“Seventeen years, I couldn’t believe it when I heard that,” said the Flyers general manager. “I had to think back.”
Of course, when he does, it also is to 1980, when the Flyers avenged a 1979 embarrassment to the Rangers by grinding them down in five, or 1987, when the Flyers avenged the shocking 1986 loss by wearing out the Rangers in six.
Because he had not yet returned to the organization after completing his playing career in Minnesota, Holmgren missed 1985, when a Flyers’ first round three-game sweep ended a string of nine straight playoff game losses for the franchise, six of them to the Rangers.
As the teams met in the playoffs seven times in years between 1979 and 1987 -- the Rangers winning four of those series despite only once in that time recording a better regular-season record than Philadelphia -- New York alternated between castings as a hand reaching back from the grave and an instrument of redemption.
“Enormous and liberating,” Dave Poulin describes the 1985 win, when Tim Kerr’s four goals in Game Three enabled the Flyers to hang on for series-clinching 6-5 win. Mark Howe counts his overtime goal in Game One of that series -- after the Rangers had rallied from 3-0 and 4-3 deficits – as the biggest goal he ever scored, even if it was only in Game One of the first round.
A lot of the fun in getting to the finals that year – and in 1987 and 1997 -- was taking out the Rangers along the way. They have become not only a divisional, geographical and historical rival but a rite of passage for the Flyers, unavoidable in 2010, too, when Philadelphia won a winner-gets-in Game 82 shootout to start its most recent run to the finals.
“Yeah, that shootout and 1980, those are the wins that I most remember,’ said Holmgren. “Even though we have played the Penguins more lately (four times since 1997), I consider the Rangers our biggest rival by far.
“I joined a team (in 1976) with most of the guys who had played in the epic series of ’74, when the Flyers won their first Cup. Clarkie to this day talks about it being the best series he ever played in.
“Maybe that’s why the first game I ever played at Madison Square Garden there was a 10-year old kid yelling at me, ‘bleeping Holmgren and bleeping Flyers’, with his dad standing next to him smiling.
“Yeah, Flyers-Rangers gets into you pretty quickly.”
So quickly that Clarke remembers the two-year-old franchise he joined in 1969 not requiring a fiery rookie to stoke any fires about the established contender up the turnpike.
“Our players already hated the Rangers,” said Clarke. “And I grew to hate them the most.
“That first year we won the Cup (1974) was when they had their best team and were supposed to win. So I’m sure it’s the same for their side.”
The home team won every game of that series, which is best – and most falsely – remembered to have turned with Dave Schultz’s savage beating of Dale Rolfe in Game Seven. The Rangers scored the game’s first goal a minute after the fight, twice cut two-goal deficits to one and were coming hard when they were called for putting too many men on the ice in the final two minutes.
Brad Park, disgusted with the Flyers’ tactics, was infamously quoted after Game 7 as saying he would rather lose with the Rangers than win with the Flyers, but Eddie Giacomin recognized his opponent had won on sheer will.
“Every time you think you’re about to gain some ground on them they kick something out from under you,” said the goalie. “They won because they were all over us all the time.”
Often during a history that has the Flyers leading six series wins to four, that aggression backfired on Philadelphia. In 1979, the Rangers turned the Flyers’ lack of discipline into a two-on-one contest and turned a series largely played in the New York end into a rout the other way.
“They had too many guys hitting too much,” said Fred Shero, who had jumped the Flyers for the Rangers that season, flaming the rivalry that much more. “We had muscle when I coached the Flyers, but we used it judiciously.”
Pat Quinn’s team used it much better the following spring against Shero’s Rangers, but in 1982 and 1983 the smarter, quicker and more self-righteous team won.
“If they don’t learn form this they never will,” crowed Ron Duguay after the 1983 debacle, when Herb Brooks’ Smurfs, 26 points inferior to the Flyers during the regular season, finished off a sweep of Bob McCammon’s Flyers with a 9-3 rout at Madison Square Garden.
Clarke says that was his most painful playoff defeat ever, one more reason to enjoy the revenges when they came.
“You want to beat anyone to prove your superiority,” said Flyers President Jay Snider, who had been poked in the chest and called a “no class bleep” by Ranger GM-Coach Phil Esposito after a Dave Brown beating of George McPhee was replayed on ArenaVision during the 1987 series. “But you want to beat the Rangers even more just to shut them up.”
Fortunately Ranger president Bill Jennings wasn’t looking for a fight in 1965, when, as chairman of the NHL Expansion Committee, he took a call from Eagles treasurer Ed Snider inquiring about the rumored availability of new NHL franchises. Jennings was seeking a better spot for another East Coast Corridor franchise than Baltimore, an established minor-league hockey town with an inadequate arena seating capacity.
“You’re in,” said Jennings, a friend to the Philadelphia bid, in his congratulatory call to Bill Putnam, the Flyers’ first president, on Feb. 9, 1966 at New York’s St. Regis Hotel. But of course the Rangers had no concept of what they were in for.
The Flyers’ first home win against an established team -- the Rangers – earned Philadelphia’s newest team a standing ovation as it left the ice. In Clarke’s first year, the punchless 17-35-24 Flyers tied all six games they played against the contending Rangers.
But the fear and loathing really started when the expansion upstarts beat the Rangers in the 1974 semifinals. Though the Flyers still were heavy underdogs against Boston in the finals, Clarke says he felt they already had beaten the best team. And soon two franchises of generally opposing on-ice philosophies couldn’t miss each other in the playoffs for seven of nine years.
That’s a lot of welts on his chest for Anders Hedberg to show reporters, and enough profane signage by Madison Square Garden fans to make a Broad Street Bully blush. As Dave Maloney, a stalwart Ranger defenseman through four Flyer-Ranger series, recently told an NBC Sportsnet documentary on the rivalry, all conversation stopped on the Rangers bus as it pulled up to Dracula’s castle -- the Spectrum.
“The Spectrum had a different feel than going anywhere else, even the Nassau Coliseum, where great as were those Islanders teams that ultimately we couldn’t beat, almost half the fans were rooting for us,” Maloney has said.
“The Rangers had a practice at the Spectrum a few years before it closed and going in there, even all those years later, those feelings came back to me. Intimidation was such a part of the Flyers’ culture. Omigawd, is Holmgren playing tonight?”
Holmgren wishes he was playing Thursday night. The NHL’s new format, which matches division rivals in four two vs. three series, has done its job, never mind that only Flyers fans of a certain age still believe their greatest rival to be the Rangers.
Largely because the Rangers missed the playoffs seven straight seasons, both teams have made the playoffs in the same year only four times since 1997, when the Flyers ended the last hurrah of Mark Messier and Wayne Gretzky. But the hate only has taken a hiatus, is latent under the skins of this generation of Rangers and Flyers.
WATCH THE FLYERS DEFEAT THE RANGERS IN 1997 & ACCEPT THE PRINCE OF WALES TROPHY
“It won’t take long,” said Holmgren, about the wait for old emotions, a safer prediction than anyone dares make for either of these teams winning in whatever number of games. If, after all this time, this series begins as just two clubs merely trying to advance to the next round, by next time, somebody will have a grudge to settle.
The Flyers ended the Rangers’ reign as Stanley Cup champions in a sweet 1995 sweep. Was that satisfactory revenge for 1986, when the Rangers upset of a team it had lost to in 18 of its previous 19 meetings closed a Flyer window to the Cup opened by Calgary’s subsequent upset of the Oilers? Of course not.
There always will be another Flyers-Rangers series -- It took too long to get this one.