The Firing Of A Legend Clarke Starred On Ice, Struggled As A Gm

Posted: April 17, 1990

When he arrived here in 1969, a wide-eyed second-round draft pick from Western Canada, he wasn't even sure he would last through a Flyers training camp.

But Bobby Clarke not only made the Flyers, he made them champions.

Clarke's indomitable spirit and drive guided a youthful franchise to two Stanley Cups in the mid-1970s, in the process turning him into one of Philadelphia's sports legends.

A city unfamiliar with hockey soon grew to admire the fierce passion with which Clarke and the Flyers played. And after the two Cups, long-suffering Philadelphia sports fans lifted Clarke onto a pedestal occupied in recent decades only by Mike Schmidt and Julius Erving.

But Bob Clarke never seemed able to translate the qualities he possessed as a three-time MVP into a successful tenure as the team's general manager. And last night, with unpopular trades and the Flyers' worst season in nearly two decades hanging around his neck like an albatross, he was fired.

"Bobby Clarke wanted the Philadelphia Flyers to win almost as much he wanted to live," broadcaster Bill Clement, a former teammate, said on WIP- radio last night.

And for most of his 21 years with the team, he helped them do just that. But somewhere along the way - perhaps with his controversial decision to fire Mike Keenan as coach after the 1987-88 season - the magic vanished. Bobby Clarke the legendary No. 16 became Bob Clarke the abused general manager.

"It was a terribly sad thing to see," Clement said. "Believe me, all of the players on those two Cup teams - and I'm one - realize that they owe their two championship rings to Bobby Clarke."

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Clarke was a center with Flin Flon of the Western Canadian Junior Hockey League. His diabetes scared off a lot of NHL scouts. But Flyers officials were so impressed by his determination and leadership qualities that they took a chance, making him their No. 2 pick in 1969.

More than a little in awe of a city the size of Philadelphia, he came to camp with his father in tow, impressed new coach Vic Stasiuk, and earned a spot on the team.

His feisty, determined style of play immediately made him a fan favorite, and he finished second in that year's rookie-of-the-year voting.

"All I want to do," Clarke told a father-son banquet at the Springfield Country Club not long after his rookie season, "is help the Philadelphia Flyers be as good as they can be."

That turned out to be pretty good.

After struggling for Clarke's first few years, the team started to turn the corner in the early 1970s, and with a nucleus of Clarke and goaltender Bernie Parent, and the arrival of a bespectacled coach named Fred Shero, the Flyers became one of the NHL's perennial powers.

They won Stanley Cups - and ignited the city's slumbering sports fans - in 1974 and 1975. In '76 and '80, they made it to the Cup finals before losing. And always, their symbol was Clarke.

"He was always one of my idols," said Peter Zezel, the St. Louis Blues center whose first season with Philadelphia, 1985-86, was Clarke's first full year as GM. "I think a lot of the guys who played on the team felt that way."

In the early '80s, though, the skills that had made Clarke a nine-time all-star and the Flyers' all-time leading scorer were beginning to fade. After a series of clashes with coach/general manager Bob McCammon, Clarke announced that he would retire. At the same time, the Flyers fired McCammon and named the unproven Clarke their GM.

Clarke ended his career with 358 goals and 852 assists for 1,210 points. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1987.

At first, he seemed to have brought his golden touch to the front office. In one of his first acts, he hired Keenan, the fiery-eyed coach who in his first season led the Flyers to the Cup finals against Edmonmton.

His early trades - getting Murray Craven for a soon-to-retire Darryl Sittler and extracting Kjell Samuelsson from the Rangers for unhappy Bob Froese - turned out well, and the team was again the Cup runner-up in 1986-87.

Soon, though, the proud Flyers began to slip, and when Clarke fired Keenan and named his friend Paul Holmgren coach, he turned the focus squarely on

himself.

"You can never be prepared for the lack of control you have (as a GM)," Clarke said earlier this season. "When I played, I could make things happen directly. But when you're management, once the puck drops, you can only sit and watch."

Philadelphia struggled to a .500 record in Holmgren's first season, 1988-89, but a playoff run that took them to the Wales Conference finals eased that disappointment.

This season, though, there would be no postseason salve. For the first time since 1971-72, the Flyers missed the playoffs, and at the Spectrum, where fans once cheered his every move, Clarke became an object of scorn.

"It was a terrible thing to see, when fans would turn toward Bob's seat in the press box and scream at him," Clement said. "Sure it was only a bitter, cynical minority, but I know that had to hurt Bob.

"No one, absolutely no one ever, wanted the Flyers to do well more than Bob Clarke."

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