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MELTZER: 'The Fog' Was Flyers Guiding Light

Flyers columnist takes a look at Fred Shero on what would have been his 91st birthday

by Bill Meltzer | PhiladelphiaFlyers.com @NHLFlyers / http://www.philadelphiaflyers.com

During his lifetime, Hockey Hall of Fame coach Fred Shero learned how to use his "Freddie the Fog" persona to his advantage. He won championships at every level he coached and was beloved by his players. His methods were unconventional and he was sometimes branded as a maverick by the old guard hockey establishment, yet a large portion of his ideas later became standard across the game.

Painfully shy in his youth and still reticent even as an adult, Shero was a complicated man with a brilliant and restless mind that was usually focused on hockey. On a daily basis, he was often lost in thought and preferred to be by himself much of the time. In certain situations, however, he could also be engaging and humorous with a penchant for telling yarns for others' entertainment.

Fred Shero was not a man given to many open displays of emotion, keeping most of his feelings to himself. He was not a yeller nor one given to openly lavishing praise. He often articulated his thoughts - both about hockey and non-hockey subjects - better in writing than verbally but found ways turn these traits to his advantage.

It was not in Shero's nature to tell a player, "good job" or "hang in there" but could communicate those emotions simply by touching a player's shoulder on the bench. When he needed to be tough, he could be brutally honest and blunt but almost always did so in a calm demeanor.

Many of Shero's hockey philosophies that were once revolutionary - coaching a specifically structured system (which he codified in writing), a variety of practice drills he introduced or borrowed from Soviet hockey, the introduction of the game day morning skate, the hiring of full-time assistant coaches, the belief that hockey knowledge was not limited to Canada and that top European players (and coaches) had the fortitude to compete successfully in the National Hockey League -became widely accepted within his lifetime.

However, other ideas of Shero's - such as reportedly approaching a female Swedish coach named Pia Grengman (later Pia Sterner after marrying Swedish hockey legend Ulf Sterner) in 1976 about the possibility of her becoming one of his assistant coaches - seem far-reaching even decades later.

Shero was undoubtedly an innovator but professed to dislike being called one. This stemmed from his desire to stay ahead of the competition and perhaps also from some suppressed frustration at having been passed over for NHL coaching opportunities for many years until the Flyers finally gave him his long-awaited opportunity.

"When someone who was always called a kook starts being called an innovator, it means he's not being very innovating anymore," Shero said in 1975.

Quiet, studious and tough
Born October 23, 1925 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Frederick Alexander Shero was one of eight children born to Alexander and Emilia Shero. His grandparents were German but fled to czarist Russia to escape religious persecution. Later, his parents emigrated from Russia to Canada for the same reason, settling in Winnipeg. Even in Canada, the family could not entirely escape discrimination. Alexander Shero, a highly skilled carpenter, struggled to find work because of prejudice against foreigners.

As a youth, Fred Shero was extremely shy to the point of seeming almost withdrawn. He would hide under his bed when people came to the house and would often walk far out of the way to avoid people he recognized. Among other children, he made few friends but was a good student and caused little trouble for his parents.

"I'd say I was a minus-five as far as personality," Shero self-effacingly admitted to the Philadelphia Inquirer's Skip Myslenski.

As he grew up, Shero discovered two great loves: hockey and books. He took quickly to playing the game and displayed both skill and toughness, eventually growing to 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds (which was not considered small for that era). Off the ice, he was a voracious reader, and not just about hockey.

He read extensively on a variety of different topics, including history, philosophy, classic literature (both English and Russian) and the law. Later in life, he would periodically threaten to quit hockey to pursue a career as a lawyer. Although he did not graduate, Fred attended the University of Winnipeg for two years before serving in World War II and playing professional hockey. Later in life, he took pre-law courses from Osgoode Hall in Toronto.

