THE FLYERS & THE FLYERS
Hired by the Flyers as general manager at the recommendations of Emile "the Cat" Francis and Jack Adams, the task of assembling a hockey operations staff - which was much, much smaller a half century ago than their modern-day counterparts - fell to the late Norman "Bud" Poile.
From 1952 to 1962, the former NHL forward had been the head coach of the Edmonton Flyers; the top minor league farm team of the Detroit Red Wings, playing in the old Western Hockey League. Subsequently, Poile moved on to the WHL's San Francisco Seals before accepting the general manager's job offered by the new NHL franchise that came to be known as the Philadelphia Flyers.
Poile's long tenure with the Edmonton Flyers, with whom he won three WHL championships, had a profound effect down the road on the team's wholly unrelated but eerily coincidental NHL namesake in Philadelphia.
Among the players he coached (and was also teammates with as a player-coach) on Edmonton's championship winning 1954-55 team were defenseman Keith Allen and Larry "the Rock" Zeidel and forwards Vic Stasiuk and the late Jerry Melnyk. Years later, on his championship-winning 1961-62 Edmonton Flyers team, the sometimes irascible Poile (by now solely the coach) took a shine to a tough forward on his team named Forbes Kennedy. The roster also included defenseman John Miszuk and a speedy 21-year-old center, Eddie Joyal.
All of these men would later be brought to the Philadelphia Flyers in various capacities. All but Joyal. who briefly played for Philadelphia in 1971-72, were notable figures in the team's early history.
Kennedy and the late Zeidel played on the 1967-68 team. Poile acquired Melnyk as a player in a June 11, 1968 trade with the St. Louis Blues. Melnyk suffered a heart attack before ever playing for the Flyers, but accepted a scouting position with the organization. He would prove to be one of the sagacious and prolific scouts in Flyers history; the man arguably most responsible for the organization drafting Bobby Clarke, Pelle Lindbergh and Ron Hextall, among many others.
After the creation of the Philadelphia Flyers, Poile hired Allen to become the new team's first coach. He hired Stasiuk to coach the Quebec Aces; the Flyers first American Hockey League affiliate. After Allen succeeded Poile as Flyers general manager in 1969, Stasiuk became the Flyers' head coach for the next two seasons.
BINGO & MARCEL
Some of the most vital steps that the Flyers' organization took in creating its eventual elite stature were taken before there was a single player under contract. The hiring of the late Keith Allen - who later went on to outshine even fellow Hockey Hall of Fame builder Poile and became a once-in-a-generation NHL general manager - proved to be one of the most fortuitous decisions the Flyers' organization ever made.
As a GM, Allen would come to be dubbed "Keith the Thief" by the media for his many steals in trades, his own keen eye for assessing talent and his sound judgment in which scouts to trust. Among his many friends and associates within the hockey world, however, the former Detroit Red Wings player went by the nickname "Bingo" for many years.
Allen retired as a player after the 1956-57 season, to focus on coaching and eventually in front office work. Prior to joining Philadelphia, Allen spent ten years as the coach and general manager of the Seattle Totems. He led the team to the WHL title in 1958-59.
As was common practice in the minor leagues, Allen filled a variety of other roles for the Totems while simultaneously juggling coaching and GM duties. He was also the team's de facto marketing and ticket sales manager, oversaw public relations and served as its financial bookkeeper. In 1959-60, Allen became the first recipient of The Hockey News' Minor League Executive of the Year award.
Poile, who passed away in 2005 at age 80, recalled to Jay Greenberg in Full Spectrum that Allen had been, by far, his immediate preferred choice to coach Philadelphia the moment the GM started to consider staffing options. According to Poile, he had been the one to recommend Allen to the Seattle Totems' ownership long before the NHL expanded.
Referencing his own, much more combustible temperament, Poile half-jokingly said of Allen, "He was knowledgeable and an even-keel kind of guy, which I thought a new team would need. I figured my personality would get us in enough trouble for the both of us."
