Even in his Philadelphia Flyers heyday, when his English was indecipherable but his goaltending was sublime, Bernie Parent did not cut an imposing figure if you saw him walking down, say, Broad Street. He had salt-and-pepper hair and a thick dark brush of a mustache, and an unimposing 5-foot-10 physique. His mouth typically had a big cigar sticking out of it.
Stick him in front of the 24-square-foot rectangle that is an NHL net, though, and watch the transformation begin, from regular-looking Canadian import into a puck-stopping superman in an orange sweater. Never was the transformation more striking than in the 1973-74 season, when Parent started more games (73) and recorded more victories (47) than any goalie in NHL history at the time, putting up a League-leading 1.89 goals-against average.
Video: Bernie Parent backstopped Flyers to back-to-back Cups
With Parent in the net, the Flyers gave up almost 100 fewer goals than they had the season before. Parent was habitually a nervous wreck before and during games, hiding his angst behind his mask and forever cleaning the ice in front of his net. You could never tell by the results he got, however.
"Bernie gave us great confidence," Flyers captain Bobby Clarke told Sports Illustrated. "We never had to worry whether he was on or off. He was on all the time."
The youngest of seven children, Parent grew up in a blue-collar family in the Montreal suburb of Rosemont, Quebec, his father supporting the family with his work in a cement factory. His older brothers, Yvan and Jacques, helped get him started in hockey in the backyard, where Parent began by fending off tennis balls. "Once I stopped the first shot that settled it," Bernie said. "The challenge to make a save was always there. It was just in me."
Games: 608 | Wins: 271 | Losses: 198 | Ties: 121 | GAA: 2.55
At about 12, his position on the ice was official when his parents gave him his first set of goalie pads. Parent strapped them on over his pajamas, grabbed his stick and set out for the backyard.
"I pretended I was [Jacques] Plante making great saves against Gordie Howe and Alex Delvecchio in the Stanley Cup Finals," he said.
Plante was not only the star goaltender for Parent's favorite team, the Montreal Canadiens; he also would occasionally stop by the neighborhood, because his sister lived next door for a time. Parent would hide in the bushes to get a glimpse of Plante, who before too much time passed would have a profound impact on Parent's career.
Parent, naturally, envisioned himself playing for Les Habitants, but never got the chance. Signed by the Boston Bruins, he played two years of junior hockey in Niagara Falls, where he was coached by Hap Emms. Parent displayed tremendous potential, helping his team win the Memorial Cup in 1965, though Emms recalled in an interview with thehockeywriters.com that Parent's ultimate playing style as a Plante-like standup goalie was very much a work in progress.
"When he first came to Niagara Falls, he used to drop much too often," Emms said. "So I put a $1 fine against him every time he flopped without good reason. After each game I would tell him, 'That's $10 or $5 you owe me.' Of course we never took the money from him, but he always thought we would, and the threat helped him."
In his NHL debut on Nov. 3, 1965, Parent made 40 saves for the Bruins -- a struggling team in the early-to-mid-1960s -- in a 2-2 tie against the Chicago Black Hawks, a superb performance for a rookie goaltender. Despite Parent's promise, the Bruins didn't protect him in the 1967 NHL Expansion Draft and he wound up being selected by the Flyers, staying with them for 3½ seasons before Philadelphia traded him to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Parent's initial disappointment over the trade soon gave way to perhaps the best learning experience of his life. Plante, his boyhood idol, was playing for the Maple Leafs, and the 42-year-old icon's reflexes were still sharp enough for him to lead the League with a 1.88 GAA in 1970-71.
The tutorials, on ice and off, commenced almost immediately.
"Jacques did two big things for me," Parent told Sports Illustrated. "He improved my balance by getting me to keep all my body weight on my right foot, not my left, during a play, and he also taught me how to determine my exact position by banging my stick or my catching glove against the goal posts. I used to have to take my eyes off the play and look around to see where I was, and sometimes I gave up a goal because I wasn't looking at the puck."
