The man who built the Broad Street Bullies, the meanest team ever to lace on skates, for years couldn’t bring himself to fire a secretary whose manner suggested he worked for her.
“Jeezus Babe,” as Keith Allen would say, he undoubtedly had been “cogitating” about that move for a time while “exploring its parameters.” But that was one, probably the only one, when he had trouble pulling the trigger.
Andre Dupont was sent away to his native Quebec and the Nordiques after a Flyer run to the Stanley Cup finals in 1980 with a sincere thanks reflected in the parachute of a new contract. When it was time for a player to move on, nobody who ever ran an NHL franchise ever recognized it with more skill, daring, dignity and kindness than Allen.
“Keith was a unique man,” said Bob Clarke Tuesday about the GM he succeeded in 1983. “Behind all that strength, he had a grandfather’s kind of gentleness.
“To have him around when I [came straight from the ice to the chair] was not only a necessity, but a great comfort. In addition to an obvious wisdom and experience there was a generosity in sharing with me and ease to him when I asked for his input.
“In a time when teams were bleeping on their players and taking credit for it, the Flyers weren’t like that. A lot of that had to do with Mr. Snider, too, but I can’t think of one guy whom Keith ever traded away who disliked him. They all came back and spent their summers here and visited with him, never seemed to hold a grudge.
“That’s a pretty hard thing to do when you are running a hockey team and have to make miserable decisions.”
A great consolation to those Broad Street Bullies, of course, were the rings on their fingers, put there through an astounding run of decisions by a first-time NHL GM, who became young owner Ed Snider’s greatest jackpot.
Understanding that the Flyers wouldn’t exist without Snider, you also should understand that the second most important person in the history of the franchise passed away on Tuesday at age 90.
Bobby Clarke was a top 10 player in the game’s history when he retired in 1983, and arguably the sport’s greatest-ever on-ice leader. But he would have played elsewhere had not Allen, the assistant general manager in 1969, listened to the impassioned plea of rookie scout Jerry Melnyk that diabetes wasn’t going to hold this kid back, then pushed GM Bud Poile to take Clarke in the second round.
Allen’s initial transaction after replacing Poile six months later was to pick up Barry Ashbee, a minor leaguer who had been passed over by all six new teams three years earlier. Ashbee became an All Star. Allen’s first bold move was to use his only real tradable asset, Bernie Parent, for Mike Walton, a scorer the franchise had desperately needed for four years, but then immediately move Walton for a No. 1 pick and a heretofore floundering former fourth-overall pick named Rick MacLeish
“Don’t worry, he’s going to be great,” Allen reassured a nervous Snider while MacLeish, up and down from the minors, score three NHL goals in his first season and-a-half with the Flyers. When he exploded for 50 in the Flyers corner- turning season of 1972-73, Allen’s greatness, more than MacLeish’s, was confirmed to an owner who now understood his GM’s judgment exceeded even his courage.
That year, Bill Barber came with the seventh pick in the draft, followed by Dupont in a trade five months later. Parent, traded because he had more value than the other young goalie the Flyers had taken in the expansion draft, Doug Favell, came back to the team in 1974 in probably the best deal, of all the great deals, Allen ever made.
Four expansion draft picks that Keith helped to scout in the year before he went behind the bench as the Flyers’ first coach, incredibly were regulars seven and eight years later on the Cup teams. And Fred Shero, who had never been promoted by the Rangers despite winning four minor league championships in 13 seasons, was the first coach Allen hired, despite never having spoken to him before inviting the candidate for an interview.
“Think about that,” Snider said recently. “There had to be at least five guys with NHL experience whom he knew personally who would have been considered safe picks. And Keith wanted the guy whom he had heard good things about and had a great minor league record.”
Snider, young, brash, and a perfect compliment in temperament to his GM, didn’t want to just finish ahead of Oakland every year but desired to win it all. So they set the bar together, Snider with his ambition and Allen with his uncanny sense for talent and his priority on courage.
The Flyers were not only the first of the six teams added in the great expansion of 1967 to win it all, but when they did were the only one of the six to have a winning record. That is the ultimate tribute to how far ahead Allen was of his time, and that impeccable judgment was sustained with a fourth Stanley Cup finalist in 1980 with a largely re-worked club.
In 14 years as Flyers GM, an amazing half of his teams reached the semifinals, and seven of them had 100 points in the days you didn’t get one for a tie or an overtime loss. Plus, 13 of the players on two Flyers’ finalists in Clarke’s first three years as GM (1985-87) were obtained by Allen, including Hall of Famer Mark Howe.
Like MacLeish, Reggie Leach was taken by the Bruins with a pick out of the Flyers’ reach, then became Allen’s obsession until finally acquiring him with a modest package to Oakland. If he liked the coming out of junior, their problems in other organizations never were a deterrent in Allen’s mind to make them a Flyer, deals which he accomplished repeatedly by seeing things in guys like Ashbee and Terry Murray that nobody else did. As a result, the Flyers always had character in excess. Bad teams wanted to trade talent for Allen’s marginal players because under great leadership in Philly, they had learned how to be successful.
“Joe Watson, Ed Van Impe, Ashbee, Dornhoefer, they were there as examples to younger guy like me when we came in,” said Clarke. “Then he took a few chances about character in adding talent, but with that kind of structure, a lot of guys thrived here and never played as well anywhere else.”
It is not just a reflection of selective memory that Snider can’t remember one player Allen traded away whom the Flyers ever regretted, but of the selectivity and creativity of his great GM and just about best friend.
After the Blues wiped the floor with the smaller Flyers in four straight in 1969, together Allen and Snider resolved to build a bigger, tougher team, and Shero took it from there. Opposition faces and feelings around the league were hurt, and probably as a result, it took Allen eight years after stepping upstairs to make the Hall of Fame in 1992, which was ridiculous, because all those orange jerseys in the stands when the Flyers are on the road really were first put there by Allen, generations ago.
“Absolutely,” said Clarke, agreeing that after Snider, Allen was the guy who made the Flyers.
“I wouldn’t even put myself close.”
To contact Jay Greenberg, email firstname.lastname@example.org