Philadelphia sports fans have always valued hard-working players. A blue-collar player who wears his heart on his sleeve often gains fan acceptance and approval faster than a seemingly detached player with greater talent. No one better embodied the type of lunch pail player Flyers fans love more than defenseman Brad Marsh.
Marsh was not blessed with great natural talent and there was nothing fancy about the way he played. He possessed neither dynamic puckhandling skills nor a fearsome shot. It would be an understatement to say he was not a smooth skater. But through sheer determination, he became one of the most popular and successful defensemen to ever wear the Orange and Black. He played in 1,086 NHL regular season games (514 with the Flyers), registering a mere 23 goals and 198 points but posting a career plus-57 defensive rating. For his Flyers career, he was plus-99.
Philadelphia fans identified with "Marshy" because his love of the game was obvious and he worked his tail off to overcome his limitations. Marsh learned to use his considerable cunning and size to their full advantage. The 6'3'', 220-pound blueliner was absolutely fearless when it came to blocking shots. One of the last helmetless players in the National Hockey League, Marsh willingly put his body on the line every night to help his team win.
Marsh was also a solid positional defenseman who took away the corners from opposing forwards. Marsh rarely lost track of his check or got caught out of position. His lack of foot speed was rarely a factor, because his checks spent most of their time trying in vain to prevent being ridden off the play or else lost the puck to Marsh's long reach.
"Brad was a very important leader on our team. Marshy was all about the team and never for himself," says longtime teammate Mark Howe. "He could play 20-plus minutes a game and could always be counted on to compete each and every night. He was a great shot blocker and a rugged competitor on the ice, but a gentle and kind person off the ice. Brad was always smiling and loved to be at the rink each and every day. For many years he was a mainstay on the blueline for our team and a big reason why the Flyers had a successful and competitive team in the eighties."
Off the ice, Marsh's friendly, down-to-earth nature won him admiration from fans and teammates alike. His locker was a frequent stop for reporters. Marsh could always be counted on to provide articulate and honest insight. There may have been scores of players with more natural talent but precious few who were more respected.
Doing the Dirty Work
Charles Bradley Marsh was born in London, Ontario, on March 31, 1958. Taller than the other kids, it took Brad awhile to grow into his body. From a young age, he was encouraged to play defense. His younger brother, Paul, later played defense in the minor leagues.
Even as at the midget hockey level, Brad realized that he would probably not be the next Bobby Orr. He won over his coaches with hard work and aggressive play. As his body began to fill out, Marsh became a solid bodychecker who willingly did the dirty work of blocking shots, clearing out traffic around the net and killing penalties.
"I had to work hard to be on any team that I played for," Marsh said in The Greatest Players and Moments of the Philadelphia Flyers. "People called me a throwback player, because they said the old-time players gave so much every game. But I felt that was something that came natural to me."
Marsh played his junior hockey for the London Knights of the OMJHL. Although he never topped eight goals in a season, he made himself into one of the best junior defensemen in Canada. A member of Team Canada's silver-medal winning 1977 World Junior Championships and 1978 bronze-medal winning teams, Brad shared the Max Kaminsky Trophy with future NHLer Rob Ramage as the OMJHL's best defenseman in 1977-78.
Playing hockey at home in London had its advantages. Brad's family members were able to attend many of his games, and he fondly recalls meeting up with his parents after games to go out to eat and talk over the game. An above-average student with a wide circle of friends, Brad attended Westminster Secondary School in London. While in school, he played for the lacrosse team.
In his final junior hockey season for the Knights, Marsh posted 63 points and 192 penalty minutes while playing in 62 games. In the playoffs, he added 12 points in 11 tilts. More importantly, he took care of business in his own of the ice and displayed an unusually sharp acumen for blocking shots.
"Shot blocking was an individual thing. No coach ever demanded it from me. It was something that came naturally to me, but it wasn't always easy," he said in Greatest Players. "Sometimes I would go down and make the block and it was great. But when I missed, I looked like a bum out there. I never had much time to do much thinking about it. I had to react right away."
The Hockey News ranked Marsh as the eighth best draft prospect for the 1978 NHL Entry Draft. When the Atlanta Flames turn came up with the eleventh pick, they chose the strapping young defenseman from the London Knights.
"My first reaction was - where's that and what's the name of their hockey team? But once I got down there all of my doubts soon changed," Marsh wrote on his business's website, marshys.com.
Anonymity in Atlanta
Marsh bypassed the minor leagues and joined the Flames for the 1978-79 season. Dressing in every game, he posted 19 points (all assists) and a solid +23 rating. He won team honors for rookie of the year and best defenseman.
The Flames were an underrated team that had the misfortune of playing in the Patrick Division with the powerhouse Islanders and Flyers, as well as Fred Shero's New York Rangers.
