Twenty-eight years ago Joe Watson had an idea.
Talking to some of his former teammates from the Broad Street Bullies, Watson wondered what it would be like if the team periodically reunited to play hockey games for charity.
He thought they could play against alumni from other franchises, or against any group willing to donate money or raise money for charity.
It sounded like a fun idea at the time, as it was an opportunity for many of the beloved Flyers from the 70s to give back to the Philadelphia community that they adopted as their home town – and still be able to spend time together playing the game they loved.
Fast forward nearly three decades.
Watson and some of his mates from those Stanley Cup teams aren’t as young and spry as they used to be – but they’re still chugging along and raising money.
“We’ve been playing since 1984,” Watson said. “Since then we’ve raised $2.3 million for various charities. In 2011 we played six games and raised $167,000 to be given to charity. One game we gave $67,000 to one charity. It’s incredible, it really is.”
They’ve had to reach out to some younger Flyers and Phantoms alums to skate the bigger minutes in the games, but the Bullies still remain the headliners – which brings the crowds.
“Those people remember when we played many, many years ago and it’s a wonderful thing that they still come out to support us,” Watson said. “They tell stories about where they were and what they were doing when we were playing. It’s wonderful to hear them because if we didn’t have fans we wouldn’t have a job – that’s why we have to take care of the fans.”
And the fans are the most important aspect for the alumni team, because they are the ones who show up for these games and they are the ones who continue to donate money to charity.
“The fans here are the best in the world,” said Phantoms Hall-of-Famer Frank “The Animal” Bialowis. “I’ve played all over the place, and they are the best here in Philly. I’ve made it my home. The people are unbelievable. They deserve good things. You can’t beat the fans in Philly.”
Bialowis has been playing with the Alumni team for 10 years, and honestly feels like it’s the best team he ever played for.
“I think their my all-time favorite,” he said. “It makes me realize that I missed my era. I should have played when they played because then I could have gotten away with all the crazy stuff I did.
“The Flyers are like a family. It continues on. It’s almost like you’re still playing. It’s a great organization. I’ve thanked them for everything they did for me and everyone else… it’s been a pleasure playing for them.”
It hasn’t always been easy for the alumni though.
When they started, they were a real fledgling operation and were independent of the organization, which made fundraising on their own end harder to keep the charity games going.
“We didn’t even have jersey’s the first two years,” Watson said. “We wore the Tropicana Little Flyers jerseys. They were supported by the casino in Atlantic City. Some guys had jerseys that came up to above their belly button.
“Then we got the thing going and started raising money so we got our own jerseys and the Flyers started to help us out and it just snowballed from there.”
And now all kinds of alumni play, whether they played just a handful of games for the Flyers – like Mark Freer, Dave Fenyves, Mitch Lamoreux and Andre Faust, or if they were true Flyers legends – like Watson, Bob Kelly and Orest Kindrachuk.
Heck, even non-Flyers and Phantoms alums are taking part because they live in the area.
Frederic Cassivi, who makes his home in the Hershey area after six seasons with the Hershey Bears, chips in by playing goalie.
“Getting a goalie is always the hardest thing for something like this,” Kelly said. “It’s the one position where it’s hard to keep playing as you get older and there aren’t many guys around to do it. Cassivi is a good kid and he’s young (37 years old) so we got him for some time here.”
But it doesn’t matter if these guys had long careers in Philadelphia or just a cup of coffee on their hockey travels, there’s something special about the Flyers organization, and if there’s going to be a way to give back to the community, there’s not many better places than to do it here.
That’s one of the perks of being a professional athlete,” Todd Fedoruk said. “You get to give back to the communities and the Flyers have always been a frontrunner in that area.”