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Backchecking With Jimmy Watson

by Staff Writer / Philadelphia Flyers

Former Flyers defenseman talks about growing up in British Columbia, his love of hockey, life after hockey and his brother, Joe

By Zack Hill

                                   Jimmy Watson with his daugther, Caitlin, and son, Chase.

Former Flyers defenseman Jimmy Watson recently sat down with to talk about his life and love of the game of hockey.

Watson was drafted by the Flyers in the third round (39th overall) of the 1972 NHL Amateur Draft. In 10 seasons with the Flyers (1972-73 through 1981-82), Watson played in five NHL All-Star Games and four Stanley Cup Finals. He was a member of both Flyers' Stanley Cup Championship teams and the 1979-80 team that posted an NHL record 35-game undefeated streak. Watson won two Barry Ashbee Trophies as the Flyers' most outstanding defenseman (1975-76 and 1977-78) and led the NHL in plus/minus for the 1979-80 season (+53).

Question: What have you been up to?
"I am part-owner of the IceWorks in Aston, Pennsylvania in Delaware County, which takes up a lot of my time. I am coaching at hockey camps and I started a hockey academy about five years ago. I really enjoy working with the youth in this area and giving them a place to come and skate, workout and try to make themselves into elite hockey players. I try to get players to reach their full potential so they can continue with their hockey careers and possibly play college hockey and who knows, maybe even make the pros. Being a part owner keeps me quite involved with the business. This has been very rewarding for me in a number of ways. As the industry develops and grows, it’s going to get better. I am right in the middle of where I want to be in my life. If anyone is interested in figure skating or men’s, women’s or children’s hockey, they can call me at 610-497-2200, ext. 113."

Question: How has the ice rink business been?
"Due to the current NHL situation, it could be better. First of all, hockey is not getting any television exposure. If there is a young athlete who may be interested in hockey but is not exposed to it, he or she may pick another sport. We have lost an entire year in getting these youngsters interested, so, in essence, we lose the player. Our merchandising shops have really felt the pinch, too. There is a cloud over the game right now and people are upset about it. I also see a certain amount of apathy among people. I hope that the industry can pull itself together quickly and get the situation resolved. God bless the Philadelphia Phantoms. They are doing a great job."

Question: You also represent some athletes as a player agent. Can you tell us about that?
"Yes. I represent four players. Arpad Mihaly will be playing for the Binghamton Senators (AHL) this coming fall. James Laux, a Cherry Hill (New Jersey) native, played for the Philadelphia Phantoms two seasons ago. Due to the NHL lockout, he was sent down and now he plays for the Wheeling Nailers (ECHL). He was a having a very successful season until he sustained an ankle injury. Another player, Steve Burgess, played for the Columbia Inferno (ECHL) and Mike Manley played for Kalamazoo Wings in the United Hockey League (UHL)."

Question: Do your children play hockey?
"My oldest son, Chase (22), is playing Division I hockey for Providence College (Rhode Island) in the Hockey East League where he just completed his sophomore year. My second oldest, Brett (20), is playing junior hockey for the Tri-Cities Storm (USHL) in Nebraska. Caitlin (17), my youngest, is finishing up her junior year at Notre Dame Academy in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, and currently is employed at IceWorks. She enjoys playing field hockey and lacrosse."

Question: Did it help you break into the NHL by having your older brother, Joe, make it first?
"Yes. He was a trailblazer and led the way. When Joe made the NHL in the 1960s, there were not too many players from British Columbia who made it to the NHL. At the time, Joe was only the fourth athlete out of the B.C. to make the NHL. Players were mainly coming out of Ontario, Quebec and the Canadian prairies. We were out west in between Alaska and Washington and hockey was not as prevalent. Joe making the NHL was pretty cool and it started opening up a lot of doors for us younger guys."

Question: Did you ever get to be paired on the ice with your brother?
"We played together very seldom. I’ll never forget one time that we did play together against Boston. The Flyers had a bunch of injuries and we were down to four defensemen. Freddy (Shero) put Joe and I out together and we both got an assist on the game-winning goal in overtime scored by Reggie Leach. My dad called me that night and said, ‘My God, the Watson brothers came through on the game-winning goal!’ That was a pretty exciting moment for my parents and for Joe and I."

