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Backchecking With Joe Watson

by Staff Writer / Philadelphia Flyers

Flyers Hall of Famer talks about his playing days, life in Smithers and Bobby Orr

By Zack Hill

Flyers Hall of Famer Joe Watson recently sat down with to discuss his playing days, life in Smithers, British Columbia, his life after hockey and Bobby Orr. (Actually, we saw Joe in one of the hallways of the Wachovia Center and after asking "how you doin?"we had enough material for a two-part series with the former Flyer two hours later. Joe was still talking when we left.)

Watson played 11 seasons for the Flyers, from 1967-68 through 1977-78 and still holds the team record for most career games by a defenseman, 746 (fourth on the team’s All-Time List). He was a two-time All-Star and the winner of the first Barry Ashbee Trophy as the most outstanding Flyers defenseman (1974-75).

This is the first of two parts.

Q: When did you know that you wanted to play in the National Hockey League?
"When you are a young boy growing up in northern Canada in Smithers, British Columbia (near Alaska), you have aspirations of playing in the NHL. Just like when you are a kid growing up in the United States dreaming about one day playing in the NFL, NBA or Major League Baseball, all Canadians dream about playing in the NHL. I remember that in the ninth grade our classroom teacher asked the class to write down three things we would like to do in our lives. I only had one answer --- to play in the NHL. When the teacher read my only answer aloud, he had a smirk on his face and all the other students laughed at my answer. But I guess that I had the last laugh because I played in the NHL for 15 years. Those kids are probably still back in Smithers, slugging away in a lumber mill while I’m enjoying my life here in Philadelphia."

Q: When you broke into the NHL, you actually were a teammate and a roommate of Bobby Orr. What was he like?
"I had the pleasure of playing with Bobby in Boston in 1966. I actually met him the year before in London, Ontario. I remember everybody talking about this great Bobby Orr kid and I meet him and he is this scrawny 135-pounder. That off-season he went back to Perry Sound, Ontario, bought a rowing machine and worked out all summer. When I saw him at the next training camp, he is this chiseled 185-pounder. He was nothing but muscle. The great thing about Orr was that nine times out of 10 you knew what he was going to do on the ice, but unfortunately, nine times out of 10 you could not stop him. I couldn’t stop him and a lot of others were in the same boat as me. He won the NHL scoring title two times (1970 and 1975) and was the League MVP three years in a row (1969-70 through 1971-72). I think he was the best player who ever laced up a pair of skates. He was a good friend of mine. As a matter of fact, he was the best man at my wedding in 1969."

Q: It must have been a disappointment to you then when you and Orr were separated when the new team in Philadelphia selected you in the expansion draft.
"In those days, you had the expansion draft and the NHL had six new teams entering the league. Philadelphia was one of those. So here I am, 24 years old, working at the Public Works Department in Smithers, BC and a guy comes by at 7:10 a.m. and tells me I was just drafted by Philadelphia. I said, ‘What the heck are you talking about?’ Talk about depression. I thought, ‘Who in the (heck) are the Philadelphia Flyers?’ I didn’t know anything about Philadelphia other than I heard they had a baseball team. I was very upset. I marched right over to my boss and told him that I had to take the rest of the day off to get my head together. I got a phone call the next day from Bud Poile, the Flyers’ general manager, congratulating me. I told him that I did not even know where the city was on a map. I was very upset and disappointed, but what was I going to do? Nothing. Boston’s coach and general manager, Harry Sinden, told me that he did not think that I would be the first player taken, but I was, and there was nothing that he could do about it. Sinden told me that they tried to trade for me, but Philadelphia declined. Initially, it was a very bad event in my life, but it turned out to be the best thing career-wise that ever happened to me."

Q: One of the most replayed video clips from the past is the final seconds of the Stanley Cup Finals against the Boston Bruins and you are alone behind the net handling the puck. Did you keep the puck?
"Unfortunately, no. If you look at that replay, Bobby Orr shot the puck down behind our net. I was there with the puck and I looked up to see the clock and there were still several seconds to play. There was nobody near me. I did not even touch the puck until (Bruin) Wayne Cashman came near me and I touched the puck with four seconds to go. There was so much noise and pandemonium in the Spectrum that the timekeeper did not hear the whistle blow for the icing call. Everybody jumps over the bench in jubilation and they think that the game is over. I am yelling at the guys that the game is not over and (teammate) Terry Crisp skates over to me. I go down to reach for the puck and Crisp, the little bugger, who only played four shifts the entire game, grabbed the puck before I could get my hands on it. He has that puck displayed on his home’s mantle and I was left with diddley squat."

Q: You were never a goal scorer, but you scored one of the most important goals in Flyers history when you scored a shorthanded goal against the Russians. Can you tell us about it?
"I was never an offensive-minded defenseman. I was the guy who tried to keep our zone clear, so I was a defensive defenseman. We were in a shorthanded situation against the Russians and Don Saleski took a shot from the right side and I got the rebound and snuck up and put the puck in the net. They were the most dominating team in Europe and we were the most dominating team in North America. The series came down to one game and we had to uphold the prestige of hockey in North America, which we did. After the game, (coach) Freddy Shero came into the locker room, offers his congratulations and says to me, ‘By scoring that shorthanded goal, you set Russian hockey back 20 years!’ Freddy was right because they still have not recovered from that."

Q: Your career was cut short when you broke your leg in St. Louis. What exactly happened on that play?
"I was approached by Flyers General Manager Keith Allen in the summer of 1978 and he told me that the Flyers wanted to keep me, but that I would be the seventh defenseman and that my playing time would be minimum. I was only 35 or 36 at the time and I knew that I could continue playing at a high level in the NHL. I did not want to sit. He asked me if they were to trade me, what NHL city would I prefer. I told him Vancouver, Los Angeles, Atlanta and the last team was Colorado. Keith worked out a deal with Colorado and off I went. About a month into playing with Colorado, we had a game in St. Louis. It is pretty ironic that I played my very first professional game in the old Checkerdome Arena in St. Louis in 1963 and I played my final professional game there on November 11, 1978, when I broke my leg. On that play, the puck was shot in our zone and I went to get it. The Blues’ Wayne Babych hit me from behind on my lower back and I crashed into the boards so hard that my right leg exploded in 13 places and my career was over."

Q: After surgery and rehab, your right leg was two inches shorter than your left leg. Did you ever get that fixed?
"Yes. About three years ago we were playing Alumni games in Europe and my leg got so worn out that I phoned (former team doctor) Dr. Art Bartolozzi from Helsinki, Finland and told him that I needed help, the leg was so bad. When we returned to the United States, the leg was operated on and they lengthened my leg by two inches and now they’re both the same length."
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