach Fred Creighton. "It's hard to comprehend. It's unreal."
"There is no way that the Flyers could have come in here and backed into the record," said Bruins center Peter McNab, "not in this building.
"No one ever wants to admit what hard work can do," McNab added. "People refuse to acknowledge that the ability to work hard is talent, too, and today every one of the Flyers displayed the ability to work hard."
For six more games, the Flyers extended their record, the closest call coming when Mark Howe and his 51-year-old father, Gordie, led a third-period rally that forged the Whalers a 4-4 tie in Hartford on the day after Christmas.
The streak continued into the new year, which would prove to be a remarkably successful one for Philadelphia's sports teams. Before 1980 ended, the Phillies had won the first World Series in their long history, the Eagles were completing a season that would culminate in the Super Bowl, and the Flyers and Sixers had reached their leagues' championship series.
By the time they had beaten the Sabres, 4-2, at Buffalo on Jan. 6 for their 35th game without a loss, Philadelphia had effectively sewn up the Patrick Division title. They led the second-place Rangers by 22 points.
"We knew it couldn't go on forever," said Bridgman, "so we viewed each game as a chance to work on some of our shortcomings before the playoffs."
If a team with a 35-game unbeaten streak could be considered to have shortcomings, the Flyers' most glaring was their power play.
And before a frenzied crowd of 15,962, the largest ever at the time at Minnesota's Metropolitan Sports Center, the Flyers' power play was dreadful. The North Stars' wasn't, and they emphatically ended Philadelphia's streak with a 7-1 victory.
"It was a once-in-a lifetime thing," Quinn said after the game. "I don't know, maybe I was part of something that will stand forever in history. Maybe it's not even important. I don't know."
For the rest of the season, the Flyers played very good, but not great, hockey. They finished the year with a record of 48-12-20, and their 22-11-10 mark from the streak's end to the season's end was probably a more accurate reflection of the team's talent than the streak.
Clarke, Barber and Reggie Leach could still generate goals, though not at their mid-1970s' pace. But they didn't get a whole lot of help outside of Propp and Linseman. With Peeters and Myre (Peeters was 14-0-4 during the streak, Myre 11-0-6) in goal and Bob Dailey, Wilson and all the no-names on the blue line, the Flyers were solid, if unspectacular, defensively.
This very good team, however, found itself stuck between two dynasties. Just as the Montreal Canadiens' four-year run as champions came to an end, the New York Islanders started a streak of four straight Stanley Cups in the 1979-80 season.
Still, if not for linesman Leon Stickle's infamous missed offside call in Game 6 of the Cup finals, the Flyers, instead of New York, could well have won the title. Game 7 would have taken place at the Spectrum.
In the seasons since, no one - not even the great Oilers teams with Wayne Gretzky - has approached the Flyers' record. And, with a five-minute overtime period now tacked onto the end of all regulation ties, it's not likely that anyone ever will.