Gary Dornhoefer scored 214 regular season goals and 17 playoff tallies in his NHL career. While his goal totals may not have been prolific, the gritty right winger had a knack for coming through in clutch situations. “Dorny” authored some of the most important goals in team history, including the game winning goal in the seventh and deciding game of the 1973-74 Stanley Cup semifinals against the New York Rangers.
But not even Dornhoefer’s two-goal outburst in the final game of the Rangers series was as vital to the team as one he scored a year earlier. In the 1972-73 quarterfinals, the Flyers took on the Minnesota North Stars. Philly had never won a playoff series in its six-season team history. Dorny helped change all that with a dramatic overtime goal in the fifth game that all but sealed the series. The Flyers clinched the series with relative ease in the next game.
|Gary Dornhoefer was taken by the Flyers with the 44th pick in the 1967 NHL expansion draft. (Flyers Archives) |
The victory over Minnesota marked a pivotal moment in team history: It confirmed that the club was a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, and laid the foundation for the team’s first championship the next year. It was also fitting that Dornhoefer played such a pivotal role in lifting the club to the next level in successive years.
“It was special to be part of a team that accomplished what we did,” Dornhoefer said. “I was just proud to put on the Flyers uniform and play in Philadelphia. It was a long road, but I wouldn’t have done anything differently.”
Dornhoefer was an original Flyer in every sense of the term. After starting his career with the Boston Bruins, Dorny was selected by the Flyers with the 44th pick of the 1967 expansion draft. Through sheer hard work, Dornhoefer carved out a niche in the starting lineup He survived frequent injuries and the growing pains that any expansion club goes through.
Among the forwards enshrined in the Flyers Hall of Fame, Dornhoefer may have had the least amount of natural ability, but he made himself into a solid goal scorer by paying the price in heavy-trafficked areas around the net.
“Dorny worked hard as hell,” said fellow original Flyer Joe Watson. “He was exactly the kind of player you wanted on your team, and hated to play against.”Nucleus of a champion
By 1972-73, the 29-year-old Dornhoefer had become one of the elder statesmen on Fred Shero’s Flyers. The team was filled with promising young talent, led by new team captain Bobby Clarke, rookie left wing Bill Barber, smooth-skating Rick MacLeish, 19-year-old offensive defenseman Tom Bladon and the pugnacious quartet of Dave “the Hammer” Schultz, Bob “the Hound” Kelly, Don “Big Bird” Saleski and defenseman Andre “Moose” Dupont.
Along with Dornhoefer, the veteran leaders on the team included defensemen Barry Ashbee, Ed Van Impe and Joe Watson. Both Van Impe and Watson were original Flyers. Another holdover player from the first year, goaltender Doug Favell, was the starter in net. The group was joined later in the season by journeyman checking-line forward Terry Crisp, who had come over in a trade that sent Jean Potvin to the New York Islanders.
The 1972-73 team’s top forward line was anchored by Clarke, who won his first of three Hart Trophies as the most valuable player in the NHL on the strength of his tenacious play and 104 points. Clarke’s linemates Barber and “Cowboy” Bill Flett scored 30 and 43 goals, respectively.
As potent as the first line was, opposing teams couldn’t focus only on stopping Clarke and his cohorts. Dornhoefer was one-third of an outstanding second line, with MacLeish and 25-year-old left winger Ross Lonsberry.
MacLeish exploded for 50 goals and 100 points, while Dorny posted a career-high 30 goals and 79 points while dressing in 77 games. Lonsberry had 21 goals and 50 points. Dornhoefer, the recognized sparkplug of the line, earned his first of two trips to the NHL All-Star game.
Heading into the 1972-73 season, however, MacLeish was considered an underachiever. For all of his natural ability – MacLeish possessed both blazing speed and an explosive wrist shot – the 22-year-old had shown little progress in his first two pro seasons, and sulked when sent to the minor leagues.
Along with Lonsberry, Dornhoefer faced the challenge of helping motivate MacLeish. On an every-game basis, Dorny led by example. He dug pucks off of the boards, screened goaltenders, and jostled with defensemen to create room for MacLeish to operate.
Dornhoefer was never shy about needling MacLeish verbally to get him to pick up the pace when necessary. One of MacLeish’s trademarks as a player was to tilt his head at a 45-degree angle as he skated with the puck.
“We know Ricky’s falling asleep when his head tilts too far to one side,” Dornhoefer once told the media in earshot of his young linemate.
Years later, though, Dornhoefer said the credit he received for MacLeish’s success was overblown. He said that the motivation came from within MacLeish himself.
