NHL99: Bobby Clarke kept his ailment quiet and created a legacy of leadership

Welcome to NHL99, The Athletic’s countdown of the best 100 players in modern NHL history. We’re ranking 100 players but calling it 99 because we all know who’s No. 1 — it’s the 99 spots behind No. 99 we have to figure out. Every Monday through Saturday until February we’ll unveil new members of the list.

It was the 1974 Stanley Cup Final and the upstart Philadelphia Flyers, who came into existence just seven years earlier, had their hands full with Bobby Orr and the mighty Boston Bruins.

Bill Clement wasn’t a superstar on that Flyers team. In 39 games that season, he had nine goals and eight assists. But the Flyers were banged up and Clement was still an important component, particularly on the penalty kill. Clement, though, had suffered a partially torn MCL earlier in the playoffs and figured his run was over. He sat in the whirlpool at the old Spectrum prior to Game 4, with the Flyers leading the series 2-1, sitting, soaking and sulking when captain Bobby Clarke came in to have a word.

“Is there any chance you can play?” Clarke asked.

“I don’t think so,” Clement replied.

“I’m not sure we can win without you.”

Clarke, who had scored the overtime winner in Game 2, tying the series at one game apiece, proceeded to remind Clement that defenseman Barry Ashbee was out after a horrific eye injury from the previous series against the Rangers that eventually ended his career. Forward Gary Dornhoeffer had a bad shoulder and gritty agitator Bob Kelly was dealing with a bum knee.

“(Clarke) said, ‘I don’t want you to do anything to hurt your career, but when you’re ready to come back, we’re ready to have you back.’ And he walked out,” Clement recalled. “I didn’t feel pressure. He made me feel like I was vital to the outcome. I got out of the whirlpool and got our trainer to shave my leg and tape me up, and I went out and hobbled around the warmup, and ended up playing, killing penalties, and we won. And I ended up getting stronger as we won the Stanley Cup.

“I don’t think I would have been in the lineup if Bobby Clarke hadn’t made me feel an important player and an important piece to the puzzle.”

Clarke was a little more blunt when he had to be, too. One player in particular who he often had to light a fire under was Rick MacLeish — one of the more skilled players on the team, but someone who had a reputation for going through the motions at times.

MacLeish struggled in Game 5 in Boston in that same series as the Flyers, up 3-1, failed to clinch it in a 5-1 blowout defeat. During the game, Clarke leaned over to MacLeish and, with a healthy dose of expletives, essentially told him that he better be saving his energy for Game 6 back in Philadelphia.

MacLeish scored the only goal in a 1-0 Flyers win and was arguably the best player on the ice that night, giving the club its first of two consecutive Stanley Cup championships.

Clarke couldn’t specifically recall that moment with Clement, although he did remember having some frank chats with MacLeish. Both instances were just conversations that, in his view, needed to be had. And he wasn’t ever afraid of having them. He considered it his responsibility after coach Fred Shero made him captain in 1973.

“Everybody on the team wants to be needed and wants to be important. And sometimes they have to be reminded that they are,” Clarke said. “There’s no genius involved. It’s just, we all want to be wanted, we all want to be needed. And teams that get each other to (realize) that become great teams.”

Clarke’s Flyers were that. They were the first expansion-era team to win the Stanley Cup in 1974, did it again in 1975, and reached the Final in 1976 before the injury-ravaged group lost to the Montreal Canadiens. There was no question who the leader of those Flyers teams was — a 5-foot-10, 185-pound native of Flin Flon, Man., whose hockey identity was his work ethic that was instilled by junior coach Pat Ginnell of the Flin Flon Bombers, and who took the role of NHL team leader and captain as seriously as anyone before or since.

“(If) guys are not doing the proper things on the ice or off the ice for the team, he would speak up about it, and rightfully so,” said Bill Barber, Clarke’s teammate and frequent linemate on the Flyers for 12 years. “That all has value. You can’t put a price tag on that.

“Clarkie was the best leader in the league, period, in that era of time.”

Bobby Clarke and Reggie Leach in 1976. (Rusty Kennedy / The Associated Press)

The foundation of Clarke’s on-ice success — 1,210 points in 1,144 games, three Hart Trophies, a Selke Trophy and 10 All-Star Game appearances — was a legendary work ethic. He was working out as hard as anyone off the ice, too, at a time when offseason training routines for hockey players involved the lifting of beer cans much more than weights. Those are the essentials that put him at No. 31 on our list of the greatest players of the modern NHL era.

“I started going to this gym early in the ’70s, and lifting weights and running and doing all that training long before most players did,” Clarke said. “I did it only because it would make me a better hockey player.”

“His work ethic was second to none,” said Paul Holmgren, who joined the Flyers in 1976 and spent nine seasons as a teammate of Clarke’s. “In practice, in the training room, in games. So he was the leader of the pack when it came to work.”

