The Flyer in the basement

Posted: April 12, 2013

'YOU DON'T TALK to 'em . . . You plant 'em!"

Larry "The Rock" Zeidel is standing over me now, fists clenched, his mammoth knuckles inches from my face. Four months ago, he was lying pale-faced in the intensive-care ward of Bryn Mawr Hospital, his legs swollen and blackened from a congestive heart condition worsened over the years by a lack of medical insurance. But there is little hint of that man now. Now it is easy to understand why he has ignored those health problems, why he has in the past refused or flatly not sought health insurance provided by the Social Security he collects in his advanced age.

At 85, more than 4 decades removed from his last days as a stick-wielding hockey enforcer, Larry Zeidel lives most of his waking hours still inside that character, rambling on in no apparent chronological order about a modest heyday that he surrendered so much of his life to obtain. In its wake are an ex-wife and a family of four that he speaks of proudly, even while admitting he hasn't seen most of them in more than a decade.

"I've told this to Marie," he says at one point, speaking of a wife from whom he has been estranged for nearly 30 years and with whom he still shares his monthly Social Security check. "She should be in the Hall of Fame for being married to me. Because I was married to the game of hockey."

Zeidel last played hockey in 1968 for the expansion Philadelphia Flyers, manning the blue line aside 25-year-old defenseman Joe Watson and rooming with a fun but flighty 23-year-old goaltender named Bernie Parent. He was 40 by then, rescued from 13 consecutive seasons of minor league toil by the NHL's original expansion from six teams to 12, and would be long gone from the Flyers and somewhat embittered by the time Watson and Parent hoisted the first of two Stanley Cups in 1974.

But this really isn't about all that, or about the exploits that stream endlessly from a toothlessly proud grin. It isn't even about the infamous stick fight with Eddie Shack in 1968 that has developed a life of its own (it wasn't started by an anti-semitic slur, he says now), or even the 1952 Stanley Cup ring that adorns his pinky, when he played alongside Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay.

It has all been told before, in newspaper articles and autograph sessions and Flyers alumni activities and in chance encounters at the local Wawa. Lazarus "Larry" Zeidel's story is great and he tells it with all the intensity with which he played. A Jewish kid in Montreal, a child of the depression, departing his home right after big brother Rudy died in the waning days of World War II, bouncing across Canadian towns with a skill set that started and ended with an oversized frame, an oversized heart and those oversized knuckles, which have not diminished with advanced age.

"It would make a great movie," he says, and no doubt it would. But if he wrote it, it would run for at least 5 hours, and it would follow no apparent timeline. Every story Larry starts seems to remind him of another one and, well, at 85, with knuckles that could still shatter a cheekbone, who's going to stop him?

"All this starts at 8 a.m.," says Joan Bradley, smiling at Zeidel like a doting daughter. "And it doesn't stop until 11 at night."

Larry lives in Joan and George Bradley's home. He has lived there, a nice two-story in Mayfair, since he left Bryn Mawr Hospital in December. He lives there despite some significant hardship of theirs. George Bradley has been chasing alternate income for the last 3 years since he was laid off from his job as a cement mason, a job he held for 27 years. Joan has joined that chase, rolling and delivering 1,200 suburban newspapers at the start, adding home cleaning and lawn service as the needs of her two grandchildren increased.

They are the story. They are the reason Zeidel has gone from an ashen-faced figure to a robust, animated, endlessly enthusiastic man again. In 4 months.

They needed another mouth to feed like Zeidel needs another head scar. But Joan Bradley is one of those takes-a-village types, unable to turn away when she sees need, hardship or potential disaster.

Zeidel was living with a man across from her home. The man's job hours changed, from a daytime gig to the graveyard shift, and try as he might, Zeidel could not mimic a mouse. So he began to spend entire days walking the streets as his friend slept, his gait increasingly strained, sometimes standing with his eyes closed. "I started to really worry about him," Joan Bradley says, and then came that evening when the ambulance pulled up as she was making dinner.

After Larry was taken to the hospital, the guy across the street told Joan he had enough. Larry was not going to die in his home, Joan says he told her. So she went to the hospital and offered her home to Zeidel. Larry has an alternate understanding of it, of course - "I added them to my team," he says. But the bottom line is, the Bradleys reworked their finished basement into a bedroom and added another body - and a big one at that - to a tight family budget and their already well-packed home.

So goes the makeshift family. Joan and George Bradley, ages 51 and 52, are raising their daughter's two sons, 14 and 8, and caring for someone else's grandpa. And then there is this: Their eldest daughter, whose children they are raising, had successful cancer surgery on Wednesday.

There is no trace of complaint in her voice as she tells you this, or runs through her normal all-out day, or even when she recounts how it came to be that Larry Zeidel lives in her home.

"Larry can stay with me forever," she says. "All I'm looking for is someone who can help me with his medicine."

That is the little wrinkle to this otherwise happy ending. Zeidel needs meds to keep his heart condition in check, to keep his legs from swelling and blacking up again. He's had a few visits from some of his old Flyers teammates like Watson and Parent, and Don Saleski, the president of the Flyers Alumni, and they even gave him a check for $400 a few weeks ago. Saleski is working on getting him that medical aid, Watson said in a phone interview this week.

"Mr. Snider wanted this taken care of," Watson says, referring to Flyers chairman Ed Snider. "We will get on this. We will get this done."

One problem: The reason Zeidel doesn't already have it is that he views it as a handout. "When he first started receiving Social Security, he refused it," Joan Bradley says. Now he must sign up for Medicare at a local office. And so far, he has refused.

"I told Saleski - they were concerned about me," Zeidel says. "They asked, 'What about your health insurance?' They were concerned about me like I was some [expletive] hard case or something. You know what? I wanna compete. And I'll die with my [expletive] boots on."

Joan and George Bradley are working against that. For the time being, a friend has donated some of her pills. He is getting the right food, the right rest. Joan Bradley has even reached out to some in that family he hasn't seen in eons, including two daughters out in Vancouver, and a reunion is tentatively planned for June.

"I would help anybody," Joan Bradley says. "Really. Anybody that I could. Sometimes in the past I have been kind of smacked in the face for it and every time that's happened, I've said, 'That's it. I'm not helping anyone anymore.'

"And then I met Larry. And I forgot I ever said that."


Email: donnels@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @samdonnellon

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