Atlanta's 90-point campaign that year made them one of the best last-place teams in NHL history. In any other division but the Patrick, Atlanta would have been no lower than second-place and would have won the Smythe Division.
"Atlanta was great place to play hockey although the fans were not that knowledgeable – they were very loud and boisterous," Marsh wrote on his site. "The one drawback about playing hockey in Atlanta was that hockey was the fourth major sport – some said that it even ranked below high school football and bowling – and the recognition that should come along with playing in the NHL was never there."
The Flames, backstopped by fiery goalie Dan Bouchard and led by high scoring Guy Chouinard and Bob MacMillan, were a tough opponent for any club. In the 79 playoffs, the Flames were upset in two straight games by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the best-of-three mini-series. After the season, Marsh joined Team Canada at the 1979 IIHF World Championships. The Canadians finished fourth.
The next year, the Patrick Division expanded to five teams, as the Washington Capitals were moved into the division. Atlanta, hurt by several key injuries, finished in fourth place, 33 points behind a Flyers team that set a North American professional sports record with a 35-game unbeaten streak.
Marsh scored his first two NHL goals in his sophomore campaign and once again suited up in all 80 games, but was not satisfied with his season overall. The Flames were inconsistent. With the club struggling to draw fans at the gate, the team drew national publicity by rushing goaltender Jim Craig into the net shortly after the 1980 Olympics.
Craig, of course, was one of the biggest Team USA heroes in the Miracle on Ice gold medal run in Lake Placid. He won his first game, 4-1, over Colorado in what Marsh later recalled for the most reporters he ever saw crowded around one player after a game.
"No one wanted to talk to the rest of us, but we understood why," he later recalled. "It was all about what Jim did in Lake Placid, not the Atlanta Flames. With a lot of the people there that night, it was probably the first NHL game they ever saw. We all hoped it would be a good thing for hockey."
But the media hordes quickly dwindled and after four starts it was apparent Craig was a marginal NHL goaltender. Bouchard quickly reclaimed his job. The Flames lost to the Rangers in the first round of the 1980 playoffs. After the season, the team was sold and relocated from Atlanta to Calgary.
The atmosphere in Calgary was decidedly different than the one it Atlanta. The people of Calgary were thrilled to have an NHL team. Still playing in the Patrick Division, the Flames now faced a brutal travel schedule to play road games against their northeastern U.S. divisional rivals, but Marsh loved living and playing in the western Canadian hockey hotbed.
"Overnight we went from nobody knowing who we were to the toast of the town being recognized everywhere we went," Marsh wrote on his site. "That first year in Calgary was very exciting."
While they struggled on the road during the regular season, the Flames were almost unbeatable in Calgary, losing just five times on home ice the entire season. Calgary finished in third place in the Patrick with 92 points, five points behind the Flyers and 18 off the pace from the defending Stanley Cup champion Islanders.
By now, the 22-year-old Marsh emerged as a key leader for the club, donning the C as the Flames' team captain. For the third straight year, he played in every game, scoring one goal with 12 assists. In the playoffs, the Flames finally broke their first-round jinx, sweeping the Chicago Blackhawks.
In the next round, the Flames met up with the Flyers. The series went the full seven games. When the Flames dropped a game six decision on home ice by a 3-2 score, most observers felt the Flyers would easily go on to win the seventh game in Philadelphia. As with many visiting teams, the Philadelphia Spectrum was often a house of horrors for the Flames.
While Calgary managed a 5-4 win in game two the Spectrum earlier in the series, they were also blanked 4-0 in game one and pummeled 9-4 in the fifth game. But to their credit, the Flames outplayed the Flyers for virtually the entire 60 minutes. Calgary cashed in on a Flyers too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty in the first minute of the game and never looked back.
Marsh and defensive partner Phil Russell logged heavy minutes protecting a 4-1 lead. Goaltender Pat Riggin took care of the rest.
"That was a big accomplishment for us, to win in the Spectrum," said Marsh. "It was tough to go into Philly and win a regular season game, much less to win game seven in the playoffs."
The Flames magical ride in the 1981 playoffs ended in a six-game semifinal defeat at the hands of the Minnesota North Stars. But Marsh looked forward to a long, prosperous future in Calgary.
The 1981-82 season started poorly for the Flames. Beset with injuries and unable to sneak up on rival teams anymore, the club struggled for the first month and a half. As often happens with defensive defensemen on losing teams, Marsh's plus-minus rating suffered. He was minus-16 through the first 17 games of the season. The adoring Calgary fans quickly turned surly.
"Those same hockey fans who loved us the year before sure turned on us in an awful hurry," Marsh recalled. "They soon became your typical sports fan – trade this guy, trade that guy, ship them all back to Atlanta."
