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Flyers Heroes of the Past: Jimmy Watson

by Staff Writer / Philadelphia Flyers

When Eric Desjardins retired in the summer of 2006, Flyers fans and the local media actively debated "Rico's" rightful place in the pantheon of great Philadelphia defensemen. Most fans placed Desjardins second, after the sublimely talented Mark Howe. Those who had Desjardins a little lower on the list gave the second-place nod to players ranging from Brad "The Beast" McCrimmon to hard-shooting Bob "The Count" Dailey or original Flyer Ed Van Impe.

One name that often gets overlooked is five-time NHL All-Star Jimmy Watson. The younger Watson brother was one of the NHL's steadiest blueliners – and inspirational leaders – for nearly a decade, playing every one of his combined 714 NHL regular season and playoff games in the orange and black. Unfortunately, the two-time Barry Ashbee Award winner's career was shortened by injuries, forcing him to retire at age 30.

From Smithers to the Big City

James Charles Watson was born on August 19, 1952, in the tiny western Canadian hamlet of Smithers, British Columbia, which is nestled in the northwest corner of the province about 150 miles from the Alaska border. Even today, only 5,500 people reside in the town. In the early 1950s, the population was under 1,000.

Jimmy was one of six children, all boys, born to Mary and Joe Watson Sr.; Flyers Hall of Fame inductee Joe was the eldest son, followed by Fred, Steve, Jimmy, Glen and Jerry. To support the family, their father worked as a butcher in the winter and a logger in the summer.

Five of the six Watson sons played hockey. Glen later went on to coach junior hockey, while Joe and Jimmy played in a combined seven NHL All-Star games.

"Jerry was a really good player, too, but he was the last one to leave the nest. My parents got divorced and Jerry didn't want to leave Mom alone to go off playing hockey. So he stayed in Smithers," recalls Joe.

The Watson boys learned to play hockey outdoors. In Smithers, nearby Lake Kathleen freezes from late October to mid April, and the ice often becomes three feet thick as the temperatures plunge to 20 degrees below zero in the middle of winter. Before they joined organized leagues, the boys played makeshift games on the frozen lake.

"Sometimes, we had to use a hunk of frozen horse manure for a puck," Jimmy told legendary Philadelphia Bulletin writer Jack Chevalier in 1974. "Real frustration is when the ice is beautiful on Lake Kathleen and it's your turn to go break off the next piece."

The Watsons, especially Joe, were also talented baseball players. Nine years younger than Joe, Jimmy tagged along with his older brother and was forced to play catcher, while star local athlete Joe threw fastballs as hard as he could into Jimmy's mitt. The sons grew up rooting for the Detroit Tigers in baseball and Detroit Red Wings in hockey.

At age 16, Joe left home to play junior hockey in Estevan, Saskatchewan and made his NHL debut for the Boston Bruins in 1964, earning a regular starting job the next season. He was then selected by the Flyers in the 1967 Expansion Draft.

Meanwhile, seven-year-old Jimmy stayed behind with the family in Smithers, following Joe's career through the newspaper, the radio and an occasional phone call. When he started playing organized hockey, Jimmy proved to be an even better prospect than Joe at the same age. Unlike Joe, Jimmy was a swift skater and (at least at the junior level) an occasionally dominant offensive player.

But Jimmy was unhappy with his play and a bit homesick when he joined the Calgary Centennials of the Western Canada Hockey League (WCHL). Big brother Joe came to the rescue.

"I thought about quitting hockey early in my junior career," the younger Watson recounted in the Flyers' 1979-80 Yearbook. "Joe invited me to come visit Philadelphia to see what professional hockey was like and think about my future. It was the best thing that ever happened to me."

Jimmy returned to Calgary with renewed vigor. He went on to earn Best Defenseman Honors in the WCHL during the 1971-72 season. Expected to be a top-end selection in the 1972 NHL Entry Draft, the player inexplicably slid to the third round, 39th overall, when the Flyers selected him. He was disappointed to slip so far in the draft, but excited by the prospect of joining Joe on the same NHL team.

