Incredibly, the Bruins branded Ashbee a malingerer for sitting out so long. Ashbee was dispatched back to Hershey, never to play another game for the Bruins. Boston coach Harry Sinden, who later admitted his mistake, misunderstood the type of man Barry Ashbee really was. No one hated sitting out with an injury more than Ashbee.
Not surprisingly, the injured Ashbee was ignored in the NHL expansion draft. None of the six new teams, including the Flyers, saw much use in a stay-at-home 28-year-old defenseman coming off a serious injury. Three more AHL seasons followed. Ashbee played better defense than many NHL blueliners but by now was labeled a "career minor leaguer."
He also had compiled a litany of injuries that was impressive even by hockey standards: the bad back, problems with his left shoulder, bone chips in his left elbow and two creeky knees. Later, he sustained nerve damage in his neck that required him to wear a padded white "horse collar" on the ice.
Nevertheless, Flyers general manager Keith Allen and head coach Vic Stasiuk had heard enough good things about Ashbee over the years to take a look at the now 31-year-old defender on their struggling fourth year team.
In a seemingly minor trade in June of 1970, the Flyers sent defenseman Darryl Edestrand and left wing Larry McKillop to Boston in exchange for Ashbee.
"Ash Can" seemed to have a chip on his shoulder when he arrived at his first Flyers training camp before the 1970-71 season. Legendary Flyers announcer Gene Hart recalled that his first impressions of Ashbee were not positive.
According to Hart's book, Score!, Ashbee came across at his first Flyers camp as "a loner, an unhappy man, even an angry man." After feeling lied to by Boston management for years, he seemed suspicious of anything that was said to him. On the ice, he played as though he was daring the Flyers to cut him.
Stasiuk, an old school coach, liked what he saw. Ashbee made the team and immediately became a mainstay on the Flyers blueline. When Fred Shero took over for Stasiuk as head coach in 1971-72, Shero also became taken with the tough minor league veteran.
"I remember saying [in the locker room] my first season, ''We have nineteen chickens on one team.'' I was just trying to get them ready for the game but Ashbee took it personally. He wanted me to name names," the legendary coach recalled in The Broad Street Bullies, authored by Jack Chevalier.
Shero assured Ashbee that he was not among the "chickens."
Ashbee's demeanor manifested itself in tough, hard-nosed hockey on the ice. Opponents quickly learned that Ashbee knew when to play the angle and when to take the body. When he had an opponent lined up, he doled out punishing body checks. If he had to go down to block a shot, he willingly took a puck in the legs or chest to prevent a scoring chance. The Flyers goalies appreciated Ashbee's ability to clear out the traffic without screening them.
Now that he finally had the opportunity to show what he was made of, it didn't take Ashbee long to gain as much respect around the NHL as he had in the minors. Allen recalled receiving phone calls from Stanley Cup contenders hoping to casually lift the veteran away from the Flyers for a draft pick or second-tier forward. The Flyers wisely declined.
On one occasion in Pittsburgh, however, Ashbee went over the edge. Infuriated by a call made by sometimes controversial referee Bryan Lewis, Ashbee decked the official with a right to the jaw. He was, of course, ejected and suspended by the NHL.
Over his four years in Philadelphia, Ashbee came to feel at home. He enjoyed his teammates and to allow them to see the warmth that lay beneath the gruff exterior. The veteran became a locker room leader-by-example, playing through constant, excruciating pain in his neck, shoulder, elbow and knee.
By 1972-73, Ashbee's left knee was in rough condition. The kneecap was deteriorating and the ligaments were barely held together. Fans on the road taunted him about the "toilet seat" he wore around his nerve-damaged neck. Ashbee played on all the while.
"Barry Ashbee was the strongest guy mentally I've ever seen," Bobby Clarke said.
The other Flyers concurred. Hockey players are a tough breed by nature but Ashbee's stoicism impressed even his most hardened teammates.
During training camp before the 1972-73 season, Ashbee told Keith Allen he was thinking of quitting the game. He was disgusted that some of his teammates, coming off a losing season, were being so casual in their preparations for the season. Many of the same players who cut corners in practice during the day were the same ones spending nights out partying until the wee hours. That combination didn't mix in Ashbee's view: "Work hard, play hard" was fine, but "Play hard, hardly work" was unacceptable.