The lessons from Professor Plante served Parent well and enabled him to score a big contract in 1972 as the first NHL defector to the League's upstart rival, the World Hockey Association. The WHA Miami Screaming Eagles reportedly signed him for $600,000 and a house boat, among other perks. The Eagles never got liftoff, however, and Parent's contract was switched to the Philadelphia Blazers. Though Parent had a league-leading 33 victories, the porous defense in front of him resulted in a GAA of more than 3.5. Parent would wind up bolting the team after a playoff game over a contract dispute, and wound up making his way back to the Maple Leafs, who, at his request, traded him back to the Flyers in 1973.
"I never wanted to leave in the first place," Parent said. "Now that I was back, I couldn't have been happier."
The timing of Parent's return was perfect. With a clever and feisty center in Clarke, high-scoring center Rick MacLeish and young left wing Bill Barber, the Flyers had ample firepower to go with the ruggedness and glove-dropping enforcement of Dave Schultz, Moose Dupont and Bob Kelly, the trio that contributed mightily to Fred Shero's team acquiring a richly deserved nickname: the Broad Street Bullies.
The Bullies beat the Bruins in six games to capture the Stanley Cup in 1974, and nobody was a bigger force than Parent, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP and the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's top goaltender, with a League-leading 12 shutouts and the microscopic 1.89 GAA. The Flyers repeated as champions in 1975, defeating the Buffalo Sabres, Parent reprising his heroics by winning the Conn Smythe and Vezina.
Video: 1974 Cup Final, Gm6: Flyers beat Bruins for first Cup
"Bernie, Bernie" became the favorite chant in Philadelphia, and "Only the Lord saves more than Bernie Parent" became the favorite bumper sticker. A persistent back problem severely curtailed Parent's season in 1975-76, and though the infamous Bullies were not the force they had been, Parent returned to top form in 1977-78, when the Flyers hired a goaltending coach named Jacques Plante.
Was it a coincidence that Parent went 29-6-13 that season, with a League-best seven shutouts?
Six weeks before he would turn 34, Parent was still an elite goaltender when the Flyers and New York Rangers played a game in the Spectrum on Feb. 17, 1979. Phil Esposito of the Rangers fired a shot wide of the net in the first period. Rangers left wing Don Maloney crashed the net as Jimmy Watson, a Flyers defenseman, tried to muscle him away. In the ensuing scrum, Watson's stick accidentally found the right eyehole of Parent's mask, and the goaltender was temporarily blinded. His vision returned but was never the same.
Bernie Parent never played another game.
"I feel bad about the whole thing but all good things must come to an end some time," Parent said. "I've got many pleasant memories, especially those two Stanley Cups."
Parent's No. 1 was retired by the Flyers, and in 1984 he became the first Flyer to be enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame. As a goaltending coach, he helped Pelle Lindbergh win the Vezina Trophy in 1985 and Ron Hextall do the same two years later.
Four decades after he helped bring those two Stanley Cups to Broad Street, Parent remains a beloved figure in Philadelphia and an active ambassador with the team. When he's not meeting with fans in the community, he is blogging and tweeting, or at the helm of his 45-foot yacht, "The French Connection," which is his de facto summer home. You won't have trouble finding him. He is the captain, the guy with the gray goatee, the cigar and the eternally optimistic outlook on life. He loves being out on the water, loves the serenity of it. You'd never guess he was a world-class goaltender, but then, you never could. Bernie Parent doesn't concern himself with that.
"You've got to keep busy," Parent told NJ.com. "If you don't, you go crazy. You know what I'm saying? I eat good. Cheesesteaks. No, just kidding. I eat good, exercise and have a good outlook on life. Do that and life will be good to you.
"It's very simple: I love people. I love to socialize with people. It's never the same, and when you approach life that you care about people, then socializing with them becomes a beautiful thing."
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