Spurning an offer to play in the WHL, Jim accepted Joe's offer to negotiate his first pro contract on the younger brother's behalf. After one year of seasoning in the American Hockey League with the Richmond Robins, during which time he earned a four-game call up to the big club, Jimmy Watson became a Philadelphia Flyer – and Philadelphian – for life.

Immediate Impact

Common hockey wisdom has it that young defensemen require three or four years to come into their own at the professional level. In many ways, defense is a more demanding position than forward. This is especially true in Philadelphia, where sports fans often have little patience for waiting out a young player's growing pains.

But Jim Watson never really played like a rookie. He brought remarkable poise and intelligence to the Flyers' defensive corps right off the bat. Sure, he simplified his game and deferred to experienced partner Ed Van Impe in the early days, but there was none of the usual indecisiveness or problems with turnovers that most young defensemen experience.

The younger Watson's skills and excellent work ethic quickly earned him the trust of head coach Fred "The Fog" Shero and his teammates. In his rookie campaign of 1973-74, Jimmy had an excellent +33 defensive rating for the Western Division champions, to go along with a respectable 20 points in 78 games. In the playoffs, he stepped up his aggressiveness, compiling 41 penalty minutes (he had only 44 the entire regular season) and played increased minutes after All-Star defenseman Barry Ashbee sustained a career-ending eye injury in the semifinals against the New York Rangers.

On the afternoon of Game Six of the Stanley Cup Finals against Boston, Joe Watson Sr. was on-hand to witness his son compete for hockey's ultimate prize. He endured a 33-hour bus ride from Smithers to Vancouver to Denver, followed by a flight to Philadelphia. A colorful character with a heavy beard, the elder Watson loudly bragged about both of his sons to anyone in earshot.

Down on the ice, Jimmy and Joe did yeoman work helping goaltender Bernie Parent to protect the team's skinny 1-0 over the Bruins. As the final seconds ticked off the clock and jubilant fans mobbed the ice, the first player Jimmy embraced was fellow young defenseman Tom Bladon. Overcome with emotion, Watson uttered the words "Can you believe it? Can you believe it?" repeatedly. Jimmy and Joe then met up with their father in the triumphant Flyers locker room.

The next season, Jimmy played a major role as the Broad Street Bullies successfully defended the Stanley Cup. He had 25 points and a +41 rating, earning his first trip to the NHL All-Star Game. He also scored seven goals that season and made every one of them count. Two were game-winners. One was the first goal of the game in an important match against the defensively stingy Chicago Blackhawks. Two more gave the Flyers the lead at the time Watson scored them. Another tied the score late in the third period. The seventh was a shorthanded goal that gave the Flyers a 3-1 second period lead over the New York Islanders.

But Jim Watson cared only about wins and losses, not statistics. Although he was an above-average skater and an excellent passer with good offensive instincts, Jimmy only jumped into the offense when the team was desperate for a goal. While he only scored 38 career regular season goals and five in the playoffs, Watson's knack for coming through in the clutch continued throughout his career.

A Wall of Defense

In 1975-76, Jim Watson had the best offensive year of his career, tallying 36 points and earning his second trip to the All-Star Game. He was also honored with a starting job for Team Canada at the 1976 Canada Cup tournament and played extremely well until he was knocked out of the lineup by a fractured cheekbone, sustained after a slapshot from Team USA forward Gary Sargent hit Watson flush in the face. He made it back to the Flyers in time for opening night of the 1976-77 season.

Jimmy had no interest in trying to better his offensive output from the previous year. He knew his main job was to prevent goals, not score them. If Garry Maddox was the Philadelphia Phillies' "Secretary of Defense," Jim Watson was his hockey counterpart. Paired first with Van Impe and later with Andre "Moose" Dupont, Watson routinely posted staggering plus/minus totals throughout his career, including a +41 rating in 1974-75, a +65 the next year and a +53 in 1979-80.

Equally important was Watson's burgeoning leadership and ability to play top-notch hockey through serious injuries. Whenever the Flyers locker room fell uncharacteristically silent, the younger Watson brother rallied the troops with an enthusiastic, "Let's go, boys! We can do it, we can do it!" But if a player stepped out of line or gave less-than-maximum effort, Watson never hesitated to put him in his place.

