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Selfless teamwork propelled Clarke as player, GM

Monday, 03.08.2010 / 10:30 AM / NHL Insider

By Adam Kimelman - NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor

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Selfless teamwork propelled Clarke as player, GM
NHL general managers will honor one of their own at their meetings this March, paying tribute to longtime Flyers' executive Bob Clarke.
Bob Clarke never really intended to become an NHL general manager.

Clarke hadn't even retired when the opportunity to run the Philadelphia Flyers was presented to him in 1984. But he quickly realized it was too good an opportunity to pass up. As he said the day he was introduced in his new role, "Brighter minds than mine thought I was capable of doing this, so I jumped at it.

"Had I kept playing, which I could have done, I don't know, maybe I would have stayed in hockey -- scouting, coaching," Clarke said in the Flyers' history book, "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly." "I had no vision of what I was going to do. (Team president) Jay Snider offered me this position. I knew I could play for a few more years, but I knew the end was coming. If that's what the Flyers thought was right for me, then OK."

Clarke made the rare jump from the dressing room to the board room with trepidation, but like most things he attempted during his 15-year Hall of Fame playing career, he became one of the most successful hockey executives of his generation. He was honored for that service during the League's General Manager meetings in Florida.

"The day-to-day being around Clarkie, it's certainly a learning experience," Flyers GM Paul Holmgren told NHL.com. Holmgren spent seven years as Clarke's assistant before replacing him in 2006. "You get to know the intricacies of managing a hockey team when you're around a guy that's been doing it for as long as he's been doing it."

"We had this ritual that he would go through, we would do it together when I was coaching," Bob Gainey told NHL.com. Clarke gave Gainey his first post-playing NHL job, as coach of the Minnesota North Stars in 1990. "He'd pull out a pad of paper and he'd say, 'What are our needs? Where are we weak?' And then once that was established, it was, 'How do we answer those needs? How do we attempt to solve those things?' That's a method of work that I still use, not only in my work capacity as a manger, but in other places. What's the problem? Where are we weak? What do we need and how do we solve that problem?"

Clarke spent 22 years running the Flyers, North Stars and Florida Panthers, and he also was GM for Canada at the 1998 Winter Olympics, the first using NHL players, and one of four co-GMs for Canada at the 1987 Canada Cup. His NHL teams went a combined 806-558, with 205 ties and 31 overtime losses. In 20 full seasons (not counting 2004-05 lockout or 2006-07, when he retired after eight games), his teams were in the playoffs 18 times, won seven division titles, went to eight conference finals and played for the Stanley Cup four times.

It didn't take long for Clarke to show his managerial acumen. With the youngest team in the League and an NHL rookie coach in Mike Keenan, the Flyers advanced to the 1985 Stanley Cup Final, and they repeated the feat in 1987. In his first six seasons as a GM (1984-90), the Flyers made the playoffs five times, won three division titles and went to the conference finals three times.

Fired after missing the playoffs following the 1989-90 season, it didn't take long for him to find another job. 

On the day he was let go, he said, "I got home and wasn't home an hour when Pat Quinn called me and said I've got a job for you (in Vancouver). He said I'm not sure what you'll do, but I got a job for you. I said that's pretty nice. It's comforting."

Clarke instead opted for Minnesota. He arrived refreshed and with a new outlook on the job.

"After I got fired and went to Minnesota, I regrouped, reorganized in my own life," Clarke said. "I didn't have to go to Minnesota; I could have decided I'll go somewhere else in my life. But once you make the decision that you're going to try and stay in the management end of the sport, I knew I had to change the way I lived, the way I treated it. I couldn't go on the way I was because it was killing me. I wasn't handling it the way you have to handle it if you're going to live in this world. … There was no fun from a win but there was hell from a loss and you have to have a way better balance. You got to learn to find a way to get some pleasure from the good, and you're responsible for the bad, but you can't let the bad eat you up or you'll never survive. I'm not the only one who found that happening to them."

Like the successful ones, however he figured it out. In 1990-91, his first season with the North Stars, the team finished fourth in the Norris Division and had the fewest wins of any team in the playoffs, but beat the Presidents' Trophy-winning Chicago Blackhawks in the first round, the runner-up St. Louis Blues in the second round and the defending Stanley Cup champion Edmonton Oilers in the conference finals to advance to the Stanley Cup Final.

