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Step by Step: The Flyers career of Jim Watson

by Bill Meltzer / Philadelphia Flyers

STEP-BY-STEP: THE CAREER OF JIM WATSON 

FROM SMITHERS TO THE BIG CITY  |  IMMEDIATE NHL IMPACT  |  WE'LL DO IT AGAIN

THE FLYERS SECRETARY OF DEFENSE  |  UNFORTUNATE INJURIES  |  STAYING CLOSE TO HOME

KEEPING AN EYE ON THE FLYERS


While Philadelphia Flyers rookie defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere or one of the highly touted prospects currently in the farm system may someday rewrite franchise history, five-time NHL All-Star and two-time Stanley Cup winner Jim Watson is the gold standard for prolonged success among homegrown Flyers defensemen.

On Feb. 29, 2016, prior to the Flyers game against the Calgary Flames, Watson will be inducted as the 25th member of the Flyers Hall of Fame. It’s a long overdue honor but one that is much deserved.

Ever since the announcement of his selection was made on June 30 of last year, the modest Watson has been surprised at the enthusiasm of the response.

“People have been coming up to me, constantly congratulating me. My typical response to them is that when this occurred I was overwhelmed with it, and still am somewhat,” Watson said.

“When I came to Philadelphia in 1972-73, my first year, all I wanted to do was make the hockey team. That was my goal and I worked so hard for that and all the things that occurred from that point on, and you don't go into this thinking you're going to get into the Hall of Fame, but good things happened.

“Overall it's just an absolute wonderful honor and I'm deeply appreciative of all of the support.”

Jim Watson got overlooked for many years for Flyers Hall of Fame not because his credentials were lacking but rather because his excellence was subtle – not born of gaudy offensive statistics but rather a steady two-way presence and leadership by example, game after game and year after year.

“Jimmy had an extremely high hockey IQ and was ultra-competitive. When these traits were combined with his mobility and puck skills, he seemed to be a step ahead of the play. Always thinking, always anticipating, always executing. He was fantastic to play with and not so much fun to play against,” said Bill Clement, a former teammate and opponent.

At 6-feet tall and 190-pounds, Jim Watson was a slightly bigger-than-average player for his era. Nowadays, he would be average to a little below average size. His two-way skills, however, would be adaptable to any time period.

“Jim could have played in any era, even today,” Joe Watson said. “Today, it’s a skating and finesse game with a lot of emphasis on puck possession. Jim was good at all those things. He was good without the puck, too. So he was a complete player.”

As a defender playing without the puck, Jim Watson was among the very best in the NHL. He was universally respected in the dressing room as someone who gave his all every shift, possessed a stellar work ethic, played through pain without making and excuses and, above all, cared only about team success and despised selfishness.

"Jimmy was a very good defenseman because of his tremendous skating ability and his hockey sense with and without the puck. The phrase - take away time and space was not used back when Jimmy played but that is what he did. Jimmy also had a great passion for the game and was an unbelievable teammate,” Paul Holmgren said.

In earning his induction into the Flyers Hall of Fame, Jim will join older brother and longtime teammate Joe Watson as the first sibling duo to earn the distinction.

“I am very proud of my brother, and I’m glad he’s being honored,” said Joe Watson. “I just wish it had happened years ago, while our mom and dad were still alive, but I’m glad it’s happening because Jim is deserving.”

In like manner, Jim Watson credits the influence his older brother has had on his life on and off the ice.

“I don't look at it that way [as the Watson being the first Flyers Hall of Fame siblings], but it's a tremendous honor. I just think of Joe, he was such a leader on our hockey team through all the success we had in that generation. Joe was a big, big leader on our team he was a real spiritual leader. He always brought a real strong effort,” Jim said.

“Joe was not maybe the best skater or most talented player, but he was always working real hard, and I think he inspired other players; including myself. To be alongside of him and be able to just share it with him [is special].

“I used to tag along with Joe as a kid, just at his bootstraps and just said ‘Joe, I wanna go with you. Where ya going now?’ and lo behold as we got older we got to be men and we played together, and to see this happen, all those memories come flooding back to you. Joe has been a big, big part of my life, of course my older brother and just a real leader in my life. It’s kind of like everything coming together, if you will, at the very end for us.”

