Truth be told – but, of course that depends who is telling -- Barry Ashbee spent the first Flyers’ Wives Carnival on his knees picking up the quarters that didn’t land inside the glasses.
“He yelled at me afterwards his back hurt,” laughs Mary Ann Saleski, the initial and longtime chairperson but Donna Ashbee, Barry’s widow, wants to set the record straight. “I was the one on the floor,” she smiles. “Barry was posing for pictures and signing autographs.”
Nice work if you can get it. On February 1, 1977, Reggie Leach and Gary Dornhoefer were in the dunk tank, Orest Kindrachuk and Bob Kelly were taking pies in the face, and the hardest job of all may have belonged to goaltenders Bernie Parent, Wayne Stephenson and Gary Inness, all tying to find creative ways to let five-year-olds score while ducking the odd wrister aimed for under the crossbar from Bill Barber wannabes.
Of course, for the goalkeepers, nothing has changed – especially their .000 save percentages –over 38 years. Otherwise, practice by the organizers has made the carnival so perfect that all the players will have to do from 1:30-6 this Sunday at the Wells Fargo Center is show up on time and as themselves.
But for that first carnival, the Broad Street Bullies were wrapping the mystery gift boxes, toting chairs, stocking the converted refreshment stands with prizes and, like their wives and significant others, just hoping that the fans would show up.
“As it turns out, they flocked, but we didn’t know,” recalls Fran Tobin, who ran what has become Flyers Charities. She and her late husband Sylvan -- eventually minority owners of the team but then season ticket holders and friends of Ed Snider -- had enlisted him to serve on the board for Hahnemann Hospital’s fledgling cancer institute, being chaired by Dr. Isadore Brodsky, the husband of Fran Tobin’s sister Estelle.
Snider brainstormed with other board members for revenue-generating ideas. The wives, at that time almost entirely Canadian citizens prohibited by immigration laws from holding paying jobs, had often involved themselves in charitable endeavors. “But they were always small, like fashion shows, and the expenses were always so high, we never made much money,” recalls Saleski. “ We had wondered if there was anything else we could do.”
She asked Snider if the wives could get the Spectrum for a night and stage a larger event. “He said, ‘Sure, great idea,’ what do you have in mind?’” recalls Saleski.
“Actually, we had nothing in mind. So Ed said he would take it to his people with the team and building.”
As Snider recalled in Full Spectrum, “We had had enough dinners. I gave it to Ed Golden (the hockey team’s public relations director) and he came up with the carnival.”
A carnival! An inspired idea, for sure. But now what?
Alas, among the Flyers’ wives, fiancés and girlfriends was not a single bearded lady. And though opponents had swallowed a few swords from the Bullies in front of the net over the years, a freak show wasn’t exactly what Fran and Estelle had in mind, unless you want to count being freaked out by the thought that what they were planning might turn out to be a bigger dud than a Jack McIlhargey slapshot.
Tobin and Brodsky visited carnivals -- and with carnival companies -- in the Delaware Valley for ideas on both booths and logistics.
Turned out, ideas were not in short supply, nor was enthusiasm. The Flyers, who had been in three straight Stanley Cup finals and won two of them, were packing them in for summer softball games, store appearances or anywhere they showed their beloved faces. So not to worry about an event where fans could get up close and personal with all of them.
About 6500 tickets, priced at $6 apiece, were sold in advance. Walkups brought attendance to approximately 8,000. Long lines formed to take shots for $1 apiece at the goaltenders. Bobby Clarke’s 1972 Team Canada jersey was auctioned for $1,055.
The players were so inundated that in subsequent years “No Autograph” notices went up to keep the people gaming and spending. But both the customers and players largely ignored the signs; so signing has become a big part of the fund-raising effort.
The first carnival raised $85,167.35, which enabled Hahnemann to purchase an electron microscope, critical in researching blood disease-causing retroviruses.
“This is a good cause,” Parent told Bill Fleischman of the Daily News between whiffs of shots. “We’re all made of flesh. This damn disease can happen to any of us.”
Two months later, it happened to just about the strongest of them—Ashbee. Legend has erroneously turned that first carnival into a benefit for the assistant coach, but he was not diagnosed with leukemia until two months later.
Thirty days after entering Hahnemann for treatment, he died, to the devastation of the Flyers and their followers, making the choice of charities for the first carnival the saddest of coincidences.
“But it also became more personal to us going forward,” recalls Saleski.
The research lab at the hospital was named after Ashbee. The fans didn’t just come to the carnival for fun, but to honor Barry. The Flyers no longer ruled the NHL roost, but the novelty of the carnival didn’t wear off, the event growing to the point where ticket sales had to be cut off at 10,000 so that customers had room to play.
Once the carnival survived the trading of Peter Zezel – “He was popular,” chuckles Saleski – it became infinite. In 2006 Peter Forsberg and his piercing baby blues were dealt to Nashville less than a week before the event. He met his massive autograph commitments regardless and the fans received them in the mail.
The carnival is bigger than any one person. It’s even become larger than the Flyers.
Other sport organizations, the Bruins being one of the first, have copied the idea and traded Flyers have taken it with them to their new organizations.
The digital age has changed some of the games. The Ferris Wheel, introduced a year ago, will be joined for the first time on Sunday by a carousel. No line is longer than the one to get your picture taken with the Stanley Cup for $25 and practically no work day of a season extends to this length for players who will return from Saturday night’s game in Florida well after midnight. But they will stay at their posts until Keith Primeau scores in the fifth overtime because the carnival is not just for those in need but for the Flyers’ most loyal supporters.
“You do the carnival because it’s a good deed, but at the same time you enjoy meeting people you otherwise never would have met,” says Wayne Simmonds.
“By the time you are done, you’re happy you participated.
“It’s been around a long time and is such a big part of this organization, passed down by wives through generations. Now, my girlfriend is helping. I generally do the autograph and photo booth pretty much all day long. I‘m usually the last guy done, my line is pretty long. I generally will stay until everyone is satisfied.”
If a player grumps about having to give up an off day for the carnival, chances are he finds something to complain about in the locker room too, and won’t be a Flyer for long. The players are under no contractual obligation to assist, but nobody recalls a single one ever having to be pressured to participate.
“To players who have gotten traded here, the carnival has almost become folklore,” says Saleski . “They have heard about it, can’t wait to see it.
“Depending on the weather and the available date, some years we have done better than others. Last year we got hit with a bad day. Since even the best ideas sometimes run their course, there have been times people have asked, ‘Should we be doing something else?’
“The answer, so far, is, ‘How do you not do this?’ It’s become so much a part of the culture of the team.”
There are $28 million reasons raised over 38 years for what is now hundreds of different charities to never stop, which the wives hardly do the 364 other days of the year, either. The carnival has become the most well-oiled of events but if, arguably, any personal touches have been lost, the wives do more than just stage a yearly event and write checks from the proceeds. Their work in renovating homes for families of sick children is just one example of Flyer Charities out in the community.
Ashbee played most of the 1972-73 season with radiating neck pain so searing he had to tape his stick to his arm or not be able to control it. He then lost his career to a puck in the eye during the drive to the first Cup. So Barry gladly endured a cranky back for what has turned out to be an incredibly enduring and endearing cause.
Put your money down Sunday. Around and around has gone that wheel for 38 years. And where the kindnesses of the Flyer Wives stop, probably nobody ever will have to know.