Shero's Hall of Fame path one of innovation

Fred Shero, with Bobby Clarke.
Fred Shero, with Bobby Clarke. (Daily News file photo)
Posted: November 11, 2013

The Flyers teams that won consecutive Stanley Cup championships in 1974 and 1975 - and became Fred Shero's ticket to the hockey Hall of Fame - were known for their brawling, menacing style.

But it's a disservice to Shero to think that his team's highly successful, intimidating play is why the former coach will be inducted posthumously Monday in Toronto.

Yes, the Broad Street Bullies became famous, but it was their genius coach - the bespectacled, studious-looking man who got each player to understand his role to the max - who was perhaps the main reason for the team's dominance.

Shero, quite simply, was a coach who was ahead of his time.

"Freddy was an innovator who brought in a system - at a time when systems weren't even heard of," said Bob Clarke, the captain of those championship teams. "We had players with different sets of ability, but we all played the same way."

Nicknamed "Freddy the Fog" because of his quiet and enigmatic personality, Shero did things that weren't common in the 1970s. He used the trap against the Russians decades before the New Jersey Devils made it their trademark. He traveled to Russia to incorporate parts of its game into his coaching. He studied game films, hired a full-time assistant, and started game-day morning skates - common today, but unheard of at the time.

And then there was his system, which was based on defensive positioning.

"I read all the time about the Broad Street Bullies and the team's toughness," said Don "Big Bird" Saleski, a gangly winger on those teams. "But we won because of our system. We used to practice it over and over and over. Forty-five minutes to an hour at every practice. He believed in repetition, and when we went into a game, we knew what we were supposed to do with the puck. There were no surprises. Everyone played within the system."

Well, almost everybody.

"Freddy used to say that everybody has to play within the system except Ricky MacLeish, because he won't follow it anyway," Saleski said with a smile.

There was, Saleski said, a purpose behind Shero's message.

"That helped Ricky out, so at least he tried to follow it, but that just wasn't his personality. He was a freelancer."

Shero could live with MacLeish's not following the system. The center scored 50 goals in his first full season with the Flyers, and then had 32- and 38-goal years when the teams won their Cups.

For the rest of the team, the system was their bible.

"We were always in a good defensive position, and when we entered their zone, we rarely had three guys trapped [up ice]," said Clarke, now the team's senior vice president. "It's the same basic style that wins today - short passes and don't turn the puck over in the other guys' end. The same things that good teams do today."

A walking paradox

"A winner makes commitments; a loser makes promises."

- Fred Shero

Shero died of cancer at age 65 in 1990. His son, Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Ray Shero, will accept the honor at the Hall of Fame ceremonies.

When he makes his acceptance speech, the younger Shero, who keeps a binder in his office that is filled with his father's practice drills and notes, will not be short on material.

The "Fog" was a walking paradox. He was shy, but gregarious. He was a father figure, but someone who also kept his distance from his players. He was a taskmaster, but he went out of his way not to embarrass his players.

"He had great qualities, and was just a great human being," said Bernie Parent, the former Flyers goalie who is a member of the Hall of Fame. "If he was upset with you, he would bring you in his office for a one-on-one. He would never criticize us in front of anybody."

"Most importantly, Freddy was a teacher," Clarke said. "He never believed in giving players [grief]. If you screwed up, he would teach you how he wanted it done."

Shero, who coached the Flyers back when teams used just three lines, wouldn't point fingers and embarrass his players, Saleski said, "but when he talked to the team, everybody knew who he was talking about without him singling that person out."

During his NHL coaching career, which ended with the New York Rangers, Shero posted a 390-225-119 record, a points percentage of .612. Among coaches who have coached at least 10 seasons, that ranks fourth in NHL history, behind Scotty Bowman (.657), Mike Babcock (.635 entering this season), and Toe Blake (.634).

