Up and down his wing went Ross Lonsberry, never straying through all the ups and downs of hockey and of his life.
“When I came up in the Bruins system they stressed so much watching your winger, I never really developed that killer, go to the net, instinct,” Lonsberry once said. “Dorny (Gary Dornhoefer) liked to go there. Ricky (MacLeish) had to be free to roam, so, okay, I’ll be the third guy high and take some pride in it.”
"My thoughts and prayers go out to Ross' wife, Wahnita, and the Lonsberry family. Ross played six and a half seasons with the Philadelphia Flyers, including our Stanley Cup teams. He was a hard hitting, two-way player who contributed greatly to our success. I have very fond memories of Ross as a player and a friend, and he will sorely be missed."
- Ed Snider
Perhaps the Flyers’ best-ever third guy high, who sacrificed points but never his principles to know the sport’s ultimate high in 1974 and 1975, died Sunday near his home in Acton, California, at 67, of complications from cancer he fought as even-handedly for nine years as he skated his position for 16.
“Really, there’s not a whole lot you can do but give into the needs of treating the disease,” Lonsberry told us three years ago, as he recovered from six-hour surgery to take out half of one lung. Having once followed Fred Shero to two Stanley Cups, Lonsberry knew a sound plan when one was laid out to him. He abided this one bravely, even cheerfully, almost until this weekend, when pneumonia set in.
“Talked to him last week and he was upbeat,” said Orest Kindrachuk, Lonsberry’s teammate on the Cup teams and linemate in Pittsburgh, where they were traded along with Tom Bladon in 1978.
“I met him a year ago in Palm Desert (Calif.), We were walking up some steps and he said “Whoa, O, I have to slow down, only have one lung right now.
“I said, ‘Does that mean you can only have a half-beer.” He said, ‘No, I will have a full beer.”
Perhaps Lonsberry drank that one to make up for those early seventies Sundays in Philadelphia, when the Kings bus would drive in from the airport past the dreary auto graveyard to the side off the Penrose Bridge, play the game, and then go back to the lonely hotel by the sports complex, for lack of better options.
“You couldn’t find a place open to get a beer after the game,” he said.
Lonsberry told himself there were two places he never wanted to get traded: Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. What were the odds he would be dealt to both?
Thanks to a seven-player 1972 deal, then the biggest in NHL history, and more smart ones by Keith Allen that followed, Lonsberry had no problem getting a drink in Philadelphia on May 19, 1974 -- which let the record show, was on a Sunday.
As one of his first steps in the building process, the Flyers’ GM dealt a talented bust named Serge Bernier, regular defenseman Larry Brown and a couple of guys with first-line speed but fourth-line hands, Bill Lesuk and Jimmy Johnson for right wing Bill Flett, center Eddie Joyal, defenseman Jean Potvin and Lonsberry.
At the time, it was a lot of guys coming and going to two five-year old franchises that seemed to be going nowhere. But Allen was convinced Flett and Lonsberry would score -- and they did.
Flett had 43 goals on Bobby Clarke’s right wing during the Flyers’ emergent 1972-73 season. Lonsberry, settling in with MacLeish and Dornhoefer, had 32 the year of the first Cup and averaged 24 in the six full years he played with the Flyers.
“We complimented each other so well, we stayed together, what six years?” recalled Dornhoefer Monday. “How often does that happen?
“Ross could score, but he wanted to win. He wasn’t interested in stats. He could kill penalties; do whatever Freddie (Shero) wanted him to do. And Ross was so consistent, never took a night off.
“As a teammate? If you had gripes against Roscoe, you needed to get into another line of work.”
Whatever the Broad Street Bullies came to represent throughout hockey, to Philadelphia, they were about hard work, drilled by Shero, supported by foot soldiers like Lonsberry, willing to adjust their game for their team. Lonsberry, an effortless skater with excellent hockey sense had plenty of game, too.
While the hockey world and Boston awaited a wunderkind named Bobby Orr, the Bruins also were talking about this big-time scorer they had in Estevan, Sask. named Lonsberry.
Next to Bobby Clarke’s overtime goal in Boston in Game 2 of the 1974 finals and MacLeish’s redirection for the only goal in Game 6, the most buoying and critical goal of the Cup era was Dornhoefer’s in overtime of Game Five that pivoted the Minnesota series in 1973. But it quickly became forgotten that two nights later, when the Flyers advanced in the post-season for the first time, Lonsberry had the go-ahead and empty-net goals and was praised by Shero as his best player in the six games.
Even Lonsberry, years later, didn’t recall what he did in that game. You want a full appreciation of his value to the Flyers, slap in the DVD of Game 6, when he was one of their best players in the greatest win in the 47-year history of the franchise.
But it was never true he was overlooked for his contributions. Always a thoughtful quote, his perspective made his stall a destination of choice by the writers, even with a team that had bigger stars and was loaded with steadying presences.
Even though the Flyers were dethroned by the Canadiens in the 1976 Final and Barry Ashbee died the following spring, the Flyers golden era really came to a close in the spring of 1978, when Shero left for the Rangers and Kindrachuk, Tom Bladon and Lonsberry were dealt to Pittsburgh for a seventh-overall pick.
“Only time I played with him in Philly was on the second power play unit,” recalled Kindrachuk. “But we clicked right away as a line with Rick Kehoe in Pittsburgh, where, just like in Philly, Ross was one of the most undervalued players on the team.
“He just created so much stability, never put himself out of position. He was strong, too, people didn’t mess with him. To have him on my left wing was tremendous. And you couldn’t find a more straight-forward honest guy.”
Dornhoefer, the straight-forward honest guy to Lonsberry’s right, got the news yesterday, and called it “a sad day” his linemate joined Allen, Shero, Ashbee, Flett and Wayne Stephenson as members and creators of the Cup teams who have passed away. But it also was also a happy day to talk about being in the company of Ross Lonsberry.
“He was bald by the time he was 18 and this was before bald became beautiful recalled Taylor on Monday. “So he always was a lot younger than he looked.
“He told me that the day he was finished with hockey he was going to nail that rug he was wearing to the wall. And sure enough when I went to visit him years later, there it was on the garage wall. Man of his word.
“He had very strong feelings of right and wrong. Like with Ashbee, there wasn’t much grey to Roscoe."
Kindrachuk was a guy with an opinion, too.
“Bobby Taylor, Ross and I rode together a lot to the rink,” Orest recalled. “We were on the ice at 9 so we had to leave at 7:30 and were all pretty grumpy.
“Remember how Freddie said to arrive (at the puck) in ill humor? Well, we did in the morning to work.
Ross and I used to have, well, most people would call them arguments, we called them discussions. One of them was over the value of a higher priced education, where he always pointed out there were so many self-made men.
“Over drinks at the restaurant the night before road games, we used to bump our heads but always laugh at the end.”
Up until the final weekend when the metastasized cancer in his brain and lungs brought on the pneumonia that made life-support measures a bad idea, Ross Lonsberry was laughing, in his own lovable grump kind-of-way.
He had three children who loved him, a rare hockey marriage (to Wahnita) that lasted, a successful commercial insurance business and the full respect of everyone who ever played with, or watched him, on a hockey rink.
“Salts of the earth,” said Kindrachuk. “A true friend if you needed help.
“Nothing phony about Ross.”
You can email Jay Greenberg at firstname.lastname@example.org.