And he did it all with a disease that couldn’t be ignored. The primary reason Clarke dropped to 17th in the 1969 NHL Draft was that he was diabetic. Even the Flyers passed on him once, too, taking eventual career minor-leaguer Bob Currier with the sixth pick.

Clarke, who had two diabetic seizures during his first NHL training camp, never wanted to discuss his ailment. As a player, he had to chug a bottle of Coca-Cola with dissolved sugar before a game, and down glasses of orange juice between periods and immediately afterward.

“He hated to talk about that. He wouldn’t let you,” said Al Morganti, who covered the Flyers for the Philadelphia Inquirer in the late 1970s and early 1980s. “He’d just shut it down. He just didn’t want to go into any of that.”

Holmgren, in particular, was familiar with diabetes, having grown up with two brothers who had suffered from it before it tragically cost them their lives. It helped result in a lifelong bond between the two men, who are still a part of the Flyers’ front office today.

“He didn’t want to be branded as having a handicap,” Holmgren said. “He didn’t want to focus on that, he wanted to just be Bob Clarke the hockey player, and do what he loved.”

“I was a hockey player, and wanted to be judged as a hockey player,” Clarke said. “I happened to have diabetes, but it couldn’t be an excuse. I certainly wouldn’t allow it to be an excuse. … Just because I had diabetes didn’t make any difference.”

Still, there are plenty of players who work hard on the ice, and some of them even have other medical issues. But only a select few of them end up with the kind of resume that Clarke put together during his career.

Larry Robinson spent plenty of time playing against Clarke and those Flyers teams when he broke into the league in 1972-73 as part of some legendary Canadiens clubs.

What was it that made Clarke such an effective scorer and playmaker?

“He never gave up on plays,” Robinson said. “He was a mucker, a digger. And he was the heart and soul of that Flyers team. I wouldn’t say he was the most gifted skater in the world. Didn’t have the greatest hands. But all of those things he made up for in heart and determination. (He was) a pain in the ass. If you weren’t ready, then God knows what would happen.”

Clarke got a good chuckle out of Robinson’s assessment. Not only did he not disagree with it, but he seemed to take it as a compliment.

After all, there was sometimes the perception that the only reason Clarke could get away with some of the things he did on the ice was that he had the Broad Street Bullies backing him up. If someone took a run at Clarke, they’d have to answer to Dave Schultz, Bob Kelly and the rest of the gang, so the thinking went.

Clarke and Robinson, two Hall of Famers, both dispute that.

“I don’t think Clarkie really needed to be surrounded by the rest of the Broad Street Bullies,” Robinson said. “He would have played the same way no matter if those guys were there or they weren’t there. That’s just the way that he played.”

Clarke was known to utilize his stick sometimes for more than just shooting and passing the puck. The most infamous moment came not in an NHL game, but in the 1972 Summit Series when Clarke broke Russian Valeri Kharlamov’s ankle.

Mark Howe recalled a moment in the early stages of his career playing for the Hartford Whalers — and in the later stages of Clarke’s career — in which the Flyers captain just couldn’t keep up with him.

“I remember a couple rushes where I danced around him,” Howe said. “I go down the ice, and I’m making a play and doing this and that. The play is about to stop, it’s two seconds after I did something, and — whack! I’m getting a cross-check in the back of the neck. And here it’s Bobby Clarke, he’s still chasing me around the freaking rink.”

When Howe realized that he wasn’t going to have an NHL future in Hartford, he told team management there he preferred to go to one of four teams. The Flyers were on that list. And he has a feeling that the way he handled Clarke’s agitating ways, combined, of course, with his elite ability, helped lead to him eventually becoming one of the greatest Flyers defensemen of all time.

And, of course, the game was different back then. There were enforcers, there were some borderline criminal acts during play and between whistles, and there was more of a reliance on personal responsibility as opposed to the referees keeping things under control.

If you wanted to gain an edge, you had to walk that line between competitive and dirty. And sometimes it could be blurry.

“The game in those days was more player ruled, now the league controls everything,” Clarke said. “In those days, players got even with each other, but players were also allowed to protect themselves. If someone is going to take a run at me, I could get my stick up and protect myself. And vice versa. … The game was hard, it was tough, and it had some dirty s— going on, but you didn’t hardly ever hear of a player missing a whole season or a team coming to play with five or six guys injured like it is now.”

Said Clement: “To me, there’s a difference between being ruthless and dirty. Bobby Clarke was not dirty, but he was ruthless, meaning he would do anything to win. That involved at times committing things that were perceived to be dirty acts, but I don’t think that made Bobby Clarke a dirty player. If we were winning 7-1 in a hockey game, he wouldn’t touch anybody. He didn’t have to. He just had such a hatred for losing.”