When Poile offered Allen the chance to become Philadelphia's head coach, Allen was flattered but initially reluctant. At the time, he was in the final stages of negotiating with the WHL's San Diego Gulls to become the team's general manager. While Allen was a solidly competent coach, his real ambitions by this point already lay in team management.
Allen, who passed away in 2014 at age 90, recounted his thought process in Full Spectrum.
"I didn't know anything about Philadelphia, but I knew Bud and I knew it was the NHL. I didn't really want to coach anymore, and that was one of the reasons I had been interested in the San Diego job. But Bud told me he wanted me behind the bench for a few years, and then I could move into a front office job. It just seemed like the right opportunity," Allen said.
Allen's hiring as head coach was made just six days after Poile became the Flyers general manager.
As Poile continued to fill out his hockey operations staff, he made another wise decision in selecting a 38-year-old by the name of Marcel Pelletier. Hired with the title of "Special Representative," Pelletier functioned in much the same capacity as a modern-day assistant general manager on the hockey operations as well as dovetailing into the marketing end of the business.
During his 20-year professional playing career as a goaltender, the colorful, loquacious and personable Drummondville, Quebec native earned the nickname "the Gypsy Goalie" for no less than 20 different teams at various levels, including brief National Hockey League stints with the Chicago Blackhawks (six games in 1950-51) and New York Rangers (two games in 1962-63). The longest portion of his career, which took him from coast to coast in both Canada and the United States, was spent with the Western Hockey League's Victoria Cougars.
He also played briefly for Seattle in 1957, while Keith Allen was the team's player-coach.
Later, during a successful stint with the St. Paul Rangers of the Central Professional Hockey League (CPHL), Pelletier was the workhorse starting goaltender of a club that reached the playoff finals before losing in the championship round to Omaha. The coach of the St. Paul team was another soon-to-be illustrious name that was destined to have a vital role in shaping Philadelphia Flyers history: Fred Shero.
With Pelletier's playing career winding down, Poile invited him to come work for the Flyers. The general manager said the position would involve "scouting, promotion, and just about everything else for the Flyers." Pelletier accepted.
As the years went by, Pelletier's role evolved into that of player personnel director, continuing to work closely with Allen after he took over as general manager. As the Flyers' primary pro-league scout, traveling what was estimated in the 1971-72 Flyers Yearbook as 75,000 miles a year, Pelletier had encyclopedic knowledge of various leagues and players. In that role, Pelletier carried influence on the evolution of what became a championship team.
Now 88 years old, Pelletier is one of the last still-living links to the brain trust that built the rosters of the Flyers' golden era. He still periodically attends Flyers' games as an honored guest or comes out to the practice rink in Voorhees, and still wears his Stanley Cup rings with pride.
"The Flyers are the best organization in hockey," he said during a 2013 visit to the Wells Fargo Center pressbox. "What we built, I am very proud of."
On the amateur scouting side, Poile selected the late Alex Davidson as the team's chief scout. Melnyk, who passed away in 2001 at age 66, would come aboard as a scout the next year. Other early Flyers scouts of note included the late Ray Frost (western Canada), the late Ernie Mondey (eastern Canada) and the late Eric Coville.
SCOURING FOR TALENT
Throughout the 1966-67 National Hockey League season, the trio of Poile, Allen and Pelletier hit the road, early and often, to scout not only for potential selection candidates for the upcoming National Hockey League Expansion Draft, but also for long-term depth.
"We'd go out on the road, usually alone, for as many as two weeks at a time," Pelletier recounted in Full Spectrum. "Then we'd come back to the office and have mock drafts. Each of us would pick for two teams and we tried to see how we thought the draft would go."
Strategically, the Flyers' brain-trust formulated a plan. Since they were already familiar with the rosters of the six NHL teams and had an inkling of which players already in the NHL were likely to be protected or were possible candidates to be exposed to the Expansion Draft. First and foremost, the focus was on the minor leagues, although Allen in particular made multiple scouting trips to NHL games as well.