“You can’t motivate someone who doesn’t want to play, and the Flyers didn’t keep you if you weren’t committed to winning,” said Dornhoefer. “It might have taken MacLeish a few years to mature as a hockey player, but he earned his keep as a member of the team.”
The Flyers finished in second place in the NHL’s Western Division during the 1972-73 campaign, eight points behind the Chicago Blackhawks. Philadelphia’s 37-30-11 record and 85 points were identical to the third-place Minnesota North Stars, but the Flyers had won the season series, three games to two. As a result, the Flyers earned the home ice advantage in their quarterfinals playoff matchup with Minnesota.Playoff showdown with veteran opponents
Philadelphia hockey fans had playoff fever in the days leading up to the series opener with the North Stars on April 4, 1973. The Flyers had missed the playoffs in two of the three previous seasons and had not won a single playoff game since losing to the St. Louis Blues in a seven-game war during the team’s inaugural campaign of 1967-68. There was, however, already a sense that the team was now on the right track and was building something special. No one wanted to miss out.
Tickets sold out almost instantly for every home playoff game, with some fans camping out at the Spectrum the night before they went on sale. People who arrived even 12 hours ahead of time found a line of people in front of them.
Heading into the quarterfinal series, Philadelphia’s players and fans were confident of the team’s ability to handle the North Stars. But much of the New York and Canadian media predicted Minnesota would win. The reason: The North Stars had a much more experienced group of players than the Flyers. The team had 10 players age 30 or older, with six who were 35 or older.
|Bobby Clarke eyes Minnesota goaltender Cesare Maniago during the Flyers' playoff series with the North Stars in 1973. (Flyers Archives) |
Offensively, Minnesota had seven players who scored 20 or more goals. They were led by 29-year-old Dennis Hextall (the uncle of Ron Hextall), who scored 30 goals and 82 points. He was frequently accompanied on the top line by young Jude Drouin (27 goals, 73 points) and Danny Grant (32 goals, 67 points).
The blueline was led by veterans Lou Nanne, Barry Gibbs and 36-year-old Ted Harris (who later won a Stanley Cup as a member of the 1974-75 Flyers). In goal, the Stars had 33-year-old Cesare Maniago, who was a youngster compared to 43-year-old backup, Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Lorne “Gump” Worsley. The team also had 23-year-old goalie Gilles Gilbert, whom the Flyers would face in the Stanley Cup Finals the next year as a member of the Boston Bruins.
The pundits’ predictions seemed to be on target early in the series. In Game One, the Flyers came out nervous and were uncharacteristically sloppy with the puck. Hextall broke a scoreless tie midway through the second period to quiet the Spectrum crowd. But the real back-breaker for Philly came at the end of the period as Favell yielded a stoppable point-shot goal by defenseman Dennis O’Brien.
In the third period, there was a terrifying moment as Clarke got poked in the eye by a high stick and his hard contact lens broke in his eye. The Flyers captain had to leave the game and was taken to Lankenau Hospital. Fortunately, the player did not suffer any long-term vision damage and returned to play the rest of the series.
Game Two was played the next night. The Flyers set the tone immediately, as MacLeish and Dornhoefer threw big checks in the opening minute of play. On the second shift, a pair of fights broke out as Dupont took on Parise and Barber dropped the gloves with O’Brien. Several minutes later, Saleski potted a Simon Nolet rebound to give the Flyers an early 1-0 lead.
With the Flyers shorthanded in the opening minute of the second period, Flett received a pass from Ashbee, broke in to the Minnesota zone and beat Gilbert to forge a 2-0 lead. Midway through the period, Barber scored to extend the lead to 3-0.
Shortly after Dornhoefer came close to adding another goal, linemate Lonsberry tangled with Hextall in the game’s third fight. Finally, in the last minute of the second period, Crisp scored a rare goal to give Philly an insurmountable 4-0 lead. The game ended in a 4-1 Philadelphia victory, and the series shifted to Minnesota for the next two games.
The Flyers were outplayed in Game Three, yielding 40 shots on goal. Favell held them in for two periods, as a Hextall goal midway through the opening period stood as the game’s lone tally. But Gibbs scored in the opening minute of the third period and the floodgates opened.
Before the Flyers knew what hit them, Nanne and Grant scored goals just 18 seconds apart to turn the game into a 4-0 lead for the North Stars. Grant added another goal at the 15:27 mark for the final 5-0 margin of victory.
In the final minute of play, Schultz (who had racked up 257 penalty minutes during the regular season) went out looking to send a message for the remainder of the series. He instigated a fight with Hextall, grabbing him, throwing down the gloves first and even head-butting Minnesota’s leading scorer during the fight.