FROM SMITHERS TO THE BIG CITY

James Charles Watson was born on August 19, 1952, in the tiny western Canadian hamlet of Smithers, British Columbia, which is nestled in the northwest corner of the province about 150 miles from the Alaska border. Even today, only 5,500 people reside in the town. In the early 1950s, the population was under 1,000.

Jim was one of six children, all boys, born to Mary and Joe Watson Sr.; Flyers Hall of Fame inductee Joe was the eldest son, followed by Fred, Steve, Jim, Glen and Jerry. To support the family, their father worked as a butcher in the winter and a logger in the summer.

Five of the six Watson sons played hockey. Glen later went on to coach junior hockey, while Joe and Jim played in a combined seven NHL All-Star games.

"Jerry was a really good player, too, but he was the last one to leave the nest. My parents got divorced and Jerry didn't want to leave Mom alone to go off playing hockey. So he stayed in Smithers," recalls Joe.

The Watson boys learned to play hockey outdoors. In Smithers, nearby Lake Kathlyn freezes from late October to mid-April, and the ice often becomes three feet thick as the temperatures plunge to 20 degrees below zero in the middle of winter. Before they joined organized leagues, the boys played makeshift games on the frozen lake. When they weren’t playing on ice, they were playing street hockey.

“When you think about it, we were just young kids playing hockey in northern British Columbia in a small little town playing on the ponds, the rinks in the back yard, and the lakes. Playing street hockey with tin cans, we didn't even have balls back then, we just had tin cans. All that stuff we did, taking tin cans in the face, getting stitches just because we’re playing street hockey with a piece of gravel hitting me from the blacktop, and just playing together,” Jim Watson recalls.

The Watsons, especially Joe, were also talented baseball players. Nine years younger than Joe, Jim tagged along with his older brother and was forced to play catcher, while star local athlete Joe threw fastballs as hard as he could into Jim's mitt. The sons grew up rooting for the Detroit Tigers in baseball and Detroit Red Wings in hockey.

At age 16, Joe left home to play junior hockey in Estevan, Saskatchewan and made his NHL debut for the Boston Bruins in 1964, earning a regular starting job the next season. He was then selected by the Flyers in the 1967 Expansion Draft.

Meanwhile, seven-year-old Jim stayed behind with the family in Smithers, following Joe's career through the newspaper, the radio and an occasional phone call. When he started playing organized hockey, Jim proved to be an even better prospect than Joe at the same age. Unlike Joe, Jim was a swift skater and, at the junior level, an occasionally dominant offensive player.

For a kid that came out of Smithers, BC, that's all I ever dreamt of being is a hockey player. That’s all I wanted to do was play in the NHL. If I didn’t make it in the NHL, I wanted to be a baseball player and make it in Major League Baseball. As I got a little older I kinda gravitated more towards hockey obviously. That's all I wanted to do, is play in the NHL and win a Stanley Cup,” Jim Watson recalls.

But Jim was unhappy with his play and a bit homesick when he joined the Calgary Centennials of the Western Canada Hockey League (WCHL). Big brother Joe came to the rescue.

“I thought about quitting hockey early in my junior career,” the younger Watson recounted in the Flyers' 1979-80 Yearbook. “Joe invited me to come visit Philadelphia to see what professional hockey was like and think about my future. It was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Jim returned to Calgary with renewed vigor. He went on to earn Best Defenseman Honors in the WCHL during the 1971-72 season. Expected to be a top-end selection in the 1972 NHL Entry Draft, the player inexplicably slid to the third round, 39th overall, when the Flyers selected him. He was disappointed to slip so far in the draft, but excited by the prospect of joining Joe on the same NHL team.

Spurning an offer to play in the WHL, Jim accepted Joe's offer to negotiate his first pro contract on the younger brother's behalf. After one year of seasoning in the American Hockey League with the Richmond Robins, during which time he earned a four-game call up to the big club, Jim Watson became a Philadelphia Flyer – and Philadelphian – for life.

IMMEDIATE NHL IMPACT

Common hockey wisdom has it that young defensemen require three or four years to come into their own at the professional level. In many ways, defense is a more demanding position than forward. This is especially true in Philadelphia, where sports fans often have little patience for waiting out a young player's growing pains.