Starting in 1973-74, Shero's Flyers teams had a points percentage of at least .700 for four straight seasons, going 50-16-12, 51-18-11, 51-13-16, and 48-16-16. Since 1975, when Shero directed the Flyers to their second consecutive Cup, only three coaches have led their teams to at least two straight titles: Bowman, Al Arbour, and Glen Sather.

"Freddy should have gone into the Hall of Fame a long time ago," Parent said, "but that's not the point. He's going in. He was the skipper of our ship."

Because the Flyers were known as a brawling team when they won their two Stanley Cups, it sometimes overshadows the talent (Hall of Famers Parent, Clarke, and Bill Barber; dynamic scorers like MacLeish and Reggie Leach), the behind-the-scenes brilliance of general manager Keith Allen, the special-teams dominance, the superb defense, and the teamwork that those teams displayed.

Shero blended it all together: the stars, the blue-collar grinders, the castaways from other teams.

"He brought discipline," Parent said, "and we played hard [for him]. We trusted him, and he trusted us. That's a great combination."

Self-policing

"There are three things worth having in this world: courage, good sense, and caution. Forget caution. Let's go like hell!"

- Fred Shero

Shero treated his players with respect, Jimmy Watson said.

"He gave us a lot of freedom, and yet was also a stern taskmaster," said Watson, a gifted defenseman who was 21 years old and in his first full season with the Flyers when they won the Stanley Cup in 1974. "He'd call you out if you didn't do something right, but he let leadership discipline the players. We had great leadership from everybody. Certainly Bobby was our main guy, and when Freddy made Bobby the captain, that was a stroke of genius."

To a certain extent, Watson said, Shero let the players police themselves.

"The more freedom you have, the more potential you have," Watson said. "Freddy believed that, and we attained that. Freddy gave us freedom on the ice and a certain amount off the ice. He didn't overstep in the locker room and let leaders lead. And by showing trust in us, he made us stronger. He stayed in the background and stepped in whenever he had to."

Shero spent 13 years coaching in the minors before being hired by the Flyers as their head coach in 1971-72. He was 46 and still thirsty for knowledge.

At the time, the Flyers were known to be regulars at Rexy's in South Jersey, where they would get a few beers after games. But the players were not out of shape, Watson said.

Shero was the reason.

"He went to Russia and tapped into their great system of hockey and brought it back to the NHL," Watson said. "He implemented some of their things - lots of off-ice training. He hired a strength coach who made us stronger, more explosive, and more aware of our diets, which wasn't prominent in the early 1970s."

'A nice touch'

"I do not believe you can do today's business with yesterday's methods and be in business tomorrow."

- Fred Shero

Shero, a defenseman, spent most of his playing days in the minors, though he reached the NHL for a cup of coffee with the New York Rangers from 1947-48 to 1949-50. He coached in the minors - at places like Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, St. Paul, Omaha, and Buffalo - for a total of 13 years before Allen, the Flyers general manager, took a chance on him.

All those years, all those bus trips, gave Shero a chance to become a deep thinker and a philosophical sort. He would write notes and slip them into his players' gloves.

Some of his quotes became legendary. Some were sentimental and deep. Some were to just loosen up his players. "Take the shortest route to the puck carrier," he once wrote to them, "and arrive in ill humor."

The message he scrawled on the blackboard during the 1974 Finals against heavily favored Boston became famous: "Win today and we walk together forever."

"When I look back at that quote today, it wasn't just for the team, but for the whole Delaware Valley," Parent said. "When I walk around, the whole Delaware Valley was part of a family. People say, 'Why did you choose to stay in the area?' I say because this city and the surrounding area have become my family."

As only he could, Shero once described his style this way: "Good coaching is like holding a dove in your hand. Squeeze it too tight and it dies, not tight enough and it flies away. He must have a nice touch with a dove, not too tough and not too soft."

Fred Shero, Hall of Famer, had that touch.


scarchidi@phillynews.com

@BroadStBull

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