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Signs of the Times

by Bill Fleischman / Philadelphia Flyers

Except for those who sit near him in the Wachovia Center, few Flyers fans know his real name. He’s best known as “Sign Man." Known internationally, that is.

Since 1972, Dave Leonardi has been making Flyers fans smile with the signs he holds up during games. Occasionally, he produces smiles from opposing players. And on at least one occasion, he has annoyed NHL officials working a game.

Years ago, during a game at the Spectrum in which the Flyers thought they were getting short-changed by the officials, Leonardi displayed an eye chart for the officials. When linesman Matt Pavelich skated past Leonardi he said, “You’re a horsebleep artist, too.” Noted Leonardi: “He said horsebleep.”

Over the years, “Sign Man” has taken his place in Flyers lore. In a Hockey Hall of Fame “time capsule” for notable characters from the 1970s, Leonardi is mentioned with Derek Sanderson, Dave “Tiger” Williams, Don Cherry and Peter Puck. Impressive company, indeed…
Dave Leonardi, a.k.a. "Sign Man," in the 1970's. (Flyers Archives)

Sign Man

Here’s Leonardi’s top-10 list of favorite signs, with his comments:
10. Asham Smash'em: for Arron Asham after a goal or fight.

9. Start the Bus: as the Flyers are close to clinching a victory.

8. Conn Smythe Keith: for Keith Primeau’s great playoff series vs. Pittsburgh and Tampa in 2004.

7. BC Superstar: for Bob Clarke, in the 1970's.

6. Have a Nice Summer: ending an opponent’s playoff hopes.

5. Ref Chart: copy of an eye chart that reads, as the letters get smaller with each line – “bad call, you’re hopeless.”

4. TKO Schultz: could be used once or twice a game for Dave Schultz in the 70's.

3. Tell It to the Czar: probably the most remembered sign from the Soviets leaving the Spectrum ice in January 1976 and best remembered, along with "Bring on the Martians."

2. (tie) Illka Scorra Goalla, Kerr-Plunk and Snap, Crackle, Propp: the most popular from the 80's. Brian Propp asked for the sign and my autograph a few years ago. He has the sign in his office, beat up as it was from much use.

1. Next Goalie: one of the first from the 70's, best used when a goal is scored after the first goalie was replaced, but good to use any time; I also have it in French and Russian.)?

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Among Leonardi’s favorites for current players is “Generation Jeff”, for Jeff Carter. “I was watching a Flyers game was on Versus,” Leonardi recalled, “and the intro was how the Flyers are a new generation and Jeff Carter is leading the team. I thought `Generation Jeff’ might be a good sign. He’s generating goals and points.”

Leonardi traveled to Pittsburgh last year for the first two games of the Flyers-Penguins Eastern Conference finals. After noticing that Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury skates back and forth and then does a spin during stoppages, Leonardi created a “Spin like a ballerina” sign that he displayed back in Philly.
After the Penguins won Game 3 of the series at the Wachovia Center, some Pittsburgh players pointed at Leonardi and smiled mockingly. With Game 5 in Pittsburgh and the Penguins leading the series 3-1, following Game 4 Leonardi held up a “See you Tuesday” (for Game 6) sign. Several Penguins shook their heads no. They were correct: the Pens won the series in five games.
Leonardi brings about 100 signs to each game. He has about 300 more at home in the Trenton area. Each sign is 19-by-22-inches. Some of his sign ideas are derived from listening to what the fans say. “I think the signs have been accepted because they reflect what most people are thinking,” he said.
Leonardi displays one of his favorite signs. (Getty Images)

Leonardi’s sign routine has attracted the attention of television networks and brought him in close contact with such hockey greats like Bobby Orr. During the 1979 Stanley Cup finals matching Montreal and the Fred Shero-coached New York Rangers, Leonardi had done some work for “Hockey Night in Canada.” He was sleeping on the couch in a “Hockey Night” suite in a hotel near Madison Square Garden. One morning, Orr arrived for a production meeting. Leonardi heard someone say, “Sign Man, wake up.” Looking up, Leonardi saw Orr. “I thought, `I’m being awakened by Bobby Orr,’" Leonardi said.
For the next game, Leonardi was in the TV booth with Orr and play-by-play man Dick Irwin. This was exactly five years after the Flyers defeated the Orr-led Boston Bruins for their first Stanley Cup championship. Leonardi handed Irwin a note reading “ask Bobby what he was doing five years ago today.” When Irwin asked Orr on the air he replied, “I probably was in Philadelphia.”

After Tim Kerr pummeled Los Angeles defenseman Mark Hardy on the ice in front of Leonardi in the early 1980s, he held up a sign reading “Isn’t this fun?” The next day, Leonardi saw a photo of Hardy in a newspaper in which the player’s face was bloody. “I couldn’t see that side of his face when I held up the sign,” Leonardi said.

A few years later, Leonardi was invited to a Molson-sponsored slow-pitch tournament for NHL teams in Niagara Falls, Canada. “One night,” Leonardi said, “I’m in the Molson suite and this guy says, `You’re Sign Man.’ It was Hardy. I apologized, telling him I didn’t see the blood when I held up the sign. He started laughing. He said all the L.A. players had newspaper copies with the photo. They made sure a copy of the photo was on his locker all season. The next time Hardy and the Kings played at the Spectrum, Leonardi greeted him with a “Welcome back” sign.
Leonardi, 60, is a teacher by trade. From 1970 to ’84 he taught history and geography in the Willingboro, New Jersey schools. Then he was an adjunct professor at Trenton State (now the College of  New Jersey). He continues to teach geography as an adjunct at the northeast campus of the Community College of New Jersey.
I’m just having fun with 19,000 of my friends.” - Dave Leonardi

His wife, Lorie, was a math teacher. Now, they are in their 22nd year running Skier News, a 70,000-circulation tabloid that is distributed quarterly to 1,800 ski shops around the nation. Dave’s the publisher, Lorie is the editor.

Lorie and Dave attended a Flyers game on their wedding day in 1982. Lorie wore her wedding dress and Dave wore a tuxedo.

How long does Leonardi plan to keep “Sign Man” as a presence at Flyers games? “I want to do it for 50 years,” he replied. “That would be some bizarre sports accomplishment.

"I’m just having fun with 19,000 of my friends.”

Please note that the views expressed in this column are not necessarily the views expressed by the Philadelphia Flyers Hockey Club.

Bill Fleischman is a veteran Philadelphia Daily News sportswriter. He was the Flyers' beat reporter for the Daily News in the 1970s, and continued to cover games in later years. A former president of the Professional Hockey Writers and the Philadelphia Sports Writers Associations, Fleischman is co-author of "Bernie, Bernie," the autobiography of Bernie Parent. Fleischman also is co-author of "The Unauthorized NASCAR Fan Guide." Since 1981, he has been an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware journalism program.
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