Of the 328 goals Rick MacLeish scored for the Flyers, only about 327 looked effortless. With his head tilted, the center whom his teammates called “Cutie” would float from blue line to blue line with no idea what he’d do when the puck came to him.
“My style?” he once said. “Freestyle.
“Had my own system. Would go where I wanted to go. Freddie (Shero) didn’t bother me about it.”
MacLeish didn’t say much. Didn’t appear to sweat much, either, on the way to 53 Flyer playoff goals, including 10 game-winning ones. Thanks to hips and arms that swiveled in defiance of the laws of aerodynamics, Cutie moved around the ice with dispassion at best and indifference at worst.
Defensemen knew that most often he would cut right to left. Goalies understood that the puck was headed under the crossbar with far greater velocity than the slight flick of his wrists suggested. Yet, the only one who ever could stop MacLeish was himself. The game came so easily to him that on many nights he forgot to play.
“Normally when the games were important, he played great,” recalls Bob Clarke. “Couple times I’d make sure he knew we couldn’t win if he didn’t play well.
“I was so mad at him during Game Five (in Boston in 1974), I even turned around and yelled at Freddie not to put Ricky on the ice. Then he probably was our best player in the next game.”
MacLeish tipped Andre Dupont’s four-on-three point drive past Gilles Gilbert for the Game Six’s only goal and the Stanley Cup, which never could have been won without the 13 times he scored that spring. Almost as cavalierly, MacLeish followed up with 11 as the Flyers repeated in 1975, although Ricky insisted before his passing that he never was as oblivious as it appeared.
“Used to puke my guts out before big games,” he said. And sleep during some others.
“Freddie didn’t like one-on-one confrontation,” recalled the late Ross Lonsberry, MacLeish’s linemate with Gary Dornhoefer in the Cup years. “One time when Ricky was floating, Shero called in all three of us to get his point across.
“On the way out, Ricky said to Dorny and me, ‘Gee I didn’t think you guys were playing that badly.’
Lonsberry, who took the defensive role high in the zone, and Dornhoefer, who relentlessly crashed the corners, backboards, and crease, almost never played badly, allowing MacLeish the base from which to be devastating.
“I needed somebody to push me,” he recalls. “That’s why Dorny and Ross were so good for me.
“They said, ‘Just get open and we’ll get you the puck.’”
Drafted fourth overall in 1970, MacLeish became the primary acquisition in probably the boldest trade in Flyers history. On February 1, 1971, Keith Allen dealt the hugely popular Bernie Parent to Toronto for center Mike Walton, a No. 1 draft choice and goalie Bruce Gamble, then immediately sent Walton to Boston for MacLeish and minor leaguer Danny Schock.
For more than a year Allen heard he should have kept Walton. MacLeish scored only twice in the 26 Flyers games following the deal. “Never gave me a good center,” he recalls. Wisely, he was moved to the middle after the Flyers sent him down to Richmond, but upon his callup to the big club, still had just one goal in 17 contests.
“Zero indication he would score 50,” said Clarke. “Zero.”
Suddenly in 1972-73, the season of the Flyers’ emergence, MacLeish did, exploding for 100 points, too.
His 697 career Flyer points, fourth all time behind Clarke, Bill Barber and Brian Propp -- hardly were the truest measure of his value. Timing was everything.
He pounced on a puck that died in a puddle to stun Ken Dryden with a quick overtime goal in Game One of the 1973 semifinals at Montreal’s Forum and had a Game Seven hat trick against the Islanders in 1975 before being successfully matched against Buffalo star Gilbert Perreault in the final.
“I would angle him to the sideboards,” says MacLeish. “Could outskate him all day.
“He made a lot of moves. Wasn’t going anywhere.”
Six months later, neither was the Soviet Red Army team as the patient Flyers bamboozled the fleet Russian robots at center ice, MacLeish breaking away to beat Vladislav Tretiak for the goal that proved to be the winner of the most pressure-packed game the Broad Street Bullies ever played.
We can only imagine what Ricky might have done in that season’s playoffs, when the Flyers had to return to the finals without him, thanks to torn knee ligaments caused by a low hit by Vancouver defenseman Harold Snepsts during February. The Flyers lost four straight to the budding Montreal dynasty by a total of five goals.
In the 1977 quarterfinals vs. Toronto, Philadelphia was down 2-0 in games and 3-2 on the scoreboard when MacLeish intercepted a Borje Salming clear and slapped the puck by Mike Palmateer with 38 seconds remaining, and then scored again in overtime, turning around a series the Flyers won in six games.
“Heavy smoker, didn’t train, would just show up and carry us,” laughs Clarke. “Hard to stay mad at him.”
Who cared how little MacLeish did for the first 58 minutes in Game One of the 1980 playoffs, when young Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers were about to steal it until MacLeish forced overtime with 1:19 remaining. The Flyers went on to a three-game sweep, keyed by a No. 19 with nine lives.
A van driven by Flyers defenseman Bob Dailey, carrying MacLeish, overturned three times on a rain slickened Black Horse Pike on the way back from a golf tournament in May 1977, landing on its roof. MacLeish climbed out, calmly sat down on the curb, and said, “my neck hurts.” It was broken, putting him in a halo for the summer.
In April of the next season, he left his feet to knock down a Los Angeles pass and had his throat inadvertently skated over by Marcel Dionne, requiring 80 stitches. At the bar later that night, MacLeish took a drag of his cigarette and saw smoke coming out of his neck.
Turned out that the cigarettes – MacLeish quit after a cardiac episode at an alumni game in 2004 required a quadruple bypass -- put much more stress on his heart than any late-game predicament. As long as they had a minute and a MacLeish, the Flyers always had a chance.