Joe Watson was an original Flyer, taken in the expansion draft of 1967. The defenseman spent 11 seasons on the blue line with the club and was a member of both Stanley Cup-winning teams.
Sometimes in life, things that seem like bad news at first turn out to be blessings in disguise. That was certainly the case when the Flyers selected me from the Boston Bruins in the NHL expansion draft in 1967.
I had just finished my NHL rookie year with the Bruins after spending most of three seasons in minor leagues. In these days, the Bruins were the worst team of the Original Six in the NHL, finishing last almost every year. But it was obvious there was a lot of talent in place and the Bruins were going to get a lot better in the near future.
I expected to be part of that future. I’d established myself as a regular starter during the 1966-67 season, and I was told that I was part of the team’s plans. So I was pretty confident that I’d still be a member of the Bruins come training camp. Instead, the Bruins left me exposed to the expansion draft, and protected several players I’d just beaten out.
|Joe Watson, a defenseman, skates with the puck during an early game at the Spectrum. (Flyers Archives) |
Back in those days, there weren’t too many players in the NHL who could afford to make hockey their year-round jobs – only the superstars. Most of us had to work summer jobs to supplement our incomes. In my case, I worked a summer job with the Public Works Department in my hometown of Smithers, British Columbia.
Well, one day I’m at work and one of my co-workers tells me he’d heard on the radio that I’d been selected by the newly created Flyers in the expansion draft. If I had a crystal ball to predict the future, I would have gone out and celebrated.
But at the time, the news felt like I’d just been speared in the gut. Concern isn’t even the right word to describe my emotions at the time – it was more like total depression. Here I was, 24 years old and starting from scratch with an expansion team that I knew nothing about except for the fact that it wasn’t likely to be a very good club.
Besides, I didn’t even know where Philadelphia was.
Harry Sinden, who was the Bruins coach at the time, later called me to explain that he didn’t think the team would lose me if they left me open to the draft. To be honest, I didn’t really view that as a compliment, and it didn’t make me feel any better.
I wasn’t in the best frame of mind when I got to the Flyers’ first training camp in Ontario. The Flyers weren’t offering me as much money as I’d hoped, and there was only one forward on our roster – Lou Angotti – who’d spent the entire 1966-67 season in the NHL. One of the few bright spots was the goaltending. The Flyers had picked Bernie Parent and Doug Favell from the Bruins in the expansion draft, and both guys – especially Bernie – were promising young goalies.
When I got to camp, I met up with another young defenseman who was in the same boat. Ed Van Impe had been chosen from the Chicago Blackhawks, and he was just as surprised and unhappy as I was. So we decided to leave camp together and hold out.
Bud Poile, who was the Flyers’ first general manager, wasn’t the type of guy you normally would want to mess around with. He had a temper and he was used to getting his way when he wanted something. When we told him we were leaving camp, he told us to take a drive and call him when we got to our destination. I’m sure he figured we’d come to our senses along the way, and get our butts back in camp.
Eddie and I drove to Erie, PA. Then I bought a plane ticket and went home to see my girlfriend. As Bud instructed, I called him when I got there. I told him I was back in British Columbia.
“You’re where?!” he shouted.
Bud proceeded to burn up the phone line screaming at me. There have been very few times in my life where I haven’t been able to get a word in edgewise, but this was one of those times. Holy smokes, was Bud mad!
Eddie and I stuck to our guns, and eventually we settled on new contracts with the Flyers. I got a three-year contract worth a total of $38,500. The only problem was that we missed almost all of training camp and the season was about to start.
Our first regular season game was played in Oakland against another one of the new teams – the Seals. It was miserably hot outside and I wasn’t quite in game shape yet. Neither was Eddie, and we were paired together on defense by coach Keith Allen. We both struggled, and the team as a whole didn’t have a great debut. We lost the game, 5-1.
|An image from the first game ever played at the Spectrum between the Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins. (Flyers Archives) |
The next game was two nights later in Los Angeles and we lost that one, too. This time, the score was 4-2. By this point, I was wondering if we’d have enough offensive firepower to beat even the other expansion clubs, much less the Original Six.
There were three days off until our next game, so we flew to Philadelphia. The next day had been proclaimed Philadelphia Flyers day in the City of Philadelphia. We were supposed to meet Mayor James Tate at City Hall and then have a parade down Broad Street to see the Spectrum for the first time. We rode in open convertibles.
But when we had our reception at City Hall, not only did the mayor not show up, we didn’t even get his top assistants or the City Representative. We got some guy who was way down in the pecking order, and had no idea who we were. I doubt he’d ever seen a hockey game in his life.
