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Great Moments: Wilson Takes Care of Business

by Bill Meltzer / Philadelphia Flyers
Throughout the season, will take a look back at some of the Great Moments in Flyers history with contributing writer Bill Meltzer. We will also be providing rare, and never-before-seen photos from the archives here in the Wachovia Center to supplement each column.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: Behn Wilson slideshow

Big Behn Wilson was a one-of-a-kind player in Flyers history. The Flyers’ first round pick (sixth overall) in the 1978 draft combined flying fists, fast feet and a flair for the dramatic in a way that no other defenseman in team history did before or since.

Wilson was a risk-taker on the ice, and he was not afraid to fail in equally spectacular fashion to his successes. At his best, Wilson was an offensive force, a crushing bodychecker, an effective trash-talker and a fearsome fighter (some longtime observers consider the 6-foot-3, 210-pounder the toughest fighter in club history, although not the most prolific). At his worst, he was overconfident, turnover prone, and apt to taking ill-timed penalties.

“Wilson had great talent and he put it on the line,” said former Flyers coach Pat Quinn. “But, sometimes, he may have a little too smart for his own good.”
Behn Wilson was the Flyers' first pick (sixth overall) in the 1978 NHL Entry Draft. (Flyers archives)

Ultimately, Wilson’s career never met the “future franchise defenseman” expectations that were pinned on him when he came into the league. He heard his fair share of boos during his five seasons with the Flyers but also was immensely popular during his rookie season of 1978-79 and the 1980-81 season when he earned a spot in the NHL All-Star game and registered career highs in goals (16), assists (47), points (63), plus-minus (+39) and penalty minutes (237).

Wilson combined brains with brawn. The son of a Toronto high school teacher, Wilson was always an excellent student as well as an athlete. He enrolled in pre-med courses at the University of Toronto (his older brother, John, had been drafted by the Maple Leafs but opted instead for medical school), and later took economics courses during the offseason of his playing days.

But his real love, apart from hockey, was the stage and music. Wilson excelled in acting courses and he appeared in a variety of theatrical productions, including Shakespeare’s Othello and A Midsummer Night’s Dream as well as the Gilbert and Sullivan opera, The Mikado. He also took up classical guitar. Eventually, he earned a teaching degree in speech and drama. Wilson often seemed to view hockey as a sort of drama on ice.

Wilson got his start as a goaltender before switching to defense. After a spectacular 1977-78 OHA season for the Kingston Canadians (18 goals, 76 points, 186 penalty minutes in 52 games), the Flyers selected Wilson with the first round pick acquired from Pittsburgh in exchange for Orest Kindrachuk, Tom Bladon and Ross Lonsberry.

Right from the start, Wilson made a dramatic impression – both on the fans and his Flyers teammates.

“Most rookies come in and they don’t want to make waves.  The first day Wilson came in, he felt like he already belonged. He backed it up on the ice,” said Bob Kelly.

It wasn’t that Wilson was disrespectful of the veterans on the club and around the league. He was quick to point to his influences, both on the Flyers and elsewhere. But he also made it clear that he felt he was destined to skate among the game’s stars at his position.

“I’ve imitated Jimmy Watson a great deal and I’ve tried to steal some of the defensive moves from Larry Robinson and some offensive moves from Denis Potvin,” Wilson said in the Flyers 1978-79 Yearbook (the rookie adorned the cover, along with team icon Bobby Clarke, new head coach Bob McCammon and fellow rookie Ken Linseman).

In Wilson’s first NHL  preseason game, with his father in the Spectrum stands, the rookie went end-to-end to score a goal in an 8-2 win over Fred Shero’s New York Rangers. Scouting administrator John Brogan when over to John Wilson, Sr. in between periods to congratulate him.

“Nice goal,” said Brogan, in an exchange recounted in Jay Greenberg’s Full Spectrum.

“Oh, that. He does that all the time,” said the elder Wilson.

