It was the summer of 1973, and Bobby Clarke, as he will always be known in our hearts, was 23 years old and still unknown to the majority of Philadelphia sports fans who would grow to admire, love and worship him, his sport, and his team - the Flyers.
I was also 23 that year. But on that steamy morning when I arrived at the Flyers' ice-hockey camp for kids while researching a newspaper story about why Philadelphia-area teens were going cuckoo for a game played on frozen ponds in Canada, I recognized Clarke not as a peer, but as some impossibly beautiful otherworldly being. Had he not been wearing his front teeth, I'm sure the impression would have been less celestial and more Flin Flon.
The joyous gummy grin of Bobby Clarke, the overachieving rink rat, had yet to become the iconic nice-guy image of the Broad Street Bullies. In 1973, Flyers players were about as recognizable to most Philadelphians as indoor soccer athletes are today. But after their first Stanley Cup championship over the Boston Bruins in May 1974, Clarke's image was as well known as Donovan McNabb's is today. After the Flyers won a second cup the following year and then beat the world-champion Soviet Red Army team at the Spectrum in 1976, Clarke's portrait was as ubiquitous in South Philly rowhomes as Sunday newspaper supplement color photos of JFK.
The next time I met Clarke was in the summer of 1984, shortly after he retired as a player following a record-setting 15-year career in the National Hockey League and days before he was named, for the first time, general manager of the Flyers. I happened to be standing near him at a reception and he offered his hand and introduced himself. "Bob Clarke," he said.
Gone was the unlined seraphic countenance that had captivated me. His still-handsome face was now a latticework of pale scar tissue on top of older scar tissue, the handiwork of how many midgame sutures, how many boards slammed, how many pucks stopped, how many head butts, high sticks, and cheap shots to the face? Bobby Clarke the player never wore a helmet or face mask during his 1,144 NHL games, and the taut-skinned face of Bob Clarke the general manager was a kiosk advertising a hundred collisions in dozens of hockey rinks where even angels feared to tread.
I knew Clarke wouldn't remember our first encounter, but when I tried to describe what he looked like at age 23 with his shoulder-length hair and that indescribably peaceful expression on his face, he interrupted. "That was before I got ugly," he said, "I looked like a girl."
The third time I met Clarke, he was surrounded by Mummers. It's quite possible that, in all the years that Clarke has called Philadelphia home, he had never seen the Mummers Parade live since New Year's falls in the middle of hockey season. But due to the NHL owners' lockout that canceled the 2004-2005 season, Clarke was in Center City on the first of January. As luck would have it, he and a group of friends sought refreshment at Dirty Frank's bar at 13th and Pine, which happened to be occupied at the time by 50 dress-wearing wenches from the James "Froggy" Carr comic club who had just completed their march up Broad Street.
I say Clarke was surrounded by Mummers, but it would be more accurate to say that he was swallowed whole. Clarke walks into a bar full of beer-drinking working men from South Philly wearing satin dresses with matching bloomers. Well, you can only imagine the reaction. As infuriated as the average Flyers fan was about the canceled season, as controversial and disappointing as Clarke's tenure as general manager had been, the sight of this working-class hero walking through the front door of Dirty Frank's on New Year's Day and being swarmed as if the Flyers were defending Stanley Cup champions, well, sir, it made me believe I saw evidence of that missing angel in every happy, scarred and painted face I saw.
Clark DeLeon lives and writes in Philadelphia.
Contact Clark DeLeon at firstname.lastname@example.org.