"I had played in St. Paul, so I had a real good idea of the players in that league," Pelletier said in Full Spectrum. "Bud and Keith had been in the Western League, so they knew that, too. We also scouted the American Hockey League heavily. The NHL we did less. We knew what was there."
The trio was like-minded when it came to what to look for during their scouting trips.
"We were going to think young," Poile said in Full Spectrum." We didn't just want to have a team that could be competitive with the new clubs but one that, in a few years, could compete with the old ones."
From the get-go, the plan was to build from the goal line out. The Flyers' staff suspected that most, if not all of the other expansion teams would do the same. This was because of the vital importance of goaltending to making a team competitive and also for the practical reason that, while offensive impact players would be scarce, there were bound to be good goaltenders - both aging "name" veterans and promising but unproven younger ones - available.
The Flyers surmised correctly. Each of the first 12 picks in the 1967 Expansion Draft - comprising the entire first and second rounds - would be used on goaltenders.
Likewise, coach Allen already had an inkling of what sort of identity his yet-to-be-assembled team would need to establish. In order to compete, the team needed to forge a defensively-sound identity (in an era before "systems" started to become prevalent) and rely primarily on fundamentals and goaltending. Work ethic was coveted.
He also hoped to find some players with speed, who might have a chance to score some opportunistic goals.
"We knew it was going to take a few years until the real top-skill guys were going to be available for us, so we had to find other ways to compete," Allen recalled.
Under the rules of the Expansion Draft, the existing six clubs could protect one goaltender and eleven skaters from the Draft.
The National Hockey League did the new expansion teams few favors when it came to bringing top prospects aboard in their first few seasons. Exempted from Draft eligibility were junior-aged players, all pro players who were still young enough to be eligible to play junior hockey (born on or after June 1, 1946) in 1967-68.
While there had been an NHL Amateur Draft established (for 20-year-old players) and a phasing out had begun of ending the longstanding system of NHL teams outright owning or sponsoring Canadian junior teams - and thereby laying exclusive claim to the NHL rights of the feeder teams' players, sometimes as young as age 14 or 15 - the NHL continued to recognize all accounted-for junior prospects as the property of their sponsoring NHL organization.
As such, there were already roughly 400 prospects who were off-limits to expansion teams in the two earliest Amateur Drafts. The expansion and existing teams could only draft among those who were left. The 1967 NHL Amateur Draft was held at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel ballroom on June 7; one day after the Expansion Draft was held at the same venue.
SETTING UP SHOT IN LA BELLE PROVINCE
On May 8, 1967, a little less than a month before the NHL Expansion Draft, the Flyers purchased the American Hockey League's Quebec Aces to be their first AHL farm team.
Playing their home games in the famed Coliseum in Quebec City, the acquisition of the Aces and their assets - including all player contracts and the Quebec Junior Aces team that fed young talent into the AHL roster - the acquisition of the Aces proved to be a mixed blessing to the Flyers.
From a hockey standpoint, which was the primary impetus, it was a boon.
"That Aces had some good players who ended up being with our [NHL] team even that first year," the late Ed Snider recalled in 2006. "That's how we got players like Andre Lacroix, Simon Nolet, and Jean-Guy Gendron, who helped us tremendously. Bill Sutherland, too."
Until Bobby Clarke came along, the diminutive Lacroix was the most skilled player on the Flyers and was also a fan favorite both in Quebec City and Philadelphia. Nolet, who represented the Flyers in the 1971-72 NHL All-Star Game, was a smart two-way player with a strong work ethic. Gendron, frequently playing on all French Canadian line centered by Lacroix (often with Leon Rochefort or, later, Dick Sarrazin as the third member), became a three-time 20-goal scorer for the Flyers.
Poile installed the rawhide tough but energetic and enthusiastic Stasiuk as the Aces' head coach. In their first season as the Flyers' AHL affiliate, the Aces reached the Calder Cup Finals before losing a hard-fought six-game series to the Rochester Americans.