"The one thing you learn from Bob, the one thing that stood out for me, was his value of team-first," Doug Armstrong, currently the St. Louis Blues' Vice President of Player Personnel, told NHL.com. He served as the North Stars' team services director that season, his first NHL job. "He always felt the team was more important than any individual. He always wanted to create that atmosphere of togetherness, whether it was management, in scouting or the players. He always felt it was a bigger calling or purpose than any individual. He tried to install that in the Minnesota organization. That first year, bringing in players like Bobby Smith and Brian Propp, who had won before, and they were able to install that thought process into a team that desperately needed it."

With rumors of the team leaving the Twin Cities, Clarke returned to Philadelphia following the 1991-92 season. He served as a senior vice president, but had almost no decision-making abilities. So when the expansion Florida Panthers were looking for their first GM, Clarke lobbied for the job, and was hired by owner Wayne Huizenga.

His first job was building the initial roster through the 1993 expansion draft. Among the veterans he selected were goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck, defenseman Paul Laus, and forwards Tom Fitzgerald, Brian Skrudland, Scott Mellanby, Dave Lowry and Bill Lindsay. The Panthers set an NHL record for first-year success, finishing with 83 points. And many of the players Clarke picked in that expansion draft were instrumental in the club's run to the 1996 Stanley Cup Final

After one season, however, he was lured back to Philadelphia to serve as GM and president, and he was given a small ownership stake. Clarke was hesitant after all the effort he put into building the Panthers from scratch, but his close relationship with owner Ed Snider eventually won him over.

"This is still Mr. Snider and still home," he said of Philadelphia and the Flyers.

Clarke's second stint with the Flyers lasted 11 full seasons. In that time, they finished first or second in the division every season, went to the Eastern Conference Finals four times and made the 1997 Stanley Cup Final.

While some might choose to remember those years for the squabbles he had with star center Eric Lindros, it doesn't cloud the fact that Clarke built tremendous teams. He traded for key players like John LeClair, Eric Desjardins, Mark Recchi, Dale Hawerchuk, Paul Coffey and Keith Primeau; he signed big-name free agents like Joel Otto, Jeremy Roenick, Derian Hatcher and Peter Forsberg; and supervised drafts that landed Simon Gagne, Justin Williams, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Joni Pitkanen, Antero Niittymaki and Claude Giroux.

During the summer of 2006, however, Clarke began losing interest in a job he had poured so much passion into.

"I don't know what happened to me," he said. "I knew I wasn't very efficient at the draft. Over the course of the summer I was leaving the office early, I didn't want to get involved in the decisions I was supposed to be involved in. I probably should have made the decision then, but I thought once the season starts I'll kick back into gear, but I didn't."

Eight games into the 2006-07, Clarke stepped down.

"I said I'm not doing a good job and I don't want to do the job," Clarke said he told club president Peter Luukko.

"The day-to-day being around Clarkie, it's certainly a learning experience. You get to know the intricacies of managing a hockey team when you're around a guy that's been doing it for as long as he's been doing it." -- Flyers General Manager Paul Holmgren

Despite his sudden ending, Clarke's legacy forever will be cast in orange and black

"Bob Clarke wanted the Flyers to win from when he was a player to when he was a manger -- that was his ultimate goal," Holmgren said. "It wasn't making the playoffs, it was winning the whole thing and how are we going to do it. That's just he way he is."

As a senior vice president, he still has an office at the Flyers' practice site, not far from Holmgren's.

"Even today he's a valuable asset for me to have around because he's been in the business for so long," Holmgren said. "He knows what makes a team work. He knows what little things winning teams have. He doesn't have to watch a game long to pick it apart. Where are your strengths? Where are your weaknesses? Clarkie's just a real sharp hockey guy."

Holmgren isn't the only person who has that opinion.

"He's a great man and I really enjoyed working for him,"  Armstrong said. "He was open and gave me a great opportunity to grow and to learn."

Contact Adam Kimelman at akimelman@nhl.com
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