As for the parade, well, it was pretty humiliating. Maybe two dozen people stood and watched us, and most of them were construction workers on their lunch break. No one applauded or even waved – and a few of the folks already hated us before we’d even played a game at home.
There’d been rumors before Philadelphia got an NHL franchise that Baltimore would get a team. So one guy screamed at us as we went past, “You bums will be in Baltimore by December!”
Another guy stood there with his kid, giving us the finger. Then the kid flipped us the bird. Like father like son, eh?
The handful of guys from the original team who were around for our first Stanley Cup parade in 1974 – Bernie, Eddie, Dorny (Gary Dornhoefer), and myself – could appreciate just how much things changed in seven years. When we won the Cup, over two million people came out for the parade and each and every one of us was treated like a hero.
Another guy stood there with his kid, giving us the finger. Then the kid flipped us the bird. Like father like son, eh?" - Joe Watson
Anyway, getting back to that first day, we rode south down Broad Street and arrived at the Spectrum for our first practice. Wish I could say the place looked like a hockey palace, but the truth of the matter is that the place wasn’t even finished yet. There were guys still painting, and the fumes were pretty bad. Oh, and we didn’t have boards yet on the ice. They hadn’t been delivered yet, and there were workers installing seats. Just to keep those guys loose, we flipped a few pucks at ’em. I’ve got to say – they moved quicker than some of our players.
The practice was supposed to be open to the public with fans getting a chance to meet the players afterwards. Only problem is that there were two players to each fan, so it wasn’t much of a meet-and-greet.
But at least we were starting to feel more like a team. We flew out to St. Louis and won for the first time, 2-1. Dougie Favell outplayed Hall of Fame goaltender Glenn Hall and Ed Hoekstra broke a 1-1 tie in the third period.
The next day, October 19, we had our first-ever home game at the Spectrum. In those days, there wasn’t yet a third deck at the Spectrum. We drew an okay crowd (7,812) but there were still a lot of empty seats – again, a huge contrast to the full houses we played to every night a few years down the line.
|An original Flyer, Joe Watson was a member of both Stanley Cup teams. (Flyers Archives) |
We were introduced to the fans by Gene Hart, who actually started out as our public address announcer at the Spectrum before quickly moving to the broadcast booth. Gene pronounced everyone’s name right, even our guys with French-Canadian names like Rosaire Paiement and Jean Gauthier.
About half the people cheered the introductions. At least no one booed.
Then we had a ceremonial first faceoff, with NHL president Clarence Campbell (who later heard plenty of boos whenever he showed up during our Broad Street Bullies days, because we weren’t exactly his favorite club) dropping the puck in between our captain, Lou Angotti and Penguins captain, Ab McDonald.
The game got underway. The game was very defensive in nature, and the crowd was quiet. The loudest sound was Gene talking during stoppages of play to explain things like power plays, icings, and off-side calls. There weren’t a lot of shots on goal for either team (just 14 apiece through the opening 40 minutes), and we had to kill off four of the game’s first five penalties. Favell had no problem with the few shots he saw.
Early in the third period (at the 2:59 mark), the Penguins tried to clear the puck but we held it in the zone. A few seconds later, Bill Sutherland scored a rebound goal past Les Binkley, to give us a 1-0 lead. We held on the rest of the way to christen the Spectrum with our first win and our first shutout.
The rest of the year was filled with ups and downs – including a chunk of the roof blowing off the Spectrum in February 1968 and forcing us to travel around like vagabonds until it was finally repaired and the building reopened. But we gelled as a hockey team. We weren’t big or physical and we still didn’t score a lot of goals. We won by playing strong team defense and getting good goaltending.
We finished the season in first place in the Western Conference, and were the only expansion team to beat each of the Original Six at least once. In the first round of the playoffs, we met the St. Louis Blues, who were already emerging as our club’s first truly hated rival. The Blues, coached by Scotty Bowman, won a hard-fought seven game series. But our team had taken the first steps down the road to success.
I had no idea at the time that the Spectrum would become my home away from home, and I’d make my permanent residence in the Delaware Valley. I never could have imagined in those early days that, 41 years later, I’d still be working for the team. In fact, except for the short period of time I spent with the Colorado Rockies at the end of my NHL career, I’ve been part of the Flyers organization for virtually its entire existence.
When the Spectrum closes after this year, I know I’m going to have mixed feelings. That building holds a lot of special memories for me. All I can say is thank goodness it was the Flyers that took me in the expansion draft, and I wouldn’t have traded those years at the Spectrum for anything.