Saying that he was getting too old to waste his time with a group content to be losers, Ashbee told Allen he was going to retire. Allen promised to the address problem and convinced "Ash Can" to reconsider.
Ashbee was glad he stayed. Like most others on the team, he came to respect Fred Shero's offbeat coaching style and the way he treated his players like men. Even more importantly, the team began winning. As Allen promised, the team was populated by a group of players who cared about winning as much as Ashbee did. The players who couldn't or wouldn't keep up the pace were jettisoned.
With Ashbee, Joe Watson, and Ed Van Impe anchoring the blueline and an exciting corps of young forwards led by Clarke, Barber, and MacLeish, the Flyers finished second in the Western Division and advanced to the Stanley Cup semi-finals. In the off-season, the Flyers put the final piece of the Stanley Cup puzzle in place when they re-acquired goaltender Bernie Parent.
The 1973-74 season was both the culmination and the end of Ashbee's playing career. As always, Ashbee's season stats did not tell the story of his worth to the club. He had just 17 points in the regular season, but his defensive play was stellar.
The likes of Montreal Canadiens legend Jean Beliveau touted him as a deserving All-Star. But as midseason rolled around, Ashbee was left off the Western Division All-Star team. Ashbee was angry.
"Don't say I should have made it," he told members of Philadelphia media, as recounted in The Broad Street Bullies. "That's all I heard for eight years in the American League. I should have made it. Bullbleep. I don't want to hear it anymore."
Ashbee took out his frustration on the rest of the NHL. He finished the year with a phenomenal plus-minus rating of +52, best on the team. After the season, Ashbee's mid-season slight was corrected when he was named a second team NHL All-Star by the league and selected to the All-Western Conference team compiled by The Hockey News. But individual honors were secondary to Ashbee. He wanted hockey's ultimate prize - the Stanley Cup.
Ashbee was his usual quiet, effective self in the Flyers first round sweep of the Atlanta Flames and then stood tall as the Flyers took games one and two against the Rangers. The Flyers finally lost their first game of the playoffs in Game Three at Madison Square Garden.
Game Four was an overtime thriller, won by the Rangers. It would also be Barry Ashbee's last game in the National Hockey League. At 1:27 of overtime, a shot by New York's Dale Rolfe deflected and struck Ashbee just below the right eyebrow.
The veteran defenseman crumbled as blood poured on the ice. Ashbee was taken to a hospital in New York. The diagnosis confirmed people's worst fears. Heavy hemorrhaging had caused permanent scarring of the retina. Ashbee permanently lost the depth perception in his right eye. He was told that he would recover sufficiently to engage in most daily activities. But his hockey career was over.
With a combination of great pride and sadness, Ashbee sat on the sidelines as the Flyers went on to beat the Rangers in seven games and defeated the defending champion Bruins in six games to win the Stanley Cup. After his long, torturous journey to the NHL, Ashbee's name was on the trophy alongside his comrades.
Wearing dark glasses, Ashbee told his teammates, "Boys, cherish this group. There'll never be another one like it."
To the press, Ashbee made one of the most eloquent statements he ever uttered, saying, "Some people strive for sixty years and never make it. I got what I wanted when I was thirty-four."
With his hockey career over, Ashbee was ready to leave hockey, move back to Toronto, find another job, and spend more time with wife Donna and children Danny and Heather. However, the Flyers asked him repeatedly over the summer of 1974 if he'd become an assistant coach to Shero. At first he said no, fearing that the invitation was an act of charity.
Shero was the first NHL coach to name an assistant coach, selecting Ashbee's long time Hershey teammate, Mike Nykoluk. At the time of his retirement, Ashbee was just getting used to the idea of having one assistant coach, but two? Surely, there was no use for a second assistant, he said. Ashbee said he had no interest in standing around and collecting a paycheck.
Shero, Allen, and Clarke convinced the skeptical Ashbee that they wanted him around for his hockey knowledge and leadership, not as a figurehead. In August 1974, Ashbee agreed and arrived at camp as the Flyers second assistant coach. Primarily, he worked with the defensemen.
After overcoming his initial discomfort and the awkwardness of coaching the same guys who were his teammates just a few months earlier, Ashbee settled into the role and even began to relish his job. However, he was adamant that he did not want the team to recognize his playing career with a special night in his honor.
With prodding from Donna, Barry agreed on two conditions: the ceremony be kept short and there would be no gifts presented to him.
