Even had Clarke not gone on to become a two-tenure Flyers general manager and to later serve the organization as senior vice president, his place would be secure in the team's pantheon of the greatest of the greats.
Subsequently, with Clarke at the helm as general manager, the Flyers reached the Stanley Cup Final in three different season (1984-85, 1986-87, 1996-97) and reached the conference final four other times (1988-89, 1994-95, 1999-2000 and 2003-04) as they fell two wins shy of the Cup Final in 1989 and 1995 and were denied advancing to the Cup Finals by one-goal losses in Game Seven of the 2000 and 2004 Eastern Conference Finals. After resigning as GM early in the 2006-07 season, he took on the senior VP position.
To understand how Clarke rose to the pinnacle of his sport, one needs to go back to the beginning.
Clarke's upbringing in Flin Flon shaped the combination of traits that have forever shaped his personality: rough-hewn and self-made yet humble about his personal accomplishments.
It has often been said that places shape people as much as people shape places, and Clarke was always a Flin Flon boy at heart, embodying the values his parents taught him. Clarke was always hard-working and loyal but also fiercely driven to succeed. He put his team first, and loyalty to one's employer was given unequivocally. It wasn't so much that Clarke reveled in winning, it was that he equated losing with a fate similar to death.
The town of Flin Flon was named after the lead character, Professor Josiah Flintabbatey Flonatin, from a J. E. Preston Muddock novel entitled The Sunless City. The small mining town was founded in 1927 by Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting Company. The town's creation came about as the result of the discovery of exceptionally large deposits of copper and zinc ore in the region.
As legend has it, famed prospector Tom Creighton, who found gold in western Canada, happened upon a discarded copy of the book in the Canadian wilderness and carried it with him on his ultimately successful exploration. He named the site of his discovery "Flin Flon". In the book, Flintabbatey Flonatin, discovers a strange underground world lined with gold.
The dream of riches brought impoverished farmers from Saskatchewan and Manitoba to leave their farms and work in the mines of what grew into a small town (population 5,592 as of 2011). For most of the males in the town, life revolved around two things: working long hours in the mines and, for recreation, playing hockey.
The local hockey team, the Flin Flon Bombers, was founded in 1927. Now a club in the Junior A-level Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, the Bombers were once a force in Canadian junior hockey, winning the Memorial Cup in 1957 and remaining a strong team in western Canadian junior hockey for many years.
The Flin Flon team's golden era spanned the late 1960s to early 1970s, when the team won the MJHL title in 1966-67 and then captured the WCHL championship in back-to-back seasons (1968-69 and 1969-70). The coach in those years was the late Pat Ginnell, who later became a scout for the St. Louis Blues.
The star players for the Bombers: A diabetic Flin Flon boy by the name of Bobby Clarke (son of local mine worker, Cliff) and his linemate, a half-Cree teenager from Riverton, Manitoba, by the name of Reggie Leach. In those days, Clarke wore #11 and Leach was #9. Both numbers were later retired by the Bombers.
Whenever the Bombers played a home game in those days, the stands at Whitney Forum would be packed with the players' parents, friends and just about everyone else who lived in or near Flin Flon. Built in 1958, the rink is still in use by the Bombers to this day.
For both Leach and Clarke, hockey meant everything. Clarke, a bright young man but a disinterested student who dropped out after the ninth grade, spent every possible hour at Whitney Forum or playing hockey outdoors.
The young Clarke wasn't even especially covetous of playing in the National Hockey League; he only cared about the next game. It wasn't until shortly before the 1969 Draft that he realized he might be able to have a pro hockey career.
Clarke came from a stable, working-class home. He had little interest in school and found his salvation in playing hockey. At the insistence of Melnyk, the Flyers selected Clarke with the seventeenth overall pick of the 1969 NHL Draft after the team had passed him up in the first round of the draft.
Clarke was diagnosed with type one diabetes (then called juvenile diabetes) as a teenager. Nowadays, it's hard to believe that people once viewed his medical condition as a potentially insurmountable obstacle to a pro hockey career. It was the reason why Clarke was not selected in the first round of the 1969 NHL Draft, and why some teams passed on him twice before the Flyers took him.
Clarke never viewed his diabetes as any more than a daily fact of life. He took his insulin shot, monitored his blood sugar and went about his daily routine. Clarke has never viewed himself as a trailblazer for athletes with type one diabetes, but that's exactly what he was.
During Clarke's first Flyers training camp, he had two serious diabetic seizures. Flyers trainer Frank Lewis learned that, in both instances, Clarke only had a light breakfast before working out. Lewis drew up a complete dietary plan, which Clarke strictly followed in the years to come.