By now, people knew Jimmy as far more than Joe's kid brother. He was the undisputed leader of the Flyers' defense corps. Despite his modest point totals, he became one of the most highly respected defensemen in the National Hockey League. Not surprisingly, he went back to the NHL All-Star Game in 1976-77, 1977-78 and 1979-80. He also won the Barry Ashbee Trophy as the Flyers' best defenseman in both 1975-76 and 1977-78.

In the 1978-79 season, with most of the Broad Street Bullies nucleus gone and the roster in flux, Watson accepted a more active offensive role and scored a career-high nine goals. Two were scored shorthanded. The next year, Watson and Dupont provided stability to an inexperienced defensive corps and anchored the backline during the Flyers' record-setting 35-game unbeaten streak.

Unfortunately, injuries started to pile up for Jimmy in his mid-20s. First, during the 1976-77 season, he suffered permanent retinal damage after an inadvertent high stick by Jerry Butler of the St. Louis Blues caught him in the eye. Two years later, he had mid-season elbow surgery. Three years later, he played through a separated shoulder and postponed surgery long enough to help the team reach the sixth game of a heartbreaking Stanley Cup Finals loss to the New York Islanders.

Even more seriously, Jimmy played through back problems that plagued him off and on from the time he was 18. At the time, the teenaged Watson injured his back lifting a heavy water pipe while working a summer job with the water company near his hometown. The back was never the same again and later developed into a degenerative disc condition. By the early 1980s, the pain was a chronic problem.

By his own admission, playing hockey was no longer much fun for Watson by the early 1980s. Watson was only able to suit up for 18 games in the 1980-81 season before the pain in his back became unbearable. He underwent spinal fusion surgery and missed the rest of the season.

The operation was a success, but Jimmy Watson was never the same player. Statistically, there was nothing wrong with his 1981-82 season. The 29-year-old defenseman suited up for 76 games, recorded a solid +12 defensive rating, and contributed three goals. But Watson could no longer play up to the standards he expected of himself. Robbed of his former mobility, he saw players he used to stop in their tracks fend him off and had trouble keeping up with some of the rookies.

Jimmy relied heavily on his family to get him through the tough times. Long the Flyers' most eligible bachelor, he married girlfriend Susan Dougherty in 1979. The couple later had two sons and a daughter. "Watson's focus has been those children ever since," wrote Flyers' broadcaster Jim Jackson, author of the book Walking Together Forever.

After the 1981-82 season, the 30-year-old Watson made a tough decision. With the newly acquired Mark Howe ready to assume the top blueline spot and facing the prospect of reduced playing time and continued back pain, Jimmy Watson retired with his two Stanley Cup rings. For his career, he had a +295 defensive rating, good for fifth in franchise history. Among Flyers defensemen, only Howe (+349) ranks higher.

Staying Close to Home

Jimmy and Joe Watson have always enjoyed returning to British Columbia and taking in the spectacular Canadian Rockies, but both brothers have made their permanent homes in Media, PA.

After one season as a Flyers scout, Jimmy went into the construction business. A dedicated do-it-yourselfer who built his own house, building homes for other people seemed like a natural extension. In 1984, he formed the James C. Watson Construction Company. Twenty-two years later, the successful business is still going strong.

In 1997, Jimmy and several business partners began a side venture tied to his first love – hockey. They built and managed the four-rink Ice Works complex in Aston, PA. Three years later, the five-time NHL All Star started a 16-and-up summer hockey training program called The Jim Watson Hockey Academy. Two of its graduates are Jimmy's own sons, Chase and Brett. Chase Watson is now a college senior, playing forward for Providence College. Brett, who is three years younger than Chase, recently moved on from the Tri-City Storm in the Team USA-operated USHL.

Thirty one years ago, shortly before the Flyers began their second Cup run, Joe paid Jimmy one of the highest compliments one sibling can pay another. "I know he always idolized me," he told Chevalier. "But, geez, now I think it's the other way around."

Many of Jimmy Watson's grateful teammates, coaches and Flyers fans would agree with that sentiment.
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