Later in the preseason, Wilson mauled Atlanta’s Harold Phillipoff in a one-sided fight, added a pair of assists and, with Flyers goaltender Robbie Moore caught out of the net, made a spectacular diving block in the crease to prevent a goal.

On one of the assists, he ignored a call for a line change from the bench. Instead of flipping the puck in deep from the red line and going off, he stickhandled around a Flames’ player – committing a second cardinal sin because there was no one behind him – skated the puck in deep and dished to a wide-open Blake Dunlop for a goal.

When Wilson got back to the bench, assistant coach Terry Crisp couldn’t help but simultaneously praise and admonish the rookie.

“Hell of a rush, Willie! Don’t you ever do that again,” Crisp said.

Wilson grinned.

Crisp’s mixed message would prove prophetic in the years to come. But rookie Behn Wilson was the talk of the NHL in the early part the 1978-79 season. No stretch better represented the potential people saw in Wilson than the six-game stretch the Flyers played between October 19 and 29, 1978.
Behn Wilson (right) and Ken Linseman atop the Art Museum steps. (Flyers archives)

During that time, Wilson either recorded at least one point or a decisive fight win in every game, while also registering 17 shots on goal and several spectacular open-ice bodychecks.  The biggest highlights of the run came during road (Oct. 21) and home (Oct. 26) meetings with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Heading into his hometown for the first time as an NHL player, Wilson was eager to make a dramatic impression. Less than a minute after the opening faceoff, Wilson squared off near the net with Dave “Tiger” Williams in Wilson’s first regular-season fight in the NHL.

Williams landed a couple of early shots, before Wilson took control of the fight by landing several heavy rights to the head. After going toe-to-toe, the combatants then grappled for position in close as the linesmen came in. With Wilson tied up, Williams threw another couple punches. Even so, the heaviest shots were landed by the Flyers’ rookie.

Wilson, who earned 17 penalty minutes on the night, continued to jaw and trade slashes with Toronto players for the rest of the game, which the Leafs won 2-0. Five nights later, the Leafs came to the Spectrum for a rematch.

In the interim, Wilson fought Atlanta’s Willi Plett and decimated the Islanders’ Bob Bourne in a lopsided encounter. But in the return engagement with the Leafs, Wilson drew raves with his hockey skills rather than with fisticuffs.

The Flyers earned the game’s first man advantage early in the first period. At the 4:25 mark of the game, Wilson received a pass from Mel Bridgman and ripped the puck past goaltender Mike Palmateer for a power play goal. The goal marked Wilson’s second NHL tally. On Oct. 14, he scored the insurance goal in the Flyers’ 3-1 road win against the Red Wings.

Wilson didn’t have wait long for his third goal. Seven minutes after putting the Flyers up 1-0, he put another power play goal in the cash register. This time, Wilson pinched in and received a feed from Bobby Clarke and rifled the puck past Palmateer. The Flyers went on to win, 5-0. Wilson punctuated the night by clearing the porch of two Maple Leafs (Dan Maloney and Ron Ellis) trying to jab the puck past Bernie Parent in the goal mouth.

Not surprisingly, Wilson was named the game’s first star.  Afterwards, the media asked Flyers coach Bob McCammon about the play of the young defenseman.

“How good is he?” McCammon asked, repeating a reporter’s question. “How good was [Hall of Famer] Doug Harvey?”

Unfortunately, Wilson’s career would never come close to the heights reached by Harvey, Larry Robinson, Denis Potvin or other superstar defensemen to whom he was compared in his early days. Years later, people recalled his fights and low-percentage plays more than his rare combination of size, speed and skill.

But back in late October of 1978, most everyone believed Behn Wilson was on the road to greatness and would continue to captivate crowds the way he did during that six game stretch of dominance.

At the end of the season, the defenseman finished fourth in the Calder Trophy balloting after posting 13 goals, 49 points, 197 penalty minutes and a plus-13 rating in 80 games.  Wilson’s first-year goal and assist totals still stand as the Flyers’ club record for a rookie defenseman.
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