Jim Watson never really played like a rookie. He brought remarkable poise and intelligence to the Flyers' defensive corps right off the bat. Sure, he simplified his game and deferred to experienced partner Ed Van Impe in the early days, but Watson displayed exceptional poise right from the outset.

Ever the team-oriented player, Watson to this day deflects credit for his own success to the caliber of teammates with whom he played in Philadelphia.

“I was with a really good organization and really good players, and great coaches. I mean it’s really that simple. Of course I worked very hard at it. Low and behold, here we are.

I'm going into the Hall of Fame. So I'm somewhat overwhelmed,” Watson says.

“The first thing that comes to my mind is I think of my teammates who aren't in the Hall of Fame. That’s the first thing you think about. There are so many really good players that I played with that are in but a lot of them that are not in, and I think of them and how good they were and how much they contributed. That’s what I tend to think about.”

The younger Watson's skills and excellent work ethic quickly earned him the trust of head coach Fred "The Fog" Shero and his teammates. In his rookie campaign of 1973-74, Jim had an excellent +33 defensive rating for the Western Division champions, to go along with a respectable 20 points in 78 games. In the playoffs, he stepped up his aggressiveness, compiling 41 penalty minutes (he had only 44 the entire regular season) and played increased minutes after All-Star defenseman Barry Ashbee sustained a career-ending eye injury in the semifinals against the New York Rangers.

On the afternoon of Game Six of the Stanley Cup Finals against Boston, Joe Watson Sr. was on-hand to witness his son compete for hockey's ultimate prize. He endured a 33-hour bus ride from Smithers to Vancouver to Denver, followed by a flight to Philadelphia. A colorful character with a heavy beard, the elder Watson loudly bragged about both of his sons to anyone in earshot.

Down on the ice, Jim and Joe did yeoman work helping goaltender Bernie Parent to protect the team's skinny 1-0 over the Bruins. As the final seconds ticked off the clock and jubilant fans mobbed the ice, the first player Jim embraced was fellow young defenseman Tom Bladon.

Overcome with emotion, Watson uttered the words "Can you believe it? Can you believe it?" repeatedly. Jim and Joe then met up with their father in the triumphant Flyers locker room.

As he arrived back in the locker room, Jim found himself still pondering what just happened.

“For goodness sakes, as a rookie I win the Stanley Cup. I'll never forget sitting in the locker room after winning the Stanley Cup, and I could hardly believe what had occurred. I never forgot that and I never will. It was like,’ What did we just accomplish here? What did I just do? ‘I've got to grasp all this,” Watson recounts.

“As time evolved I grasped more of it, but it was like, my God, a dream came true. Not only making the NHL, but then winning a Stanley Cup. What does that mean to me? It means everything to me. That's what I strive to do. This is what I wanted to do. And I was able to attain two of my goals within a year's time.”

WE'LL DO IT AGAIN

For many players who win the Stanley Cup as a rookie, there is nowhere to go but down. Jim Watson didn’t see it that way.

“I went home that summer and people said, ‘Oh my goodness, Jim, you made the NHL and won a Stanley Cup in your rookie year. What are you going to do for an encore’? And I said we're going to do it again. And lo and behold, we won it again!” Watson said with a chuckle.

The next season, Watson played a major role as the Broad Street Bullies successfully defended the Stanley Cup. He had 25 points and a +41 rating, earning his first trip to the NHL All-Star Game.

He also scored seven goals that season and made every one of them count. Two were game-winners. One was the first goal of the game in an important match against the defensively stingy Chicago Blackhawks. Two more gave the Flyers the lead at the time Watson scored them. Another tied the score late in the third period. The seventh was a shorthanded goal that gave the Flyers a 3-1 second period lead over the New York Islanders.

But Jim Watson cared only about wins and losses, not statistics. Although he was an above-average skater and an excellent passer with good offensive instincts, Jim only jumped into the offense when the team was desperate for a goal. While he only scored 38 career regular season goals and five in the playoffs, Watson's knack for coming through in the clutch continued throughout his career.

“That was something about Jimmy, he could do whatever you needed him to do, and it was all about winning,” said Bob “the Hound” Kelly. “He was a winner and he was a team player. Stats? The hell with stats. Ask anyone who played with him or against him. He was a winner.”