Meanwhile, the Flyers had problems on defense but had a deep core of forwards. Marsh's steady, physical play against the Flyers in the playoffs had made a lasting impression on Flyers' management. On Memorial Day 1981, Calgary and the Flyers announced a straight-up trade of team captains. Tough two-way center Mel Bridgman went to the Flames, while Marsh came to Philadelphia.
"I was very upset at the news but little did I know…" Marsh writes. "I've said many times that the trade to Philly was the best thing ever to happen to me. Why? Because I learned the true meaning of the term 'work ethic.' I always thought that I was working hard but it wasn't until I was a Flyer that I learned the true meaning – commitment and dedication plus-plus."
A Wall of Defense
For the next eight years, Brad Marsh would call Philadelphia home. While Mark Howe (and to a lesser extent, Brad McCrimmon) was the undisputed king of the Flyers blueline in the 1980s, the team also relied heavily on Marsh, both on and off the ice. His durability and consistency made him a Flyers mainstay.
"Brad was a very good teammate on and off the ice. He was always working 100 percent and he hardly ever missed a game," said Ilkka Sinisalo.
Marsh wasted no time making his presence felt with the Flyers. He was in the Flyers' starting lineup within 24 hours of the trade with the Flames. He blocked six shots and was named second star of the game in a 5-3 win over the Hartford Whalers. Right before Thanksgiving, he set an NHL single-game career best with three points (all assists) and earned third-star honors in a 6-3 win over Toronto.
On December 3, he gained a measure of satisfaction as the Flyers downed his former Flames teammates 6-1. Marsh, who got into it with Willi Plett and earned 10 penalty minutes, also got an assist in the game. Later in the season , on February 27, the Flyers won a wild 9-8 game over the Flames. Marsh scored his first goal as a Flyer late in the third period to win the game.
The durable Marsh went on to dress in every game the Flyers played – combined with his games for the Flames before the trade, he played 83 regular season matches that year. It didn't matter if he were sore or bruised or if he had just taken stitches. It didn't matter if the opponent was the woeful Colorado Rockies or the mighty Islanders. He played, and played courageously. His coaches and teammates noticed.
"Marshy came to play every single night," says longtime teammate Dave Poulin, who made his Flyers debut late in the 1982-83 season. "What was understated was his leadership role both on and off the ice. He was an enormous positive factor in many young players'' careers."
The Flyers lost to the Rangers in the first round of the 1982 playoffs. Needing to bolster the blueline, the Flyers made separate trades for Mark Howe and Brad McCrimmon and drafted 30-year-old Czech national team defenseman Miroslav "Cookie" Dvorak. Dvorak had permission from the communist Czechoslovakian government to play in the NHL in exchange for financial considerations for the Czechoslovakian hockey federation.
Marshy and Cookie
Dvorak spoke little English (and none when he first arrived) but he and Marsh hit it off immediately, becoming close friends as well as defensive partners. Marsh bought a Czech-English dictionary and took the player under his wing off the ice. During his Flyers career, Marsh also went the extra mile for many younger Flyers, including Murray Craven, who lived at Marsh's house during his first season in Philadelphia.
"I remember the first time I met Miro at the airport," Marsh recalled in Greatest Players. "I shook his hand and he didn't know a word of English. That night, we roomed together after an exhibition game. I knew how to say 'beer' in Czech (pivo). So I ordered up some beers from room service. With my dictionary, it was amazing what I could accomplish over a couple of beers."
Marsh and Dvorak made quite a second defensive pair behind Howe and Glen Cochrane for Bob McCammon's 1982-83 Flyers. The chain-smoking, beer guzzling Dvorak was also a very solid two-way defenseman, who was able to adapt quickly to the smaller NHL rink and more physical style. The stay-at-home Marsh posted a plus-20 rating (with 13 points), while the more offensive minded Dvorak had 37 points and a plus-27.
"Dvorak lived close to me, so I got in the habit of picking him up on the way to practice. I did a lot of things for him, but I wouldn't have done them if I didn't like him. In time, he became one of my closest friends."
Marsh's consecutive game streak in the NHL was snapped when he suffered a knee injury and a fractured fibula. After playing in 68 regular season games, he missed the first game of the '83 playoffs before returning for the final two games of a disappointing first-round loss to the Rangers.
The next year, Marsh had 17 points and a plus-24 rating (Dvorak had 31 points and a plus-20) to once again provide crucial support behind Howe's pair. Marsh, in fact, won the Barry Ashbee Trophy that season, awarded to the Flyers' best defenseman.
But the Flyers once again lost in the first round of playoffs – this time to the Capitals – costing McCammon his job as coach and general manager. "Iron" Mike Keenan stepped behind the bench.
For Part 2 of Flyers Heroes of the Past: Brad Marsh, click here.