As I look weekly for new topics that intertwine with hockey, one topic that is nearly impossible not to mention is leadership. That's especially true for Philadelphia Flyers fans. When I say leadership, there's one voice that echoes through the walls of the Flyers locker room and one name that is synonymous with it by just a quick glance up in the Wells Fargo Center rafters.
I'm talking, of course, about Bob Clarke: Hockey Hall of Famer, three-time Hart Trophy winner, two-time Stanley Cup winner, four-time Cup finalist, and a Selke Trophy winner. He is the pinnacle of what a leader was, what a leader still is, and what every team would aspire to have.
The Flyers have been a bit spoiled through the years. Not every team or organization is blessed with a Bob Clarke, and some teams will never come close. In many organizations, mid-1980s era Flyers captain Dave Poulin would be considered the greatest leader in franchise history. In Philly, he's up there but Clarkie is still at the top.
During my years with the Flyers, I had the privilege of playing with some great leaders. Each was impactful in different ways. There are more guys I could name but I'll limit it the first four Flyers teammates that jump to mind.
Roddy did not say much to anybody in the room and he didn't say a whole lot on the ice either. But when he did speak it was always at the right time and it was heard clearly by everybody.
Brind'Amour was a great leader on the ice. He played the game the right way, every shift and every game. Never gave up on a play. He excelled both defensively and offensively. And the way that he took care of his body and the way that he was able to, year after year just continue to be a beacon of physical eliteness could not help but rub off on the rest of the team.
He was stoic through injuries that would have kept most players out of the lineup -- I played with Rod through most of his franchise record iron man streak of consecutive games. There were times when he was pretty banged up, but he kept plowing forward, and you'd never know he was hurting by how he played.
The way Roddy conducted himself was inspiring. It also kept many guys in check. I you were inclined to gripe and your heart wasn't 100 percent committed, all you had to do was look at the example Brind'Amour with his work ethic. He never made excuses and was all about the team. To be a Flyer, you couldn't help but follow suit.
Mac-T was a wily veteran when I was a rookie with the Flyers. He had come to the team to provide some leadership as a player who had Stanley Cup rings with Edmonton and the New York Rangers. He was a player who got a second chance at his career and in life, and made the absolute most of it. By the team Craig played for us, he was near the end of his career; the last helmetless player in the NHL. He was strictly a fourth-line center by that point but still excellent on faceoffs and the penalty kill. Most of all, he was a fierce competitor on the ice, and always had his teammates' backs.
Mac-T was also deceptively tough. He wasn't typically a fighter, but could handle himself when the situation dictated it.
I vividly remember a game we had against Montreal at the Spectrum my second year. About eight minutes into the second period, Montreal's Marc Bureau -- later a Flyers teammate of mine -- threw a cheap shot elbow at Petr Svoboda as Petr completed a pass.
Svoboda was unsuspecting and got knocked out cold. He lay motionless on the ice, and the Spectrum fell silent. We were all scared as an ambulance was driven onto the ice and Petr was carefully placed on a stretcher and taken to the hospital. Thankfully, he ultimately turned out to be OK; a concussion and a whiplash-like effect to his neck but made a full recovery.
Back in those days, there was only referee. The ref than night was Don Van Massenhoven; a hulking former police patrolman in his Ontario hometown. At close to 6-foot-8 with his skates on and about 250 pounds, he was confident that he and the two linesmen could keep control of the game.
As such, Don made a very old-school ruling on the penalty call. He issued an elbowing major to Bureau but did not kick him out of the game on a match penalty. Bureau would, thus, have to answer for it on the ice.
That kind of ruling would never be made in today's game, but was still somewhat common back in the 1990s. The leadership scenario I'm about to describe is most definitely a product of a now-bygone era.
We had some tough guys on our team, such as Shawn Antoski. However, the guy who took care of business with Bureau at the first opportunity was none other than Craig MacTavish.
Mac-T didn't give Marc any choice in the matter about dropping the gloves. Craig dropped the gloves first and Bureau realized he'd better follow suit. Nevertheless, the almost 38-year-old MacTavish laid a one-sided pounding on his younger opponent.
Craig received an instigator penalty on top of the fighting major, It was our pleasure to kill off those two extra penalty minutes on behalf of him and Petr Svoboda. If we had been scored on during Montreal's power play, we'd have letting down both of our teammates. I don't believe they even got a single shot on goal during that power play, and we ultimately won the game in overtime.
