Spectrum Memories: Sometimes They Come Back

To celebrate my 25th year of hockey fandom, I will occasionally step into the way-back machine and write about events in the Flyers’ past. For the balance of the season, I will be dipping into the well to ruminate about some things related to my love of the Philadelphia Flyers, and in general about the fan experience as a youngster.

This is the sixth in the series of Spectrum Memories.

Losing a family member or a friend to relocations, sickness or death is never a good experience, and the emotions are very raw and fresh when you’re a kid. Thankfully, my rather small family unit didn’t suffer many misfortunes in that way until very recently, but it did happen to me with the Flyers almost from the start.

You might recall an earlier post which described my first foray into the Spectrum back in February, 1985…a game which saw the Penguins demolished by an 8-2 score and won by backup goalie Bob Froese.

Well, Froese had spent a maddeningly inconsistent four-plus seasons with the franchise in the early-to-mid 1980′s, and was eventually dumped on the New York Rangers just before Christmas of 1986 for the stork-like defenseman Kjell Samuelsson.

But it wasn’t for lack of effort or shoddy performance that Froese was dealt to a hated division rival…it was because he was sick of being jerked around by the organization.

He’d come up in the middle of the 1982-83 season and formed a deadly rookie goaltending tandem with Pelle Lindbergh, then, when Lindbergh faltered badly in the middle of that next year, Froese wrested the starting job away and did well enough to earn the nod for a brief playoff run.

When Mike Keenan came along as head coach in 1984, Froese had one (and I stress one) bad game, according to Jay Greenberg’s Full Spectrum, and Lindbergh was installed as the starter until further notice. Later that year, Pelle started 24 straight games due to great play and a Froese injury, but both returned healthy for that long ’85 playoff journey.

When Lindbergh was killed in November, 1985, Froese was pressed into Number One duty, and all he did was go 31-10-3 with a 2.55 GAA and five shutouts. It wasn’t all sunshine and roses even then, as Bob Clarke plotted to trade Froese from the minute Lindbergh’s plug was pulled, but for lack of any better option, Number 35 was under the spotlight for the duration.

The first-place Flyers lost to eventual Vezina Trophy winner John Vanbiesbrouck that Spring, and though Froese was second in voting, it apparently wasn’t enough to satisfy Clarke or Keenan. Enter Ron Hextall.

A 22-year-old unproven rookie, Hextall was called up for the season-opener against Edmonton — yes, that Edmonton – given eight of 10 starts in October, and all of them in November as Froese stewed. Once again relegated to distant backup as Chico Resch was worked in, he lashed out at the club early that month and the skids were greased.

After wins over Vancouver and Pittsburgh in the season’s first month, Froese got one last chance to prove himself in a December 9 home game against the Canucks, and did well enough in a 6-3 win to put himself on the trading block.

After forming such a tight bond with the team and the sport over the Flyers’ success that first season I was able to consciously remember watching hockey, then going through the Lindbergh saga and the “losing to a fourth-place Rangers” debacle, this little towheaded eight-year old who was just getting over a week-long flu was totally shocked by the news.

What do you call a Christmas present in reverse? Not getting coal, but the proper name for having a gift literally taken away?

Why was he traded? He didn’t do anything bad. The Rangers? Really? Who’s Kjell Samuelsson? How do you pronounce his name, dad?

It wasn’t until years later when Full Spectrum came out that I was able to get the full-on story of the politics involved, but at the time it was the closest thing to trauma without a death I could imagine. This Hextall better be really good.

The Flyers lost four in a row before the calendar turned to 1987 and it wasn’t looking like a real good decision.

In any case, this was Year One of my family’s matinee plan tickets, and believe it or not, the first two afternoon games were against the Rangers.

It was the end of January, the 31st I believe, when the Broadway Blueshirts came to Pattison Avenue and the Orange and Black were limping around. Brian Propp was lost until February and Ilkka Sinisalo was gone until March with serious knee injuries. Ronnie Sutter would be out for the remainder of the season with back issues, and Mark Howe bravely played through back pain.

It was down to Peter Zezel and Tim Kerr to keep the offense flowing, while people like Glen Seabrooke, Don Nachbaur, Ray Allison and John Stevens rode the Hershey Shuttle up to the big time to fill gaps.

It was the perfect time for a jilted goaltender to get some revenge against his wounded former teammates.

This was a very heady time in the rivalry; the Rangers finished above the Flyers in 1979 and 1982 and gave them a beat-down in the playoffs each time. They finished well below the Flyers in the standings in 1983 and 1986 and snatched away what was planned as deep postseason runs. Phil Esposito was New York’s general manager and still held over that old hatred from when the Bruins battled the Flyers in the 1970s. Bob Clarke and Paul Holmgren were at the forefront in the GM seat and assistant coach slot, carrying reminders that the Rangers existed solely as the Inspector Javert to Philly’s Jean Valjean.

I remember the lukewarm reaction that Froese received when he was announced by Lou Nolan as New York’s starting goaltender. It was much simpler then for the fans to take a stance without so much tabloidesque media coverage: “Thanks for the memories, but now you’re playing for the enemy.”

Hextall, I recall was very much fired up. This was his chance to prove to the man himself that he was worthy of the top spot. This was also the game that Tomas Sandstrom became tops on the Hit List because he was going around cracking Flyers in the head with his stick without penalties or retribution.

Well…it didn’t work out as planned. The crowd moaned through two relatively boring periods in a 1-1 tie with the exception of Dave Brown’s slashing major and misconduct for doing the dirt on Sandstrom.

Though now nine years young, the pleasure of bloodletting and revenge wasn’t lost. At least it wasn’t me getting picked on, or blamed for something I didn’t do on the monkey bars and asked to sit on the curb.

As the man who now got half the starts in Manhattan, Froese did pick up this annoying habit that really endeared him to his former supporters. Starting with this game, any time any Flyer got near his crease, he’d flop to the ice. Real Van De Kamp’s job, over-exaggerated pre-talking pictures acting.

He’d poke and prod and hold, and in the next breath go down like he was shot with a Gatlin Gun. It reached its Stooges-like extreme in the playoffs, but that’s another story.

Hextall just fumed and fumed as the Rangers buzzed him, and eventually worked himself up enough to spike the puck like a football with one of his more routine saves.

All that emotion was for naught. Old torturers Pierre Larouche and Dan Maloney scored in the third period giving Froese his win over his old mates, a 3-1 final. I was pissed. I remained pissed in the second week of March when Froese returned to Philly and won a 6-1 blowout.

(If I can diverge for another moment here…Larouche by this time was at the end of a decade-plus-long career, and he was basically benched or looking on from the press box until he was needed to provide purely offensive punch for New York. Peter Laviolette is using Nikolay Zherdev for the same purpose now.)

The Flyers lost three home games to the Rangers that year out of four and Froese, now a minister in upstate New York, was responsible for the last two.

In later years when the roster was gutted and the Flyers crumbled to the bottom of the Patrick Division, when players like Propp, Dave Poulin, Zezel, Brad McCrimmon and others came back, there were the requisite polite cheers or sustained ovations behind aching hearts.

But not for Froese. Despite posting the best winning percentage in team history for a goaltender who played in at least 20 games for the Flyers (92-29-12, 2.74 GAA, 12 shutouts), it was like he went to play for the Mafia or the Soviets. Even though the Rangers were still a fourth-place team, they were still a threat come playoff time.

Fans of that era took heart in the fact that Froese didn’t win too many more games against the Flyers, or any other team, when he played for the Rangers until the end of his career in 1990.

It was the first time I had to deal with a favorite player coming back to haunt the Flyers. And it wouldn’t be the last.