Before a game, Clarke drank a bottle of Coca-Cola with three teaspoons of dissolved sugar. During intermissions of games, Clarke consumed a half-glass of orange juice with added sugar. Immediately after a game, he drank a whole glass of orange juice. Additionally, Lewis carried several chocolate bars in his trainer's equipment and kept a tube of 100% glucose in his bag, in case of emergency. There was never another problem for the remainder of his playing career.
In Gene Hart's book, "Score! My Twenty-Five Years with the Broad Street Bullies," the late Flyers announcer recounted a story in which Clarke was asked to speak to a group of school children (ages 8 to 12) in Minnesota during a Flyers road trip. The topic was how he overcame diabetes to become the National Hockey League's most valuable player.
Clarke was a little uncomfortable about doing so. Public speaking was never his thing. Nevertheless, since the audience was compromised of school kids, Clarke reluctantly agreed on the condition that Flyers public relations manager Joe Kadlec come and get him after 10 minutes. Kadlec would say Clarke had to leave for a team function, and the hockey player would make his exit.
Clarke gave a short impromptu talk. Then one of the kids raised his hand.
"Mr. Clarke," he said, "I'm a diabetic, too."
Moments later, Kadlec entered the room. Clarke waved him off, saying, "No, no, that's all right."
Recalled Hart, "Bobby smiled a warm smile, and proceeded to talk on for almost an hour, in his own calm, strong, reassuring way."
Another story that speaks to Clarke's character and inner caring was one relayed by the Chicago Tribune.
On Dec. 17, 1975, the Flyers played a road game in Chicago. Philly won the game, 4-2, and physically imposed their will on the Blackhawks (although there were no fights in this particular game). That's the side of the Broad Street Bullies teams that the public knew very well.
After the game, Clarke summoned a Tribune reporter to the locker room. Clarke told the reporter that the Flyers players had seen a story in the paper that morning profiling a Chicago woman from the South Side who could not pay the heating bill for her apartment and whose children would not be getting any Christmas presents because she simply couldn't afford it.
Clarke handed the reporter $250 in cash, pooled together by all of the Flyers' players. The Flyers' captain instructed the reporter to make sure the money got to the woman in the article. Surprised, the reporter asked Clarke why the players were doing it.
"It's Christmas," Clarke said, simply.
To his Flyers teammates, Clarke was an incredible captain and leader. He was a man of few words, but when he spoke, it had meaning and purpose.
When a teammate was struggling, Clarke would sometimes ask Fred Shero if that player could be placed on his line for a few games. The trust between the player and the coach was strong, and Shero usually went along with the request.
One of the quintessential examples of Clarke's internal leadership took place during the summer of 1974.
The underdog Flyers had just beaten the highly favored Bruins to win the Stanley Cup. There was a surrealistic Stanley Cup parade attended by over two million people. Every Flyers player had a check for $19,000 in his pocket -- huge money back then -- as his share of the playoff money. Everywhere the guys went, they were treated like royalty. There were dinners and parties and special award nights both in the Delaware Valley and the players' Canadian hometowns.
Clarke, who was one of the first NHL players who took physical conditioning seriously, was concerned his teammates could get complacent and fat over the summer.
"Boys, everyone is going to be gunning for us next season," he said at a team get together in late May. "This year won't mean a thing if we don't do it again. I want everyone to be ready to go. Be in shape to play."
Clarke took it one step further. He rented a rink in New Jersey for 10 days of on-ice workouts in early September before the start of training camp. Keep in mind was the era when the Flyers used the Class of 1923 Skating Rink at the University of Pennsylvania as their practice facility and before it was common for veterans to report early for camp.
"Let's go, fellas, give up the final 10 days of your vacation and let's get back to work," Clarke said.
Clarke's teammates complied, and everyone chipped in to cover the cost of the informal camp. The day of reckoning came on Sept. 15, 1974, when everyone on the team had to undergo their physicals before the official start of training camp.
Virtually every player was already at his playing weight; only a couple were a few pounds overweight and none were grossly out of condition (a common problem in an era where diet and exercise were not very high on most NHL players' priority list).
On the first official day of training camp, Clarke delivered another straight-to-the-point message.
"We won the Stanley Cup last year, but a lot of people think we just got lucky," he said. "No one thinks we can do it again. I guess we better show them. We win it again this year, and no one can say last year was a fluke."
To punctuate the same point, Shero's bulletin board message that day read, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going."
The rest was history.
The Flyers rolled to their second straight Stanley Cup in 1974-75 and, for good measure, defeated the Red Army and reached the Finals for a third straight year before key injuries (Parent and Rick MacLeish) and the supreme talent of the Montreal Canadiens prevailed in the 1976 Cup Finals.
Off the ice, Clarke appreciated of the way the entire Delaware Valley embraced his team and himself. The blue-collar native son of Flin Flon became a lifelong Philadelphian, settling permanently in a region that embodies many of the same qualities.