Bureau was suspended for five games. There was no carryover to subsequent games against Montreal, because Craig MacTavish answered the bell at first opportunity. Again, it's an example from a bygone era, but it made an impression me as an example of a veteran taking charge in an emotionally charged time.
With all due respect to some other teammates who had great playoff runs during my year with the Flyers, I have never seen anyone almost singlehandedly strap an entire team to his back and piggyback them almost the Stanley Cup Final the way Keith Primeau did in 2004. I was no longer with the team by the end of the 2003-04 season -- I'd been traded to the Dallas Stars -- but I couldn't help but marvel what I witnessed from afar and then heard about later in detail.
The Flyers were severely injury-riddled during the playoffs. Jeremy Roenick played through a concussion. Goalie Robert Esche needed hip surgery. The team's No. 1 defenseman (Eric Desjardins) and No. 3 defenseman (Marcus Ragnarsson) were out of the lineup due to injury. The No. 2 defenseman (Kim Johnsson) got injured in the clinching game of the first round and was far from 100 percent when he returned. Other guys were dealing with assorted injuries that probably would have kept them out during the regular season.
Through sheer will and determination, Prims delivered time and time again. Whenever the team needed a lift, he provided it. Whether it was a goal, an assist, a defensive zone stop or a key faceoff win, he was like a machine in those playoffs.
Like Rod Brind'Amour, Eric Desjardins wasn't necessarily a vocal leader. He did wear the C for a short period of time, but it wasn't whether he had a C or an A, that made him a leader. It was Rico's play and his professionalism and dedication to the sport on and off the ice that made him a leader. He was in outstanding physical condition and one of the smartest players I've ever seen. Always in the right spot. Tremendous defensive stick. Outstanding passer. Above average offensively and way above average defensively.
Eric once played through an 80 percent ACL tear -- struggling and getting booed at times -- and never uttered a single word of complaint. Never made an excuse for a downturn in his play, even though he had a legitimate one. When he was a younger player, he was an outstanding skater. After the injuries piled up and he lost a step, he remade his game and made a tough adjustment seem a lot easier than it actually was.
It was my absolute honor and privilege to be Desjardins' teammate, and a pleasure to be his longtime defense partner. Rico was a pro's pro.
Rico was usually the soft-spoken type; always in control. He didn't speak much. But when he did, it was immediately listened to and immediately received with open ears. Nothing that he ever said was ill-timed or received with nonchalance by his teammates.
He was a quiet leader but a unique one. Sometimes those are the best kind of leaders: the ones who can lead without having to say anything, yet others look up to you and follow along because they have such total respect.
I remember at one time when both Rico and Eric Lindros were hurt at the same time, which was certainly not an easy thing to overcome. As much as we missed Lindros' combination of skill and physical presence, I think we missed Desjardins more.
You could take away a good forward -- even a bonafide first-liner -- for a few games and find other ways to hang in until he gets back. Play good team D, other guys step up offensively, and get good goaltending and you can bridge the gap for a short span without your top forward. But when you lose an elite defenseman for several games, you notice the impact every shift of every game when he's gone.
Standards and Traditions
All of these guys showed extraordinary leadership capabilities and all of them were in different kinds of leaders. I don't necessarily think one is better than the other.
Ultimately, though, I don't think it's an accident that Bob Clark is revered as perhaps the greatest leader in team sports. He made his teammates better, inspired them to dig just a little deeper in their energy reserves, and made every single player feel just as important to the team as they did. If someone needed a pat on the back, he gave it. It they needed a kick in the butt, he did that.
When you talk to Flyers Alumni -- or even to Alumni of other teams -- who are now in their late 60s or early 70s, they are taken back to another time and place whenever they invoke Clarkie's name. These are events from 40 or 45 years ago. Some details fade but what they all remember as if it happened yesterday is how much in awe they were of Clarke as a leader.
These are just a few stories of some of the greatest leaders I've been around in the game of hockey period. It doesn't mean they were the only ones. Just the ones that left the biggest impression on me as a teammate. In a franchise with the sort of proud history and tradition that the Flyers have, it is up to the current leadership group and future leaders to inspire and elevate their team in similar fashion.