Please permit an opening "statement." (Relax, this isn''t presidential...).
This bi-monthly column will be written from the perspective of someone who has been around hockey since the late 1960s (note to younger fans: yes, hockey was played back then).
When I first started covering the Flyers for the Philadelphia Daily News in the early 1970s, they were a good team. A few years later, they were Stanley Cup Champions. What a ride that was: wherever the "Broad Street Bullies" went, they were hated, but also respected. During the Flyers' first visit to Los Angeles each season, one newspaper ran a photo of gangsters with the Kings-Flyers preview. The implication was clear: get the women and children off the streets, the Bullies were in town.
During a Flyers-Golden Seals game, sports writers from the Oakland area yelled at the Philly contingent in the press box after a brawl between the teams. Our response was, "Hey, don''t yell at us: we just cover the team."
I was in the arena in Flint, Michigan, when Fred Shero made his debut as Flyers coach in 1971. Following the preseason game, we assembled near the locker room for the postgame interviews. No sign of Shero. Finally, he came strolling down the corridor in his Jack Benny-style walk. Asked where he had been, Shero replied that he went for a smoke outside the building, then temporarily couldn''t get back in. The "Freddie the Fog" era had begun.
Longtime Flyers General Manager Keith Allen received the nickname "Keith the Thief" from yours truly. After he pulled off another in a series of trades that helped the Flyers, while giving up virtually nothing, I bestowed the nickname on him. Pretending (I think) to be angry, Allen asked me, "Keith the Thief? What will my mother think?" My reply was something like "As the mother of a successful NHL general manager, she''ll probably be proud."
After the Flyers defeated the Bobby Orr-led Boston Bruins to clinch the Stanley Cup in 1974, my lead in the Daily News was about Barry Ashbee. Wearing sunglasses and leaning against a wall in the Flyers' Spectrum locker room, Ashbee said, "You''ll never see a bunch like this again." Ashbee, a second-team NHL All-Star that season, had suffered a career-ending injury when he was hit in the right eye with a puck on a shot by the Rangers' Dale Rolfe.
Since so many players from those championship Flyers teams settled in the Philadelphia area, I''m still in touch with many of them. It's a unique relationship I never expected, but I''ve learned to enjoy it. We joke with each other about growing older. Sports writers quickly learn that they can''t be friends with the athletes they cover. But there's nothing wrong with being friendly.
All that said, I know Flyers fans don''t want to live in the past. Those Stanley Cup years were great, and they''ll always be in our hearts. But the Flyers' focus should be on now and finally winning another Stanley Cup.
Back in Business
As this NHL season begins, I sense widespread excitement that hasn''t been evident in several years. The main reason? There was no 2004-05 season and new rules.
The NHL was the last major sports league that should vanish for a year. In most parts of the United States, the NHL is behind the NFL, major league baseball and the NBA in the minds of fans. Despite ESPN's quality productions, television ratings were somewhere down around log-cutting contests and growing petunias. In other words, the NHL ratings barely registered on the sports radar screen.
However, the NHL owners were convinced that shutting down for a season was better than continuing to operate with severe financial losses. Many fans blamed the owners, saying they were the reason the league's finances were in such terrible shape. The owners were paying millions to players who scored only 20 goals per season.
As the lockout continued, apathy and anger were the dominant emotions of fans. With no hockey, they found other things to do. Even fans in Montreal and Toronto, cities where hockey rules, said they didn''t miss hockey. When owners read those reactions from fans, I hope they dialed NHL headquarters and demanded that something had to be done to bring the sport back.
When the lockout was settled, teams knew they just couldn''t slide pucks back on the ice and expect fans to show up in force. Teams had to create excitement. New rules were instituted to put crowd-pleasing offense back in the games. When the Flyers announced they had signed defensemen Derian Hatcher and Mike Rathje, my reaction was, good moves. The Flyers need their size, experience and toughness.
Then Bob Clarke, the Flyers' general manager, hit a grand slam home run with the signing of Peter Forsberg. I could hear Flyers fans calling friends or emailing each other with the news. "Did you hear? The Flyers have Peter Forsberg?" The reaction from some likely was, "Forsberg? Come on, have you been drinking?"
When the news sank in, fans knew the Flyers suddenly were serious Stanley Cup contenders, perhaps even favorites. Forsberg is such a splendid player. Although he has sustained injuries over the past few years, he insists he has several good seasons left. The Flyers are counting on him to produce the way he did in Colorado, where he led the Avalanche to two Stanley Cups. He was the league's Most Valuable Player in 2002-03 and is a five-time All-Star. Further good news is, he seems delighted to be with the Flyers, the team that drafted him in 1991.
Regarding the new rules, we''ll be keeping an eye on them to see how players, coaches and fans react. The shootout, following a five-minute overtime, has proven popular in the minor leagues. It should be equally popular in the NHL.
The NHL old guard always has been resistant to change. Fortunately, people in the league with vision pushed through the new rules.
One of the key new rules is the removal of the red line, allowing passes over two lines. This international hockey rule has helped make games in the Olympics and World Championships exciting. The NHL took too long to adapt this rule, but thankfully it is in effect now. It should open up the games that had become too defensive oriented. Fans want to see talented offensive players do what they do best. Fans don''t pay big money to watch defensemen obstruct goal seekers.
During preseason referees enforced the obstruction calls to the point of absurdity. Defensemen must be allowed to make life uncomfortable for forwards around the crease. But the players have to learn to live with this rule. The league also has to be careful that the new rules don''t eliminate physical play. Body checking is one of hockey's big appeals.
The league has a new television partner, the Outdoor Life Network. OLN has hired some good hockey people, including John Davidson as a game analyst, Mike Emrick on play-by-play and former Flyers Bill Clement and Keith Jones for their studio show. It's too early to offer thumbs up or thumbs down on the OLN productions.
Please note that the views expressed in this column are not necessarily the views expressed by the Philadelphia Flyers Hockey Club.
Bill Fleischman is a veteran Philadelphia Daily News sports writer. He was the Flyers beat reporter for the Daily News in the 1970s, and continued to cover games in later years. A former president of the Professional Hockey Writers and the Philadelphia Sports Writers Associations, Fleischman is co-author of ``Bernie, Bernie," the autobiography of Bernie Parent. Fleischman also is co-author of ``The Unauthorized NASCAR Fan Guide." Since 1981, he has been an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware journalism program.
He is a graduate of Germantown High School and Gettysburg College.