Fred was not the only athletically inclined member of his family. The family's youngest child, Doris Shero (who later married former Chicago Black Hawks hockey player Steve Witiuk), excelled at baseball and played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League for the Racine Belles. Doris, who passed away in 2014 at age 84, is featured in the Women in Baseball permanent exhibit at the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY.

Determined to take care of himself physically if harassed by bullies, Shero took up boxing at age 13 in addition to playing hockey. During World War II, Fred Shero served in the Royal Canadian Navy. While in the military, Shero was a lightweight and middleweight boxing champion.

For most of his professional hockey playing career, Shero toiled in various minor leagues. However, he did make it to the National Hockey League, playing 145 games for the New York Rangers as a defensive defenseman. He retired as an active in 1958 to pursue a coaching career, which lasted uninterrupted until the 1980/1981 season.

Shero met his future wife, Mariette, a French-Canadian, in 1958 while she was working in a pharmacy and he was a player for the minor league Shawinigan Falls Cataracts in the Quebec Hockey League.

On their first date, he professed his love for her and declared he was going to marry her. Thereafter, he rarely made such open statements of affection to his wife or children but they were happily married for 32 years. Mariette's outgoing, sweet, practical and motherly nature balanced off her esoteric and introverted husband.

 "Mariette knows I love her," Shero said in Jack Chevalier's Broad Street Bullies. "I know women like to hear it but I feel like I'm [appeasing] when I say it."

Explained Mariette on many occasions, "If you could look inside Freddie's brain, you'd find a miniature hockey rink."

The couple had two children, Jean-Paul and Rejean (Ray). While he was not one to dote, Fred was proud of both of his sons and privately reveled in their success, especially academically. He also frequently invited his sons to come to the rink on mornings when there was no school. Above all, the thing he wanted the most for his sons was to pursue their passions wholeheartedly. If asked for fatherly advice, he gave it thoughtfully.
 
"My dad wasn't the warm-and-fuzzy kind of parent but my brother and I always knew he was in our corner no matter what," Ray Shero said to TSN in 2012.

Shero, who had a propensity for exaggeration or put-ons in retelling stories, told Chevalier in The Broad Street Bullies that during his early coaching days with the Flyers, Jean-Paul used to cheer for the opposition and holler "Fire the coach!" from the stands, adding, "He never said hello to me in 10 years. Usually, he gave me a dirty look and that's all."

Said Shero, "I think he had it in his head that I considered him a nothing because he isn't an athlete But he's a real good student, a terrific statistician and he reads everything about sports. He said, 'Hello, daddy' during the Finals [in 1974] and I found out he was rooting for us against Boston It was the happiest day in my life."

A Winner Wherever He Coached
Prior to getting his first NHL coaching opportunity with the Philadelphia Flyers in 1971, Shero coached four minor league championship teams and three squads that lost in the final round of the playoffs. During his stint with the Flyers, the team won consecutive Stanley Cups in 1974 and 1975 and reached the Finals again in 1976. Later, he coached the New York Rangers to the 1979 Stanley Cup Finals.

Shero was among of the NHL's first "systems" coaches, who stressed very specific methods of breakouts, forechecks and puck support. While he was not the very first, he was perhaps the first to codify it in writing in what became known among his players as the "Shero Bible." There were 16 primary points, although they were not the full extent of the system:

  • Never go offside on a 3-on-2 or a 2 on 1.
  • Never go backwards in our end except on a power play. Passing backwards in our end to a teammate to elude opposition is okay.
  • Never throw a puck out blindly from behind their net.
  • Never pass diagonally in our zone unless 100% certain.
  • Wings on wings between Blue-Lines except when able to intercept a stray pass.
  • Second man go all the way for a rebound.
  • Defense with puck at opponent's Blue-Line-Look four places before shooting.
  • Wing in front of opponent's net must face the puck and lean on stick.
  • Puck carrier over center with no one to pass to and no skating room must shoot in in (Power Play also).
  • No forward must ever turn his back to the puck at any time, know where the puck is at all times. Only defensemen are allowed to turn their back for a fraction of a second on a swing to the corner in our end.
  • No player allowed to position himself more than two zones away from puck.
  • Never allow men in our defensive zone to be outnumbered.
  • Delayed penalty, puck carrier looks for extra man at center ice. Extra man responsible for covering opponent's goalie. (Let each other know goalie's responsibility).
  • Opponent's penalty almost up-who's [communication] responsibility? Goaltender.
  • Backchecking (2 on 2) or 1 on 1 even on power play, pick up trailer. No trailer come in behind defense.
  • Two men in forechecking, responsibilities of third man [play higher to help defensively].

