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Spectrum Memories: Brian Propp

by by Brian Propp as told to Bill Meltzer | / Philadelphia Flyers
Throughout this season various Flyers alumni will give their accounts of their favorite memories of the Spectrum to contributing writer Bill Meltzer, as the building enters its final year of existence.

Brian Propp was drafted by the Flyers in the first round of the 1979 NHL Entry Draft, and spent 11 seasons with the club. A five-time NHL all-star, Propp is second all-time in Flyers history in goals (369) and third in points (849).

One thing I learned in my 15 years in the National Hockey League is that every role is important on a team. My main role happened to be scoring goals, which is something I absolutely loved to do.

But if I hadn’t been surrounded by truly outstanding teammates, and played for some very good coaches, my own success wouldn’t have been possible. In hockey, it’s all about paying attention to all the little details that go into scoring goals and winning games. Unless everyone’s doing it, it’s not going to work.
Brian Propp (far right) was drafted by the Flyers in the first round of the 1979 NHL Entry Draft. (Flyers archives)

During my 10-plus seasons as a Flyer, the teams did a lot of winning. It was expected that everyone play their role and support one another. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be around for too long.

* * *

The 1979 NHL draft was delayed by a couple months. Rather than being held in June, it was held in August. That might have bothered some guys – although in those days, the draft wasn’t like it is today, where everyone attends. Back then, you found out where you were going when you got a phone call from the team after the draft. In my case, it really didn’t bother me at all.

I knew I was probably going to get taken pretty early in the draft, and there really wasn’t much of a big deal made about it where I lived. I’m originally from a tiny little Saskatchewan farming community called Neudorf. My father was a minister. I just went about my business that summer working on a farm and didn’t even really think too much about where I’d get drafted.

But when I found out the Flyers had picked me in the first round (14th overall), I was happy. The Flyers had won two Stanley Cups and I knew they still had a good team. What’s more, I was told that I’d have a chance to compete for an NHL spot right away. I couldn’t have asked for more than that.

When I got to camp, I wasn’t intimidated by the hockey part of things. The Flyers’ coach, Pat Quinn, reminded me a lot of my former coach, Dunc McCallum.

Like Dunc, Pat was a big rugged defenseman in his playing days. And he was very good about describing the system and letting it be known what he wanted me to do. Pat paid a lot of attention to detail, so things like breakouts from the defensive zone and other parts of a system that can give new players trouble were made clear quickly. 
When I found out the Flyers had picked me in the first round, I was happy. The Flyers had won two Stanley Cups and I knew they still had a good team. What’s more, I was told that I’d have a chance to compete for an NHL spot right away. I couldn’t have asked for more than that." - Brian Propp

What took a little more time was getting acclimated to a big metropolitan area like Philadelphia than in the small towns of Western Canada. Of course, Philly is also a real big sports town, and there’s pretty intense scrutiny in the press. Talking to the media took some getting used to as a young player. But the Flyers fans were great.

At my first training camp, Bob Kelly took me under his wing. He’d been with the team for 10 years, and he really helped me feel like a part of the team. Kelly’s a guy who is always joking around, but he was very serious about hockey and about winning.

By the time we were ready for opening night of the season at the Spectrum, I felt pretty confident that we were going to have a good team. There were lots of other talented players around me, up and down the roster: Bobby Clarke, Bill Barber, Reggie Leach, Kenny Linseman, Paul Holmgren, Rick MacLeish, Mel Bridgman.

I mean, how could I not feel confident with a group like that?  There was a lot of talent and leadership in one locker room. But like any player, I was nervous on the day I made NHL debut on October 11, 1979.

First of all, the Spectrum was packed with a sellout crowd and they’re all screaming their heads off when we’re introduced. Secondly, I’ve been tabbed to start the season on a line with Clarke and Leach. And finally, the opponent was a New York Islanders team loaded with outstanding talent at every position.

Our goalie in the first game was veteran Phil Myre. The Islanders started Billy Smith, who was basically Ron Hextall before Hexy came around. Smith was ultra-competitive on the ice, maybe even a little crazed at times. But he was also a tremendous goaltender who thrived in big-game situations.

