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Flyers Heroes of the Past: Barry Ashbee

by Staff Writer / Philadelphia Flyers
When many casual fans and youngsters come to the Wachovia Center and glance up at the Flyers' retired jersey banners in the rafters, there is one name that seems out of place.

Every Flyers fan knows of the exploits of Hall of Fame members Bobby Clarke, Bernie Parent and Bill Barber. But who was that other guy – Number 4, Barry Ashbee?

A glance at The Hockey Encyclopedia does not reveal much that would seem to suggest that Ashbee was one of the team's all-time greats. He was a 31-year-old NHL rookie who played four seasons in the league and had 15 career goals and 85 career points. Sure, Ashbee was named an NHL second team All-Star in 1973-74, but does that alone merit having your number retired, let alone being enshrined in the Philadelphia Flyers Hall of Fame?

To be sure, there are other, seemingly more deserving candidates for the honor of having their jersey numbers retired: Mark Howe, Jimmy Watson, Tim Kerr, Rick MacLeish, and Brian Propp were all crucial Flyers players during their respective Philadelphia careers. Cases could also be made for Joe Watson, Eric Desjardins, Gary Dornhoefer, and Ron Hextall for their long, loyal and productive service to the team.

While many of the aforementioned names are members of the Flyers Hall of Fame, none have had their jerseys retired. Ashbee, however, was posthumously awarded both honors. So, again, who was this Barry Ashbee?

Barry Ashbee was an everyman player who epitomized the Broad Street Bullies-era Flyers. Whatever he lacked in natural talent he made up for in work ethic and hunger to win. Ashbee was a man whose personality and playing style were deceptively prickly and rough hewn but who possessed as much character and inner strength as anyone who has ever been a professional athlete. There was nothing phony or pretentious about the guy teammates called "Ash Can."

Ashbee saw the world and the sport of hockey in black and white. You worked hard, you didn't make excuses for failure and you didn't expect a pat on the back for doing what was expected of you. Ashbee despised egotists and glad-handers. He believed in results, not words.

Throwback Defenseman

William Barry Ashbee was born in Weston, Ontario, on July 28, 1939. His junior career for Barrie was unremarkable. He was a solid, physical defenseman, but an average skater and passer. Apart from the legendary Eddie Shore, defensemen played little offensive role when Ashbee grew up learning the game. It would be a long time until Bobby Orr came along to regularly join the rush and revolutionized the position, setting the standard for what are now known as "two-way" defensemen.

In Ashbee's youth, defensemen rarely ventured much past center ice on the rush, let alone forayed deep into enemy territory. Even as the game began to transform in the mid-1960s, Ashbee preferred the same fundamental style he had been taught as a youngster.

In the six-team NHL era, there was no annual Entry Draft. NHL teams established relationships with junior teams – typically divided on a territorial basis – and exercised domain over signing the players from those teams.

The best junior prospects were signed to NHL contracts. Upon "graduation" from their junior club, they either joined the big team or served a professional apprenticeship for a season or two with a club in the higher minor leagues, such as the AHL.

Players in the "high" middle grade of prospects were recruited directly by the teams in the more prestigious minor leagues but did not have an NHL affiliation until they proved themselves. The next grouping down hooked on with teams in the lower minor leagues and tried to work their way up from there. The rest either got tryouts with obscure minor league teams or, more likely, were finished with hockey and had to go on with their lives.

Ashbee fell on the borderline of the second and third category and in 1959-60, ended up playing in the obscure EPHL (Eastern Pro Hockey League).

Fighting for a Chance

Ashbee toiled in the EPHL for three seasons, playing for Kingston. He was good at shutting down opposing forwards and steered traffic away from his goalie. He was also not afraid to take a vicious hit to get the puck to safety. He was no goon but he was a tough guy who never shied away from a collision or a fight.

Several times during his stay in Kingston, Ashbee heard that assorted AHL teams were interested in him. Each time, he was disappointed. Finally, when he least expected it, he was invited to join a prestigious minor league outfit. After an injury plagued third pro season, Ashbee joined the Hershey Bears of the AHL for the 1962-63 season.

Ashbee proved himself to be a fine defenseman in the American League. The Boston Bruins offered him a contract after an excellent '62-'63 season. Ashbee was told that the franchise saw him as part of their future on the blueline.

Two years later, Ashbee was still waiting for his chance. The Bruins were an NHL doormat; the weakest of the six clubs in the league. "Ash Can" started to become bitter and untrusting of anything management told him. He came to resent players whom he believed put personal advancement above team goals. Most of all, Ashbee disliked any player who demanded, and received, special treatment from the team.

In 1965-66, Ashbee finally earned a call-up to the Bruins, albeit a short one. He played in just 14 games before sustaining a serious injury. He suffered a crushed disc in his back. Ashbee could hardly move, much less play hockey. He needed back surgery – a rather dicey proposition in that era. The injury knocked the defenseman out of the remainder of the 1965-66 season and the entire 1966-67 campaign.

Boston Bruins coach Harry Sinden branded Ashbee a malingerer for sitting out so long. Ashbee was dispatched back to Hershey, never to play another game for the Bruins. 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.

Winners Wanted

"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 as "a loner, an unhappy man, even an angry man." Ashbee wore a perpetual frown on his face and seemed suspicious of anything that was said to him by his coach. 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.

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 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 relaxed enough to let himself enjoy his teammates and to allow them to see the warmth that lay beneath the gruff exterior. He became a locker room leader-by-example, playing through constant, excruciating pain in his neck, shoulder, elbow and knee.

By 1972-73, his left knee was in terrible 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," said Bobby Clarke. The other Flyers concurred. Hockey players are a tough breed by nature but Ashbee's stoicism impressed even his most hardened teammates.

Even so, Ashbee remained somewhat of a loner once the season started. He was there to play, and win, hockey games, not win popularity contests. Teammates who got on Ashbee's bad side quickly learned his will was stronger than theirs.

A case in point of Ashbee's watchdog influence over the locker room was his sour relationship with promising young puck-rushing defenseman Rick Foley. Foley had size, speed and offensive talent but he was reluctant to pay the price physically, and he was not careful about his conditioning.

Ashbee detested Foley and let it be known to his face. Within a year, Foley was gone from the Flyers and Ashbee remained. Nevertheless, in a game against the New York Rangers when Ashbee witnessed a New York player cheap shot Foley, the veteran defenseman was the first teammate to jump to his defense.

Cherish This Group

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, he 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."

Esteemed Assistant Coach

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. But 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 was a different kind of lie. Despite his grumbling and protests, 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 beer and soda. 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?"

An Unbreakable Spirit Lives On

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, 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.

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 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.

His number 4 jersey was retired. The Flyers Wives Carnival was dedicated in perpetuity to his memory and a large portion of the proceeds from Flyers Wives Charities goes to the research and treatment of leukemia and other blood diseases. Later, when the Flyers created team awards to be presented to players at the end of the season, the award for the team's best defenseman was named the Barry Ashbee Trophy. 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.

Barry 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.

Ashbee is enshrined in the Flyers Hall of Fame not so much to venerate his career but to honor his spirit. By celebrating Barry Ashbee, 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. Just as importantly, Ashbee possessed extraordinary character and dignity.
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