Arch-rivals for much of the later quarter century of their respective 50-season histories, the Philadelphia Flyers Alumni and Pittsburgh Penguins Alumni skated to a 3-3 tie in the 50th Anniversary Game at the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday night.
Dave Brown, Danny Briere and Eric Desjardins scored for the Flyers Alumni, who led by scores of 2-0 and 3-1 in the third period before Ryan Malone scored a pair of goals for the Pittsburgh side and Tyler Kennedy knotted the score with four minutes remaining in regulation.
In the eyes and hearts of the 19,727 wildly enthusiastic Flyers partisans who packed the arena, however, the celebration of a half century of NHL hockey in Philadelphia - with a cavalcade of familiar Flyers faces from every decade of team history either playing, coaching or attending as special guests - took precedence over the final score.
"When you look at the traditions of NHL teams and their different eras in different buildings, the Flyers have had the most continuity and lost the least, at least in my mind," said 1980s era captain Dave Poulin.
Added Bill Barber, "The identity of this franchise and the connection with the fans is second to none. It started at the top with Mr. Snider and Keith Allen and Fred Shero to be a team than played the game the right way and to be a team. But none of this would be possible without our fans, who have always been so good to us and our families."
Playing in their final Alumni Game, Bob Clarke and Barber joined with LCB Line teammate Reggie Leach one last time. It was an emotional night for all three men.
"Playing hockey, being in the room with the guys, that's so much a part of your life," Clarke said. ""I think I have been here for 50 years, and there are new Alumni coming every 7-8 years and these guys have maybe ten or twelve years [to play in Alumni Games]. Then you have guys like Lindros and LeClair that have many 20. I think the guys know where I am with myself. If you were bad today the next celebration would be worse. I don't think there's any use in pushing it. It was really, really appreciated to be back with the fans, it was just incredible."
The Flyers' greatest leader also could not help but to have his thoughts over the weekend drift to the man who co-founded the organization and forged its identity of putting the team and winning above all but also treating team members like an extended family.
"It was hard not think about Mr. Snider tonight. We were very close, and he meant a lot to me, not just in my career but in every possible way," Clarke said softly.
All proceeds from the Flyers Alumni's Golden Anniversary Reception and the Alumni Game will go toward making good on the Flyers Alumni Association's pledge of a $2 million donation to the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation's ongoing rink-building project.
The player who traveled the greatest distance to take part in Alumni Weekend was Mikael Renberg, who came over from Sweden in order to rejoin his old Legion of Doom linemates John LeClair and Eric Lindros. The trio generated scoring chances galore in the Alumni Game - and nearly scored a buzzer-beater with a chance to win the game - but could not put one in.
"We had our opportunities but it just wasn't our night to score," Lindros said. "But this was a great time and these fans were unbelievable. It doesn't surprise me. Flyers fans have always extremely supportive of the team."
Among the goal scorers, Brown (more known for his fistic prowess than his soft touch around the net during his playing days) tallied from in close. Briere, the most recently retired player on the Flyers Alumni side, niftily lifted a backhand shot under the crossbar. Desjardins, arguably the best defenseman on either side in this game, capped off a fine two-way game with a goal off a play set up by defensive defenseman Luke Richardson. Other standouts included the still-smooth Simon Gagne and the sharp-as-ever hockey smarts of Poulin and Mark Howe.
There were many familiar sights during the game. But there were also players who stepped out of their typical roles. For instance, Brad Marsh (a stay-at-home shutdown defenseman in his playing days) more or less changed roles with dynamically skilled Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Howe. On this night, it was Marsh pinching up on the play frequently.
"I got to stay back, for a change, and I loved it," Howe said. "Marshy was testing out some new skills there."
Goalies Brian Boucher and Neil Little on the Flyers side and Pens Alumni J-S Aubin and Jocelyn Thibault all made their share of good stops (the Flyers Alumni outshot the Penguins Alumni by a 40-32 count overall. Boucher's best saves were a glove save on a rebound try that almost went in and a penalty shot denial of Grant Jennings.
"I'm going to be sore, I'm going to be honest with you I was starting to kept some cramps in my calves and I have no idea I've never had cramps in my calves when I've played before, I'm not sure what was going on but, yeah, I'm glad that it was forty minutes for me and that was it but it was a fun night," Boucher said.
"I wish we would have won. I mean. I know it's an Alumni game, but I'm still bummed that we didn't win the game to be honest with you, I felt like Johnny was going to win it there at the end, Thibault made a great save but it was a fun experience."
Even with the Penguins late rally erasing the Flyers Alumni's lead and the big LOD push in the final seconds not producing a game-winner, the Alumni were all smiles as they took a curtain call and exited the ice to a huge ovation.
"It's great to be part of this, now that we are retired," Briere said. "To be out there with players I watched and admired - guys who are legends - was very cool."