THE FLYERS SECRETARY OF DEFENSE

Often times in hockey, will beats skill. Jim Watson had skill, but where he really stood out from his NHL defense peers – even some who had equal or better natural talent – was in his single-minded will to win and hatred of losing. He understood that preventing the other team from scoring and then getting the puck up to the forwards gave his teams the best chance to win.

In 1975-76, Jim Watson had the best offensive year of his career, tallying 36 points and earning his second trip to the All-Star Game. He was also honored with a starting job for Team Canada at the 1976 Canada Cup tournament and played extremely well until he was knocked out of the lineup by a fractured cheekbone, sustained after a slapshot from Team USA forward Gary Sargent hit Watson flush in the face. He made it back to the Flyers in time for opening night of the 1976-77 season.

Jim had no interest in trying to better his offensive output from the previous year. He knew his main job was to prevent goals, not score them. If Garry Maddox was the Philadelphia Phillies' "Secretary of Defense," Jim Watson was his hockey counterpart.

Paired first with Van Impe and later with Andre "Moose" Dupont, Watson routinely posted staggering plus/minus totals throughout his career, including a +41 rating in 1974-75, a +65 the next year and a +53 in 1979-80.

Equally important was Watson's burgeoning leadership and ability to play top-notch hockey through serious injuries. Whenever the Flyers locker room fell uncharacteristically silent, the younger Watson brother rallied the troops with an enthusiastic, "Let's go, boys! We can do it, we can do it!" But if a player stepped out of line or gave less-than-maximum effort, Watson never hesitated to put him in his place.

“When I look at the leadership we had, that's what I immediately look to, and the great leader we had in Bobby Clarke. Bobby was not only in my opinion one of the best leaders ever in hockey, but also in all of sports. Bobby didn’t always do it by talking. He talked whenever he had to, but Bobby did it by example. He was always the hardest working guy in practice, always worked extremely hard in practice and I watched that. I learned from that. He really led me in that way. I used to see him in the locker room before games, and he'd be half dressed two hours before the game, and he'd be sitting in there getting himself focused to play. I would watch that and that really helped me in my career,” Watson recounted.

“He's not the only one. Guys like my brother Joe, and Billy Barber and Rick McLeish, Terry Crisp, Ed Van Impe, and the great Moose Dupont. Go right down the line. Dave Schultz; Davey gave us a lot of courage and character. Donny Saleski, Orest Kindrachuk, all of these guys. My buddy Tommy Blazon on the backhand there with Eddie. We all kind of realized what we had and we wanted to take advantage of the opportunity, because we knew it wasn't always going to be there for us. The great leadership we had by those people I mentioned, and really a lot of leadership by a lot of people, but primarily by Bobby.”

By now, people knew Jim as far more than Joe's kid brother. He was the undisputed leader of the Flyers' defense corps, and one of the most highly respected defensemen in the National Hockey League.

Watson personified two-way excellence, season after season, and began to earn widespread recognition throughout hockey. Hitting the prime of his career, Watson went back to the NHL All-Star Game in 1976-77, 1977-78 and 1979-80. He also won the Barry Ashbee Trophy as the Flyers' best defenseman in both 1975-76 and 1977-78.

In the 1978-79 season, with most of the Broad Street Bullies nucleus gone and the roster in flux, Watson accepted a more active offensive role and scored a career-high nine goals. Two were scored shorthanded. The next year, Watson and Dupont provided stability to an inexperienced defensive corps and anchored the backline during the Flyers' record-setting 35-game unbeaten streak.

UNFORTUNATE INJURIES

Injuries started to pile up for Jim in his mid-20s. First, during the 1976-77 season, he suffered permanent retinal damage after an inadvertent high stick by Jerry Butler of the St. Louis Blues caught him in the eye. Two years later, he had mid-season elbow surgery.

Subsequently, Watson played through a separated shoulder and postponed surgery long enough to help the team reach the sixth game of a heartbreaking Stanley Cup Finals loss to the New York Islanders.

Even more seriously, Jim played through back problems that plagued him off and on from the time he was 18. At the time, the teenaged Watson injured his back lifting a heavy water pipe while working a summer job with the water company near his hometown. The back was never the same again and later developed into a degenerative disc condition. By the early 1980s, the pain was a chronic problem.

