Al Hill was a versatile depth forward for the Philadelphia Flyers. Primarily a checking forward, he could play wing or center and could be plugged into any line without looking out of place. He was reliable in his own of the ice, took the body willingly, dropped the gloves when necessary and could chip in the occasional clutch goal.
The lanky Nanaimo, British Columbia native was a respectable, but far from dominating goal scorer in junior hockey and the American Hockey League. He spent portions of seven seasons with the Flyers from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, including three uninterrupted campaigns with the big club.
In Hill's 221-game NHL career, he had a relatively modest 40 goals and 95 points. However, for one magical night, he was the best player in the NHL. The game, played on February 14, 1977 against the St. Louis Blues, also happened to be the player's NHL debut.
Hill's five-point performance in his first game set an NHL record that still stands today. In fact, Hill nearly had a double "Gordie Howe Hat Trick" in his debut: two goals, three assists, and one fight.
"I didn't really think too much of it at the time," Hill recalls. "I really wasn't that type of player, and [setting the record] was just one of those things. Everything went my way that night. I played a little bit on all four lines in that game, and the puck just seemed to find me."
The 21-year-old undrafted Victoria Cougars graduate was invited to the Flyers 1976-77 training camp as a non-roster player. The rookie free agent impressed the Flyers' staff with his fundamentally sound play and hustle and was signed to a contract. Hill started the season in the AHL with the Springfield Indians and carried on at a steady, if unspectacular pace.
Legendary Flyers announcer Gene Hart once wrote of Hill, "His name befits his game: simple, direct and unadorned. As an undrafted player, he's had to conquer some steep hills simply to make it to the National Hockey League. Al is the type of unsung player that the Flyers have been masterful in finding."
In February of 1977, Philadelphia was beset with injuries on the big club. Among others, both All-Star left winger Bill Barber and right wing Paul Holmgren were out of the lineup. The Flyers reached down to their farm system for help.
Hill learned of his call-up on the same day he made his NHL debut. Incredibly, he nearly missed his date with destiny.
"We had a game in Rochester the night before, and we bussed back all night, getting home at about 4:30 in the morning," he recalls. "A few hours later, I got a call from the Flyers that they wanted me in the lineup at the Spectrum for the game against the Blues. I left for Philly right away, but there was a big snowstorm and, for awhile there, I wasn't sure if I'd able to make it in time to play."
When he finally arrived in Philadelphia, Hill learned that he'd not only be in the lineup, he'd also be skating on the game's first shift, along with team captain Bobby Clarke and Bob "the Hound" Kelly.
After the game, when the media asked Flyers head coach Fred Shero about starting Hill, Shero claimed, "I didn't even know we had him on the team."