Every player on his team received two copies of the Shero Bible; a larger one for his locker and a wallet-sized one to carry around for reference.

The former defenseman also preached other principles to the team's blueliners when it came to coverages. While it was OK to assist to prevent an outnumbered situation, he wanted his defensemen to be aware of their surroundings at all times.

"Generally speaking, when both defensemen end up on the same side, bad things are going to happen. Be aware of who the dangerous man really is," Shero counseled.

Shero was also the first NHL coach to hire a full-time non-playing assistant coach, Mike Nykoluk. Later, he added a second assistant coach after the retirement of Barry Ashbee.

"All coaches want help but they're afraid to ask for it," Shero told Chevalier. "They don't want to admit to management that they're not God."

In 1976, when Shero was considered - but not selected - to coach Team Canada at the Canada Cup tournament, he approached female Swedish coach Pia Grengman, a fellow devotee of famed Russian hockey innovator Anatoli Tarasov whom he'd met during a coaching symposium in Moscow, about the possibility of serving as one of his assistant coaches. When the overwhelmingly qualified Shero was not picked to coach the Canadian side in the international tournament, it was rumored (although never proven) that his wish to have Grengman as an assistant coach was the final straw for staid Canadian hockey officials who already viewed Shero as a maverick despite his many successes.

As a coach, Shero was a firm believer in what he called the P-and-R principle: patience and repetition. Part of Shero's success was the way he constantly stressed the importance of his role players as well as the team's starts.

Shero believed, for example, that the things Bob "the Hound" Kelly did to create energy for the team in limited ice time was every bit as important to winning as the goals that Rick MacLeish or Reggie Leach scored. Shero repeated that message time and time again, and he got his players believe it.

The Broad Street Bullies era Flyers took tremendous pride in performing whatever their assigned duties were on the club. In the meantime, Shero constantly encouraged players to work on improving their weaknesses. He understood that many players only enjoy practicing the areas at which they excelled and took note of those who were and were not willing to step outside of their comfort zone.

Shero's Flyers had three Hall of Fame players and no shortage of skill, but it was the way Shero got the team to embrace the unglamorous parts of the game -- board work, team defense, puck support and puck discipline -- that was the crux of their success in five-on-five play. The goaltending of Bernie Parent and a strong penalty kill (an absolute necessity given the sheer number of times the team had to play shorthanded) gave the team the confidence to be the marauders of the NHL.

Take away Fred Shero and there are probably no back-to-back Flyers' Stanley Cup championships, three straight trips to the Finals and no resounding victory over CSKA Moscow. Without Shero's system, would Parent have had nearly as much as success in his second stint playing for the Flyers? If not for Shero having had so much success, would a fellow maverick coach such as Hall of Famer Roger Neilson ever have gotten the opportunity to take somewhat similar methods to Shero's one step further at the NHL level?

Shero believed in an us-versus-them approach to coaching, and the fact that everyone from Clarence Campbell to the New York and Canadian media detested the Flyers was actually something that Shero and his players embraced.

Behind the scenes, Shero could sometimes be a pain in the neck to Ed Snider and Keith Allen, particularly during the off-seasons. To their credit, Flyers management usually went along with Shero's seemingly off-the-wall requests and learned that his annual threats to quit were usually not serious until the very end when he left to accept the New York Rangers' head coach and general manager jobs while still under contract to the Flyers.