Playing hockey was no longer as much fun for Watson by the early 1980s, as his body continued to betray him. Watson was only able to suit up for 18 games in the 1980-81 season before the pain in his back became unbearable. He underwent spinal fusion surgery and missed the rest of the season.

The operation was a success, but Jim Watson was never the same player. Statistically, there was nothing wrong with his 1981-82 season. The 29-year-old defenseman suited up for 76 games, recorded a solid +12 defensive rating, and contributed three goals. But Watson could no longer play up to the standards he expected of himself. Robbed of his former mobility, he saw players he used to stop in their tracks fend him off and had trouble keeping up with some of the rookies.

After the 1981-82 season, the 30-year-old Watson made a tough decision. With the newly acquired Mark Howe ready to assume the top blueline spot and facing the prospect of reduced playing time and continued back pain, Jim Watson retired with his two Stanley Cup rings. For his career, he had a +295 defensive rating, good for fifth in franchise history. Among Flyers defensemen, only Howe (+349) ranks higher.

STAYING CLOSE TO HOME

Jim and Joe Watson have always enjoyed returning to British Columbia and taking in the spectacular Canadian Rockies, but both brothers have made their permanent homes in the Philadelphia suburbs.

After one season as a Flyers scout, Jim went into the construction business. A dedicated do-it-yourselfer who built his own house, building homes for other people seemed like a natural extension. In 1984, he formed the James C. Watson Construction Company, which he ran very successfully for the next quarter century.

In 1997, Jim and several business partners began a side venture tied to his first love – hockey. They built and managed the four-rink Ice Works complex in Aston, PA. Three years later, the five-time NHL All Star started a 16-and-up summer hockey training program called The Jim Watson Hockey Academy. Two of its most successful graduates are Jim's own sons, Chase and Brett.

Born in 1982, Chase Watson went on to play collegiate hockey at Providence College and professional hockey at the ECHL level. Brett, who is three years younger than Chase, played collegiately at UMass-Amherst and then briefly played in the ECHL. Unlike their father and uncle, both Chase and Brett Watson played forward.

Jim Watson cites Ed Snider as one of his inspirations off the ice as well as a figure to whom he’s grateful for what the Flyers have meant to his life and career.

“I have a picture of Ed Snider between Joe and I, and I look at that every day. I just thank God for Ed Snider bringing that franchise to Philadelphia. For me being able to come play here and then from there, I end up with some great partners building an ice rink over in Aston called Ice Works. Now we’re out here in the hockey business and we're providing an opportunity for kids and parents and people to come and play hockey, figure skate there, and we're just helping the game grow. It's enabled me to stay in the great came of hockey which I love,” Watson said.

“In an indirect way. I think we learned from Ed. We saw how he was a driving personality. He was always striving to make the organization better, and the Flyers have become a real leader in the sports industry. Not only in hockey, but what I understand all the other sports too. Their kind of like forerunners, they’re pioneers in the sport in marketing and what have you, and I think a lot of other franchises have picked up on that, and that's a result of Ed. So yes, when I went out into the real world and got into construction and got into hockey, all those lessons and all those experiences and just being around Mr. Snider certainly rubbed off on me.”


KEEPING AN EYE ON THE FLYERS

To this day, Jim Watson remains a devoted Flyers fan. He roots for the team to bring a third Stanley Cup to Philadelphia and has agonized over defeats, just as any fan would.
 
Speaking from experience, Watson cannot help but marvel at the talents of Gostisbehere in particular. He even likened to Gostisbehere’s personality, which he says has natural leadership traits, to arguably the most illustrious player in franchise history.

Gostisbehere is a different style of defenseman than Watson, so they will never be good comparable players from a statistical point of view. If the rookie goes on to someday enjoy similar recognition as the longstanding heart-and-soul of the Flyers’ blueline – and as a born and bred winner – it will be as great of an accomplishment as his ability to post.
 
On Feb. 9, it will be the Flyers’ organization’s turn to enshrine one of its most loyal and accomplished members and inspirational leaders. Just as was the case with his presence on the ice and in the dressing room during his playing days, the character and prestige of the Flyers Hall of Fame is raised just by the presence of Jim Watson.

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