My nervousness subsided a little bit once the puck was dropped and the game got underway. The pace of the NHL game was faster than what I was used to seeing in junior hockey, but I thought that was exciting. It was the type of tempo I loved to play.

I remember that the first period of the game was pretty evenly played. The teams were feeling each other out a little bit. We scored first, on a Rick MacLeish power play goal midway through the period. The game held that way until the end of the first period.

In the second period, we came out storming. Barely a minute and a half into the period, Paul Holmgren redirected a puck past Smith to give us a 2-0 lead. On the next shift, I’m out with Clarke and Leach.

Clarkie went into the corner and outworked one of the Islanders’ players for the puck. In the meantime, I slipped into the slot. Clarke was one of the game’s all-time great playmakers, so he knew where I was without me having to call for the puck. He slid a nice pass over to me and I beat Smith to make it a 3-0 game.

For the first time in my career, public address announcer Lou Nolan said, “Flyers goal scored by number 26, Brian Propp!”   

The Spectrum crowd went nuts, mostly because of the quick back-to-back goals but also because they’d heard a lot about me after the draft as a guy who could come in and score goals for the team. It was a great feeling, but there was still a lot of hockey yet to be played.

Not even 45 seconds after my goal, our fourth line scored to make it 4-0. Al Hill scored this one, and now the crowd was absolutely delirious. Moments later, Smith slammed his goalie stick against the crossbar, and the crowd took the noise up even higher.

Usually when a game starts to get out of hand, the team that’s trailing will do whatever it can to change the momentum. So it wasn’t a surprise when Bobby Nystrom of the Islanders – a real tough customer – dropped the gloves with Flyers defenseman Frank Bathe, who certainly wasn’t shy about accommodating anyone who wanted a scrap.
Brian Propp does his infamous "guffaw" after a goal at the Spectrum. (Flyers archives)

After that, the Islanders got their footing again and the rest of the period was pretty even. We had to kill off three straight penalties, but we got back to the locker room with a 4-0 lead. We knew we just had to play smart the rest of the way, and the game was ours.

We didn’t really get the start we wanted in the third period. The Islanders got the better of the play early and Mike Bossy – one of the game’s all-time great scorers – got his team on the board. That’s where having so much veteran leadership on our club paid off.

Our next shift was a real good one. Clarke and I were able to get in deep and pin New York in on the forecheck. One of the Islanders threw the puck blindly around the boards and Bob Dailey held it in at the blue line. Dailey was a guy with a huge shot, so when he didn’t score, he often created rebound opportunities.

I nearly scored my second of the game off a Dailey rebound, but the puck hopped up on its edge at the last instant and I wasn’t quite able to corral it.

Late in the game, the Islanders finally scored again (Hall-of-Famer Bryan Trottier) with 4:46 left on the clock. That didn’t leave much time for a comeback, but it didn’t really matter anyway because Tom Gorence got the goal right back for us to restore the three-goal lead. That’s how the game ended – we won by a 5-2 score.

Afterwards, I got the puck from my first goal. I might still have it somewhere, but to be honest, I’ve given away a lot of my hockey mementos to relatives and friends and I’m not really sure if I still have that one.  Hey, I was a hockey player – not a museum curator!

At any rate, while I knew right from the start I’d enjoy my first season in the NHL, I never figured we’d go on to set an all-time record by going 35 games without a loss later that season. After starting the year on Clarke’s line, I settled onto a line with Kenny Linseman and Paul Holmgren. We were called the “Rat Patrol,” because Linseman’s nickname was The Rat.

I scored 34 goals and had 75 points that year, so I was pretty satisfied with my production as a rookie. We took first place easily in the Patrick Division, with 118 points and a record of 27-5-8 at the Spectrum. Every single night, we expected to win, and that makes it fun to come to the rink every day.

The most important thing is that we made it to the Stanley Cup Finals. We lost in a very tough and controversial series to those very same Islanders we started the season against, and that was tough to swallow. But looking back at my first year on the whole, I had a truly amazing introduction to Philadelphia and the Spectrum.
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