Ultimately, an agreement was worked out. Shero was permitted to take the Rangers' job and, in return, the Flyers received the Rangers' 1978 first-round draft pick (Ken Linseman) and cash as compensation.
 
When it came to self-care, Shero was a bundle of contradictions. He chain-smoked and, during portions of his life, sometimes drank excessively (and often alone). He gave players leeway to make their own judgements on the road. However, he also firmly recognized the importance of his players being in good physical condition; a relatively rarity in the mid-1970s in an era where a significant minority of hockey players were in similar shape to baseball players or even bowlers.

Shero could be blunt with players, but those who played under him are hard pressed to remember a time he raised his voice in anger.

"Freddie didn't yell. He didn't have to," Don Saleski recalls. "But I played for coaches who thought that yelling louder was the way to get guys to play better."

Typically, Shero was more comfortable addressing a group of players than speaking one-on-one. He communicated largely through his written messages --which generally stressed hard work and commitment, boldness, inspiration or were simply offbeat humor with no particular meaning other than lightening the mood.

Student of Soviet Hockey
Shero's proudest personal accomplishment, apart from his two Stanley Cup championships, came in a single match: On January 11, 1976, the Flyers defeated CSKA Moscow (Red Army) by a 4-1 score at the Philadelphia Spectrum. This was a game in which Shero had long dreamed of participating, and he spent many years mentally and strategically preparing to coach.

Ray Shero said in 2008 that his late father never viewed the Flyers-CSKA game as a political statement. To the elder Shero, it was all about the hockey challenge of finding a way to defeat a system of play he'd studied and admired for many years.

A longtime member of Shero's Flyers teams, defenseman Joe Watson, agreed.

"No one in the NHL understood the Russian hockey better than Freddie," Watson said. "Freddie actually went over there to Russia [in the summers of 1973 and 1974]. He watched how they practiced and trained and played. He talked a lot about the things he picked up from them."

Shero was a devotee of the hockey philosophies of Anatoli Tarasov, "the Father of Soviet Hockey". For well over a decade leading up to the game against CSKA, Shero absorbed all he could read, observe and discuss about Russian-style hockey.
 
Even in the early 1970s, when the Iron Curtain was still firmly in place and travel between North America and the Soviet Union was difficult, Shero twice made trips during the NHL off-season to attend coaching clinics and to trade hockey-related ideas and observations with Viktor Tikhanov and other top Soviet hockey coaches and instructors.

One of the greatest thrills of Shero's life was meeting and even striking an unlikely friendship with Tarasov, who was seven years his senior. In a private audience between the Stanley Cup winning coach and the initial creator of the global hockey superpower, the two men developed great respect for each other.

As Shero later told the tale, the intended courtesy meeting became a full night of sharing bottles of vodka and comparing notes on their respective hockey philosophies. Even though neither man could speak more than a few words of the other's language, their drawings of ice diagrams and physical gestures bridged the barrier.

"It was a perfect friendship, because Tarasov spoke no English and neither did Freddie," joked hockey historian and statistician Bruce "Scoop" Cooper, alluding to Shero's famously taciturn nature and cryptic pronouncements.

Shero borrowed several ideas on practice methods and game tactics from the Soviets and adapted them to the NHL setting. For example, Shero brought back from Moscow a three-man passing drill which simultaneously utilized three pucks, rather than one. Much of the system that Shero drilled into his Stanley Cup champion Flyers was a combination of hand-picked North American and Soviet tactics from which Shero created his own set of rules.

Flyer wingers were required to stay on their assigned wing between the blue lines, except if they had a chance to intercept a stray pass from the opposition. No forward was allowed to turn his back to the puck at any time and the only time a defenceman was allowed to do so was to quickly swing to a defensive corner. Blind-centering passes in the offensive zone were forbidden.

Shero organized the team's defensive zone coverages to prevent the chance of being outnumbered, whether along the boards, in the slots, or up high. Diagonal passing in the defensive zone was forbidden as was skating the puck backward in the defensive end. It was acceptable for players to pass backwards in the defensive zone.