"I'll go through with this," said Ashbee to Ed Snider, "but if you give me one gift, I'll walk right the hell off the ice."
Snider promised Ashbee that his wishes would be honored. Ashbee had been lied to by management types many times in his career. But this different. Despite his protest, Barry was flattered when it turned out that Snider arranged exactly the kind of tribute Ashbee said he didn't want.
With Donna and the children standing by his side, accolades poured in for the proud warrior. Then the Flyers revealed the night's biggest surprise. All the players on the team had chipped in and bought Ashbee a brand new camper. Fighting back tears and stifling a smile, Ashbee tried, but failed, to seem upset that he had been fussed over after all.
The next morning at practice, Ashbee had a surprise of his own for all the Flyers players. He drove the camper onto the ice and invited the team members to come inside. They discovered that Ashbee had stocked the vehicle with beverages. It was his way of saying thank you. With Shero's full approval, the entire team celebrated together that day, rather than practicing.
Ashbee was behind the bench with Shero and Nykoluk when the Flyers won their second Stanley Cup in 1974-75, downed the Red Army, and went to their third straight Stanley Cup Finals in 1975-76 before an injury-depleted squad went down to the Montreal Canadiens.
In the summer of 1976, there was talk of Ashbee being groomed to eventually succeed Shero as the Flyers head coach but, predictably, Ashbee scoffed at the possibility.
"Freddie is the best coach in the league," Ashbee told the Philadelphia Bulletin. "Why the hell would the Flyers even think about something like that?"
In February 1977, coach Ashbee worked a booth at the first Flyers Wives Fight for Lives Carnival. The events of the next few months gave the carnival a greater sense of direction and purpose to the Flyers family.
At the beginning of April, as the Flyers prepared to meet Toronto in the first round of the playoffs, the players learned Ashbee had been diagnosed with a form of leukemia.
He told the players, "I don't want this to turn into a ''Win One for the Gipper' situation. You'll win and I'll get better. That's it."
Ashbee was placed under the care of Dr. Isadore Brodsky in Philadelphia. From his hospital bed, Ashbee stayed in daily contact with the team's defensemen. The Flyers fell behind 0-2 in the Toronto series before rallying to win the playoff round.
Ashbee did not fare as well as his beloved team, but he remained brave when he learned that his chemotherapy failed and the cancer had spread to his kidneys. To the very end, he battled on, refusing to give himself over to death without a fight.
On the last night of his life, he told Donna, "I'm tired now, but I'll whip this thing in the morning."
He never woke up. Barry Ashbee died in his sleep on May 12, 1977 at the age of 38.
Ashbee's funeral was held in Toronto in May, 1977. Ed Snider chartered a plane to Toronto for all of the Flyers players, their wives, assorted team personnel, and Ashbee's friends and neighbors.
Among the others who attended the funeral were former Hershey Bears teammates, former opponents (including the Maple Leafs' Darryl Sittler and Lanny McDonald) and many ex-Flyers, including Dave Schultz and Doug Favell. Bobby Clarke delivered the eulogy for his former teammate and assistant coach. Barry Ashbee was interred at Glendale Memorial Gardens Cemetery, in the suburbs of Toronto.
Back in Philadelphia, the Flyers held a memorial tribute at the Spectrum for Ashbee. After Barry's death, the team took numerous steps to make certain his memory lived on.
Ashbee's number 4 jersey was retired. For many years, the Flyers Wives Carnival was dedicated directly ot his memory and a large portion of the proceeds from Flyers Wives Charities went to the research and treatment of leukemia and other blood diseases. The Flyers team for the best defenseman was named the Barry Ashbee Trophy. Additionally, there was a Barry Ashbee Research Laboratory established at Hahnemann Hospital.
In 1991, Ashbee was enshrined in the Flyers Hall of Fame. All throughout the years, Donna and the Ashbee children have remained close to the Flyers family. Son Danny remained the annual presenter of the Barry Ashbee Trophy.
Ashbee's retired number hangs in the rafters because he was the epitome of the type of hockey player that every team needs to win. He wasn't the most talented guy around but no one was more dedicated to winning or persevered more tenaciously.
Barry Ashbee is enshrined in the Flyers Hall of Fame not so much to venerate his career but to honor the man's spirit. By celebrating him, the Flyers also pay tribute to all the players who came before and after him, men who toiled and sacrificed just for a chance to play.