Taking one for the team
Call Bobby Clarke any name you want, people always have, but don't call him thin-skinned.
Clarke, the president and general manager of the Philadelphia Flyers, was roasted recently at the Trump Marina in Atlantic City before several hundred of his closest friends, including the Flyers Alumni Association. Clarke put up with the digs and ribald teasing for a good cause.
The event benefited SCAN (Stop Child Abuse Now) and the Jenny Barber Scholarship Foundation that provides financial aid for culinary students in the United States and Canada.
Jenny Barber, the wife of former Flyers star and coach Bill Barber, died of cancer last December. Bill Barber and their son, Brooks, gave eloquent speeches at the event.
Former teammates and media members teased Clarke about his angelic face as a rookie and his toothless gap as a veteran; about his trades, good and bad; and the number of coaches he has hired and fired in his nearly 20 years directing NHL teams, including the Flyers, Minnesota North Stars and Florida Panthers.
"Wow, seven speakers and Ken Hitchcock is still the coach," cracked former sports talk-radio host Joe Conklin.
"Hey, Hitch, just because Bobby Clarke put a meter in your parking spot, don't take it to heart," Bob "Hound" Kelly jibed.
"When I first became an NHL coach, I had a lot to learn," drawled former Dallas Stars General Manager Bob Gainey. "This may surprise you, but Bob supported me."
Oh man, you're in trouble when Bob Gainey starts cracking wise in public. But Clarke was equal to the task, turning the tables on Gainey.
"When I hired Bob Gainey to coach the North Stars, I knew he liked beer so I showed up with a case on ice," Clarke recalled. "We drank that and another and I hired him and a year later we were in the Stanley Cup Finals. Ever since, I've screwed it up by trying to think my way through it."
"Bobby Clarke is the kind of guy who will show up at your wedding in shorts," said ESPN broadcaster Al Morganti, who then showed a doctored set of video clips of Clarke in interviews. Al was a little rough on Bob but redeemed himself by thanking Clarke for "years and years of material."
Clarke's sometimes rocky relationship with the press came under review.
Dave "The Hammer" Schultz, president of the Alumni, devotes countless hours to charity fundraising and earned his shot at Clarke, for whom he provided dauntless protection in their playing days.
"I retired for medical reasons," Schultz said. "The NHL got sick of me. When I played, opposing players used to ask if my No. 8 was my IQ. Idiots! Nobody wore 55 in those days."
Straight out of Joe Miller's Joke Book but good fun, nevertheless.
Flyers broadcaster and genuine comedian Steve Coates jibed Clarke about one of his less successful trades, Shjon Podein for Keith Jones. Jones played less than two seasons before arthritis ended his career while Podein helped the Colorado Avalanche win the 2001 Stanley Cup.
"Bobby was worried about Shjon's speed," Coates said. "Keith Jones made Shjon look like Pavel Bure."
It was a classic case of kicking a man when he's up. The Flyers remain one of the NHL's best teams and expect big things this season after installing a new coaching staff.
Broadcaster Bill Clement teased Clarke for a few minutes, then put the evening in perspective:
"When I look at the Stanley Cup rings that I am so proud to have, I know I would not have been privileged to win them if I had not been a teammate of Bobby Clarke," Clement said. "He is the greatest leader in the history of organized sports, and I'm not the only one who feels that way."
"The first time I saw Bobby Clarke, I thought, 'They're going to kill this kid,'" said Tom Brookshier, a member of the 1960 NFL champion Philadelphia Eagles and later a TV broadcaster. "But then I saw he could handle himself."
Brookshier urged Hitchcock to get his players to follow the example of the 1970s Flyers.
"Hitch, get this team involved in the community and they'll last forever," Brookshier said. "That's what this group of rough-and-tumble athletes did and they've been loved and admired for a long time.
"This was the most honest bunch of athletes I ever saw," he continued. "They are very special, the most special sports team that Philadelphia ever had."