The purchase of the Aces also came in quite helpful when the Spectrum was temporarily closed when high winds damaged the roof on March 1, 1968. The Flyers played all but two of their remaining home games at Le Colisée, with the exception of one "home" game apiece at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan and Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto.
The downside of buying the Aces: While the purchase was a hockey success, the minor league team ended up becoming a financial drain on the Flyers. According to a 1970 article in Philadelphia Magazine by Maury Z. Levy, while the Flyers proved profitable in Philadelphia within a few years, the organization lost $300,000 in Quebec with the Aces primarily because of attendance issues with the minor league team, with the Quebec Remparts junior team outdrawing the AHL team by more than a 3-to-1 ratio.
As a result, the Flyers sold the Aces and their assets and then, in 1971, relocated their AHL affiliate to Richmond, Virginia as the Richmond Robins.
1967 EXPANSION DRAFT
By the time the NHL Expansion Draft rolled around on June 6, 1967, the Flyers were thoroughly prepared through the exhaustive scouting that had been done and with an unwavering selection strategy in place to select goaltenders first and, in general, to prefer younger players over aging veterans.
After the Los Angeles Kings selected 37-year-old future Hockey Hall of Fame goaltender Terry Sawchuk with the first overall pick of the draft, it was the Flyers' turn. The team chose 22-year-old Boston Bruins goaltender Bernie Parent; himself a future Hall of Famer but still early in his career rather than nearing the end. The third pick, made by St. Louis, was yet another Hall of Fame goalie; Glenn Hall, soon to turn 36 years old.
In the second round, the Flyers used the ninth overall pick to select another Bruins goaltending prospect: 22-year-old Doug Favell, who had also been teammates with Parent on the Ontario Hockey Association's Niagara Falls Flyers (owned by the Bruins).
"As far as the goalies went. we thought they were the two best young goalies available and, fortunately, we got both of them," Allen recounted in the 40th Anniversary History of the Philadelphia Flyers documentary.
Equally prophetic was the Draft-floor strategy the Flyers' decision-makers executed of picking heavily from players left unprotected by the Boston Bruins. Among the 20 picks the Flyers made at the Expansion Draft, seven were made from Boston.
With the hindsight of a half century, this fact may not seem remarkable. For its time, though, it was quite bold and indicative of the digging-beneath-the-surface scouting work that had been done by Allen, Poile and Pelletier.
Here's why: The Bruins had been a perennial doormat in the NHL in that era. Boston had brought up the rear of the Original Six for the better part of the last decade, were eight years removed from their last playoff appearance (at a time when four of the six teams got in, and the bottom two missed) and were coming off a 17-43-10 season in 1966-67; 14 points below the fifth-place Red Wings.
However, when the Flyers scouted the Bruins organization, they saw what few others saw outside Beantown: an organization brimming with young talent - even to the point of surplus - that was about to blossom into an NHL powerhouse.
After selecting Parent and Favell in the first two rounds, the Flyers' subsequent picks from among unprotected Boston players included Watson in the fourth round (21st overall), defenseman Dick Cherry - the younger brother of Don Cherry - in the 11th round (63rd overall), right winger Gary Dornhoefer in the 14th round (81st overall), rough-and-ready former Edmonton Flyers forward Kennedy in the 15th round (87th overall) and, finally, right winger Keith Wright in the 19th round (111th overall).
Among this contingent, Parent, Watson and Dornhoefer would go on to become key players for the next decade or more, earning Flyers Hall of Fame enshrinement after their careers. Favell served the team well in goal for the first six years of franchise history and had long and colorful NHL goaltending career even beyond his long tenure in Philly.
In between the Favell and Watson selections, the Flyers chose rugged 27-year-old Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Ed Van Impe, who would go on to become Philadelphia's second captain, a three-time NHL All-Star and yet another member of the Flyers Hall of Fame. The Flyers also plucked their inaugural season captain and leading overall scorer in 1967-68, solid two-way forward Lou Angotti, from Chicago in the sixth round.