Bobby Clarke in 1974. (The Associated Press)

It was that hatred of losing that Clarke had in common with the man signing his paychecks. Clarke and Flyers owner Ed Snider forged a bond that not only led to tremendous on-ice success but established the Flyers culture that lasted decades — well past the time Clarke retired in 1984.

While Snider eventually sold the Flyers to cable giant Comcast and had plenty of other successful business ventures until he died in 2016, those Clarke-era Flyers were the foundation of his success. And Snider, like everyone else, knew who the most important cog was in that machine.

“I think Ed appreciated that (Clarke) was so all-in on the Flyers,” said Morganti, who was enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame this year for his media coverage of the Flyers and the NHL. “For Ed, it was his whole business. Ed was a wealthy guy but he really built his wealth through hockey. … There are certain guys who the logo is just burned in through the jersey into your chest, and he was one of those guys. I think that’s why Ed appreciated him so much.”

It was that bond that made it easier for Clarke to walk away from the team in 1984 when Snider offered him the general manager’s job. Clarke and then-coach Bob McCammon weren’t always on the same page — Clarke knew he couldn’t score like he used to but he could still check with the best of them, so he grew frustrated with a reduced role — so sliding into the front office was an attractive proposition.

“They offered me an awful good job,” said Clarke, who went on to serve as general manager until 1990, and then returned in the same role from 1994 to 2006 after brief stints in Minnesota and Florida.

As a player, Clarke left behind a legacy of leadership that has rarely been equaled in the more than half-century that he became captain of the Flyers. Former teammates, and those in his orbit, all seem to have an example.

There was the time during one of Fred Shero’s practices in the 1970s that the coach was running a drill the players just didn’t quite understand.

“He challenged Freddy,” Kelly recalled. “I remember us being out on the ice doing some kind of drill, and we’re just like puppets — we just do whatever string is pulled. Clarkie goes up to Freddy and said, ‘Freddy, this drill makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.’ I’ll never forget it. And Freddy says ‘Yeah I know, I’ve been waiting for somebody to come up and tell me that.’”

Holmgren can recall the Flyers having optional morning skates. Sometimes that meant going out in full gear, other times just in a sweatsuit.

“Everybody is sitting around waiting to decide what to put on — their full equipment, or a sweatsuit,” Holmgren said. “As soon as everybody saw Bob put on a sweatsuit it was almost like the OK to not have to put on their full gear. It was kind of my first example of the leadership of Bob Clarke.”

He experienced it again, on a more personal level, when Clarke noticed that Holmgren was having trouble with one of his eyes in a team meeting. He and Ashbee, then an assistant coach, immediately took Holmgren to the hospital, and it ended up saving his vision.

Dave Poulin became captain of the Flyers in 1984, following Clarke (Barber and Mel Bridgeman also took turns as Flyers captain while Clarke was still on the roster). But in the summer of 1983, after Poulin had played just five games and couldn’t be reassigned to AHL Maine due to a clerical error, he found himself in Philadelphia with a long offseason ahead of him.

He also needed a car.

“I called someone in the (Flyers) office and said I need some help buying a car,” Poulin said. “Could you help me? Is someone able to help? I never bought a car, and they said, ‘Well, Bob Clarke has a friend that’s a dealer, maybe he can help you.’ So I sat and looked at that number for, I don’t know, 10 minutes. Am I seriously going to call Bob Clarke? Is he going to know who I am? I played five games!

“So I call him, tell him what I’m looking for. … He says, ‘Yep, I’ll meet you at the dealership tonight at 7 o’clock.’ So we go to the dealership and he says to the dealer, ‘Give him whatever he wants and he’s paying cost.’”

Poulin figured out a little later that part of the motivation for Clarke at that moment was he needed someone to work out with him in the coming months. And that’s what happened. Poulin, driving his new 1983 white Toyota Supra with a burgundy interior, met Clarke at the gym at 7 a.m. six days a week. Mondays and Thursdays were chest and back, Tuesdays and Fridays were for shoulders and arms, Wednesday and Saturday was legs. And they were also running five miles a day, except on Saturday, when it was eight miles.

“You could say in retrospect he was looking for someone that he sensed would actually get up and go to the gym with him six mornings a week because no one would,” Poulin said. “It was the break of my life. Not only was I was in great shape, but I also had Bob Clarke talking to me for six days a week for four months.”

Morganti, a young reporter, had heard plenty of tales about Clarke the leader when he took over the beat. He quickly came to learn they were not hyperbole.

“Arriving in Philly, you think, OK, it’s partly true, but it’s partly myth. And then you get there and it’s like, man, it’s all true,” Morganti said. “It’s like hearing about going to Hawaii and thinking it’s paradise and you get there and you go, hmm, it’s paradise. This is for real.”

(Top photo: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)


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