Where Shero disagreed the most strongly with the Soviets was his view on checking. Rather than relying on the sweep check, Shero encouraged his players to get a good angle on the opponent and take the body.

To prepare for the 1976 game against CSKA, Shero devised a plan to counterattack the Red Army's precision passing game. He instructed his team not to chase the puck and focus instead on protecting their blue line and bottling up the passing lanes. To avoid CSKA's deadly counter-attacks, Shero instructed his forwards to hold the puck as much as possible when they were in the Red Army's end of the ice.

The tactic worked. Philadelphia won 4-1 on the scoreboard and outshot CSKA by a 49-13 margin. The loss was the only one CSKA sustained during its tour of exhibition games against the top NHL clubs. Entering the contest, the Red Army was undefeated. CSKA had thumped the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden by a 7-3 score, played to a thrilling 3-3 tie at the Montreal Forum against the Canadiens and downed the Boston Bruins by a 5-2 count.

"Freddie said 'we'll show them a real Iron Curtain' before the game, and that's exactly what we did," Watson said.

Shero never made any secret of his deep admiration for European hockey in general and Soviet hockey in particular. As recounted in "The Broad Street Bullies," Shero was an ardent supporter of NHL teams becoming far more active in scouting and signing European talents.

"We should have more Europeans and Russians in the league," Shero told Chevalier. "But management [around the NHL] can't get it into their fat heads they're good enough to play. They always say, 'They lack this or they lack that.' What do they lack? Nothing, not even guts."

At Shero's insistence, the Flyers became one of the first NHL teams to employ a European scout (Adolph "Augie" Kukulowicz). It was also the Philadelphia organization that was the first NHL club to draft a Soviet-trained player - gifted but troubled and ill-fated Viktor Khatulev from Dinamo Riga - in the NHL Draft.

These off-ice measures did not bear on-ice fruit for the Flyers organization during Shero's career, but showed his foresight. Shero's early influence in laying groundwork for NHL acceptance of Europeans is a truer indicator of his legacy than the mistaken belief that Shero instructed "Flyers goons" to try and physically intimidate and taunt Börje Salming and other early European players in the League. While these incidents did take place, it was never at Shero's own demand.

In the latter stages of his coaching career, Shero had the opportunity to coach Swedish stars Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson during his stint with the New York Rangers. In 1978/1979, Hedberg led the team in scoring with 79 points in 80 games and Nilsson contributed 66 points in 59 games for a club that reached the Stanley Cup Finals for just the second time in a span of 29 years.

"I really enjoyed the speed and skill of the Swedish players I had with the Rangers," Shero told Hockey Digest in 1989. "I have been happy to see more European players come over and do well. I think it's good for the game."

Shero read extensively on coaching and motivational methods, both in the sporting realm and out

"The Russians have dry-land drills where they stickhandle on grass," Shero told Chevalier. "I've seen them skate while carrying a man on their backs."

Shero also learned from the way Russian trainers had their athletes run and skate obstacle courses, realizing that hockey players had to deke, twist, turn and tumble. He believed these exercises to be more valuable than running long distances in a straight line.

Walking Together Forever
Of the scores of messages that Shero wrote for his players on the dressing room chalkboard, his "win today and we walk together forever" inscription before Game Six of the 1974 Stanley Cup Final was the most famous and prophetic. Although more than 40 years have passed and the members of the team saw their subsequent lives take many different paths, they always maintained an indelible bond stemming from the team's back-to-back Stanley Cups.

Fred Shero passed away on Nov. 24, 1990 after years of declining health and a recovery from a 1983 bout with stomach cancer. His legacy was already secure even if he'd never been inducted into the Flyers Hall of Fame and, many years posthumously into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Every day at hockey rinks worldwide, coaches and teams put into practice things that Fred Shero either introduced or improved upon. As much as he disliked being called an innovator, that's exactly what he was throughout his life.

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