Question: After all these years, two brothers from Smithers, B.C. still reside in the Philadelphia area. How remarkable is that?
"It is pretty remarkable. There was not a whole lot else to do in Smithers besides playing hockey. We played hockey just about every day starting around the middle of October until the middle of March. The days were cold enough to play on the outdoor rinks, ponds and lakes. We kids gave a lot of mothers’ heartaches and concerns when we would play on the lakes and ponds for fear of falling through. Outdoor hockey was where I really honed my skills."

Question: Did you ever fall through the ice?
"I fell through a couple of times and it is an experience that I do not want anyone else to have to go through. It was chilly (laughs). I could not wait to get on the ice so I would go early in October when the water was not completely frozen and I paid for it. We became wiser as we got older and made sure that the ice was thick enough to skate on."

Question: Was there a time when you knew that you were going to play in the NHL?
"I must have dreamed that I was going to make it in the NHL since I was old enough to remember my dreams. I was five or six years old and I envisioned myself playing in the NHL. I wanted to play in the NHL and I kept pursuing my dream. It was a challenge and that is all I ever thought about."

Question: What was it like winning the Stanley Cup as a rookie?
"The atmosphere was unbelievable in Philadelphia. Everything was happening so fast, I was thinking, ‘What is happening here?’ It was hard to grasp. Philadelphia was starved for a winner and we were able to deliver them one."

Question: Since you won a Stanley Cup as a rookie, did you become spoiled and think that winning the Stanley Cup was going to come easy in the future?
"I went home that summer and people were telling me how fortunate I was to not only make the NHL but to be on a Stanley Cup-winning team as a rookie. I was in a tavern having a few drinks with all my friends and they asked me what I was going to do for an encore. I told them that we would repeat as champions and they were rolling their eyes, thinking, ‘oh, yeah, sure you are.’ Lo and behold we won the Stanley Cup again. We almost won it three straight times, but got swept in the Finals by Montreal (in 1976). The Canadiens’ goaltender (Ken Dryden) was outstanding in that series and we lost every game by a goal."

Question: Who were the best players that you competed against?
"Bobby Orr, Guy Lafleur and Wayne Gretzky were the best that I played against. If I had to pick one, I would select Gretzky. I was having some back problems when Gretzky broke into the league so I was not as mobile as I would have liked. But he was still incredible. He used his imagination on the ice so well and he was so creative."

Question: How do you feel about the game right now?
"I am in the industry on a constant basis and I talk to a lot of people all the time. Fans are more sophisticated and knowledgeable now. They say that the game can be more exciting. Hockey is probably the fastest game in the world. With today’s systems and coaching, we have lost a lot of the speed and imagination. Coaches are under a lot of pressure to win so they install different methods to slow the game down. One of the most exciting things is the speed through the neutral zone. You do not see that any more because teams sit back in the trap or lock system. They clog the middle up."

Question: If you were NHL Commissioner for a day, what would you do to make the game more entertaining by bringing that speed back?
"I would definitely make the teams go in on the forecheck and not allow them to sit in the neutral zone. I would incur penalties to teams who did not pursue the puck aggressively in the offensive zone. This would enable teams to move the puck quickly and get some odd-man rushes and some speed through the offensive zone. Fans get out of their seats for this type of action. I would eliminate the red line. I would not allow players to leave their feet to block passes or shots. I would penalize them. These days a player can sprawl out on the ice defending an odd-man rush. How is a player supposed to get the puck across or around them? It does not take a lot of skill to sprawl on the ice and he kills an odd-man scoring opportunity. You can feel the air come out the fans.

Question: Would you make any changes to the goaltending equipment?
"Look at old footage of Bernie Parent or Ron Hextall. The league would come in and measure pads very closely. Present-day goaltender equipment is too large. These days we have lost the kick save. (Martin) Brodeur does it every once in a while, but most goalies go down in the butterfly stance and let the puck hit them. It is almost like throwing a wet blanket over the game. It was so exciting in the old days when the goalies would use the kick save. We have to find a way to bring that back. There are many things that we can do to make the game better, but it is going to take some imagination and work."

Question: Is there anything else that you would like to add?
"I love the game. It does not always get the coverage from the media that football, basketball and baseball get, but there are a lot of hockey fans out there. We have to get the speed and intensity back and I am sure that we will."
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