From the Montreal Canadiens in the seventh round (39th overall), the Flyers selected the 28-year-old Rochefort. The Montreal native would go on to be the first player to score a hat trick in Flyers history, the first player to represent the Flyers in the NHL All-Star Game and the team's top goal-scorer in 1967-68 with 21 tallies.
Among the other picks made by Philly in the Expansion Draft, quite a pro proved to be serviceable role players in the franchise's early years. The ranks included forwards Brit Selby (selected from the Toronto Maple Leafs in the fifth round, 27th overall) and Don Blackburn (taken from Toronto in the eighth round, 45th overall), former Chicago Blackhawks defenseman John Miszuk (ninth round, 51st overall), the late forward Pat "Hopalong" Hannigan (16th round, 93rd overall), the late Jean Gauthier (12th round, 69th overall), a defenseman who won the 1965 Stanley Cup with the Montreal Canadiens, forward Garry Peters (10th round, 57th overall) and 23-year-old blueline prospect Terry Ball (20th round, 117th overall from the New York Rangers).
Along with an early season boost from veteran forward Bill Sutherland, who scored both the first goal and the first home goal in franchise history, and subsequent callups from Quebec such as Lacroix, the hard-working Flyers proved to be a pesky opponent. Kennedy and Zeidel (whom Poile signed after the veteran sent a letter to every NHL team with photos of himself in uniform and in business attire) supplied much of the toughness for the team, along with Van Impe and Dornhoefer. The club also had solid locker room leadership with Angotti setting a good example.
As expected, the 1967-68 Flyers were in the same boat as the other expansion teams in terms of struggling to score goals with regularity. However, the team was buoyed by its strong goaltending from Parent and Favell and generally solid team defense. The Flyers allowed just 179 goals during the regular season - best among the expansion teams, and third-best in the 12-team league.
In the 1967 Amateur draft, the Flyers drafted talented but raw forward Serge Bernier with the fifth overall pick of the first round. The Quebecois forward would start to blossom in the early 1970s before he was traded to the Los Angeles Kings as part of a multi-player deal that brought Ross Lonsberry, "Cowboy" Bill Flett, defenseman Jean Potvin and Joyal to the Flyers.
BIGGER & BETTER THINGS AHEAD
In the 1968 Stanley Cup quarterfinals, the Flyers lost a hard-fought, and sometimes downright nasty, series to Scotty Bowman's St. Louis Blues. This series and a loss in four straight game to St. Louis the next year not only established the Blues as Philadelphia's biggest early rival, it also convinced Ed Snider and Allen that the team needed to add more size and muscle while it was still on the hunt for greater skill.
After two seasons at the general manager helm, Poile was out as general manager. In stepped Allen, who became one of the NHL's savviest and most successful GMs in league history. Stasiuk became the Flyers coach for two seasons, but the team struggled for much of his tenure.
By 1971, when Allen was considering coaching alternatives to Stasiuk, he honed in on Shero. Allen did not yet know Shero well personally but could not help but being impressed by the fact that he'd won championships at every level.
"The only thing that made me wonder was why Emile Francis had given other guys a chance (to coach the New York Rangers) and had never given one to Freddie," Allen recalled in Full Spectrum.
Although Shero had some eccentricities, no one whom Allen spoke to in doing his homework on Shero believed it negatively affected his coaching abilities. If anything, Shero worked his quirks to his advantage. Knowing that Pelletier had played for Shero in St. Paul, he was one of the people whom Allen asked for some input.
"Freddie was different, but he was a very smart and skilled coach," Pelletier recalled in 2012. "I always thought he would have success wherever he went to coach. I told that to Keith Allen when he asked."
Bigger and better things lay ahead for the Flyers with Allen as the general manager, Shero as the coach and Melnyk among its most prolific scouts. Through it all, the foundation laid in the year before the Flyers ever played an NHL hockey league game proved to be solid and stable enough to build a Stanley Cup champion in just seven years.