Schultz exchanged words with the irate Stars, but no Minnesota player physically went after “the Hammer.” He was finally escorted off the ice and shoved up the tunnel to the visiting locker room by linesman Ron Finn.'Dorny' delivers
Entering Game Four the next day, the Flyers knew they faced a must-win situation. They didn’t want to go back to Philadelphia trailing three games to one in the series. If, on the other hand, they could get back to the Spectrum tied two games apiece, Philly stood a good chance of prevailing in the series.
The Flyers simply wouldn’t be denied. Clarke, Barber, Dornhoefer, Lonsberry and Ashbee were the tone setters in the match for Philadelphia. The Flyers hit everything in sight during the afternoon tilt and Clarke scored his first career playoff goal late in the first period to give the Flyers the all-important first goal of the game.
Philly pressed hard in the second period, and dominated the majority of play. But Maniago came up big several times to hold the score at 1-0. Early in the third period, Favell made critical saves on Nanne and Dean Prentice to preserve the slim lead. Finally, Barber gave Philadelphia some insurance at the 14:16 mark. Less than two minutes later, Dornhoefer kept the puck alive and got it to Lonsberry, who scored to make it a 3-0 win for the Flyers.
With the series deadlocked, Game Five was played at the Spectrum on April 10, 1973. Grant got Minnesota on the board first at 10:48 of the first period. But seconds later, O’Brien was penalized for high sticking and the Flyers quickly tied the game as MacLeish’s wrist shot beat Maniago.
Early in the second period, Dornhoefer jostled with O’Brien and drew a second minor against the Minnesota defenseman. One again, MacLeish made the North Stars pay, tallying his second goal of the game.
|The statue commemorating Dornhoefer's goal is unvelied by a group that includes Fred Shero (far left) and Ed Snider (second from right). (Flyers Archives) |
The lead held up through the end of the second period and the first half of an evenly played third period. Disaster struck at the 13:00 mark, as Bill Goldsworthy got loose and scored to tie the game at 2-2 and force overtime.
“The thing about a playoff overtime is there’s no margin for error. One mistake and it’s all over. My view as a player was that you had to be the aggressor and make something happen. Otherwise, your legs start to get heavy. The more fatigued you get, the more likely you are to make that one mistake,” Dornhoefer said.
In the first eight and a half minutes of overtime, Minnesota generated five shots to the Flyers’ three. Dornhoefer raced down the boards, eluding first Goldsworthy and then Gibbs as he cut in front of the net.
Dornhoefer pulled the puck from his forehand to his backhand as he moved past Gibbs. He then deposited the puck past goaltender Cesare Maniago just before Tom Reid could upend him. The spectacular goal all but clinched the series for the Flyers.
“I don’t even know how I scored. I just remember getting the puck at center ice, and fortunately it stayed right with me. You could try that play again a hundred times and it wouldn’t work,” Dornhoefer told the Philadelphia Bulletin in the victorious locker room.
Although the Flyers could now afford a loss in Minnesota and still have a deciding game at home, their killer instinct wouldn’t allow them to let up. Philly dominated Game Six in Minnesota as they continued to grind down the North Stars, and their younger legs helped them win the races to loose pucks.
Goldsworthy got Minnesota on the board first, but Crisp, Lonsberry and Clarke struck back in succession to give Philadelphia a 3-1 lead. Lonsberry added an empty-netter in the final minute of regulation to seal the Flyers’ first-ever playoff series win.
In the semifinals of the 1973 playoffs, the Flyers drew the Montreal Canadiens. The Flyers shocked the Habs in the opener, with a 5-4 overtime victory sealed by a MacLeish goal. But Montreal returned the favor with a 4-3 overtime win in the next game and then prevailed 2-1 at the Spectrum in Game Three. The Habs went to close out the series with 4-1 and 5-3 victories.
Despite coming up a little short against a Canadiens team loaded with future Hall of Famers, the Flyers held their heads high after the 1972-73 season. As it turned out, the campaign was the start of the golden era of Flyers hockey. Buoyed by the re-acquisition of goaltender Bernie Parent, the Flyers went on to win the next two Stanley Cups and reached the finals again in 1975-76.
In many ways, Dornhoefer’s overtime winner against Minnesota marked the Philadelphia Flyers’ arrival as the team that so captivated the entire Delaware Valley in the 1970s. The moment was later immortalized in a statue outside the Spectrum.
Dornhoefer, who is unfailingly modest about his own accomplishments, has always humorously downplayed the significance of having his likeness replicated in bronze. He prefers to focus on what the goal meant to the team.
“I think it was more the significance of the goal in finally winning a playoff series more than any personal honor,” he said in Jim Jackson’s Walking Together Forever
. “Besides, I’ve always said, you know what pigeons do to those statues.”