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 ninth in the series of Spectrum Memories.
Chris Therien and Jaromir Jagr were just a match made in hockey heaven in the late 1990′s.
Therien, the hulking defenseman out of Providence College, who broke in with the Flyers during the lockout-shortened 1995 season. Jagr, the slick skating winger from the Czech Republic with enough moves to fill a highlight reel.
When you saw one, you saw the other. Therien made what reputation he enjoyed throughout the early stages of his career by acting as a shadow on Pittsburgh’s Number 68.
When Mario Lemieux was on the ice (usually during power plays), all Therien had to do was make sure Jagr didn’t escape his grasp, lest passing lanes open up and impending doom come down upon the Flyers. When Lemieux was not involved, either at even strength (because both men were stationed on separate lines), or due to injury, the job became a little bit easier because Jagr became the focal point of the Penguins offense, and shutting him down meant that Philly had the best chance to win hockey games.
On the final — an unseasonably warm – Sunday of March in 1996, as the year drew to a close and the Flyers and Penguins were fighting for the coveted top spot in the Eastern Conference, Therien, the Orange and Black, and the 17,380 fans in attendance were in luck: Lemieux was sitting out.
In his first year since taking off the whole 1994-95 season due to the combined stress of surviving cancer and cumulative back injuries, Lemieux ripped through the NHL like snot through Kleenex. He’d go for a league-best 161 points in just 60 games. The plan was for him to sit out the back end of consecutive games if that split was one at home and one on the road.
Curiously, with two weeks left in the 1995-96 season and home ice throughout the first three rounds on the line, Number 66 decided to take a breather.
That meant Jagr was on the hook to lead the club on the forward lines. Sure, the Flying Pigeons had Petr Nedved, Ron Francis, Bryan Smolinski, Sergei Zubov and Tomas Sandstrom, but Jagr (147 points) was the secondary target for all opposing defenses.
And that also meant the Spectrum faithful got double the chance to send their special salute to the young star: the cat whistle.
Why? Because Jagr took a page from the late 1980s fashion and updated it to the extreme. His mullet was a combination of permed curly hair in the front and a horses’ mane in the back. It was gloriously effete. It couldn’t escape notice.
With the same loudness and intensity they used to boo the hell out of former defenseman Doug Crossman, every sellout crowd when the Penguins came to town used to let fly every time Jagr was even spotted on the ice.
It always started out quiet, but rose in pitch and length when Jagr touched the puck. Rules being rules when you try to burn a hated foe, the longer he touched the puck, the longer and louder the whistles got.
They’d inevitably overlap from one side of the Spectrum to the other, colliding perfectly at the sections behind either goal.
Let’s not forget. He was pretty, like a girl, with that haircut. He also did horrible, horrible things against the Flyers at home and on the road for the first four years of his storied career.
Enter Therien, and his largesse. He was supposed to act like a parasite to the NHL’s second-leading scorer on that particular Sunday, and attach himself he did.
The Penguins got the first goal of the day, less than five minutes in, and the whistles still echoed, but with a hollow, passionless ring. Then John LeClair tied the game, and suddenly the intensity picked up.
The Flyers unloaded 20 shots on Tom Barrasso in the second period, and though they were unable to snag the lead, their physical play started to soften up the Pens.
Inevitably, that led to Jagr getting the puck less and less, and for less time, which meant the whistling came out in shrill bursts.
THWEET! THWEET! THWEET! THWEEEEEE!
The only punctuation in the onslaught came when Therien made like a human eraser and eliminated Jagr from the play, or just dumped him on his ass. Then, it was a rising tide of laughter and frenzied cheering.
LeClair pumped in two more goals early in the third period to complete his natural hat trick and draw ever closer to that magical 50-goal mark and give the Flyers a 3-0 lead. It ended up a 4-1 win with a 40-17 shot advantage and a late score from Bob Corkum, and my hands were the sorest they’ve ever been.
You see, I couldn’t whistle as needed. 18 years old, Senoritis in full swing, world at my beck and call, and I couldn’t do something so simple. I can do it while drawing air in, but not while breathing out and not loud enough to be heard and certainly not like the grandaddy of ‘em all, the two fingers in the mouth and throwing out a long, loud burst of sound.
I couldn’t (and still can’t) ride a non-stationery bike, but as nobody was trying to wipe out Jagr during the Tour de France, so what? It sucked that all I could do was sit back, laugh, and keep banging that heating vent when the other 17,379 made their presence known in that memorable way.
Still, the final verdict on Jagr was three shots, no points, plus-1, and endless hilarity during his 20-or-so shifts.
The mullet would have its day unto the new Millennium, but it was never as much an obvious target as it was then. Lemieux left the game in 1997 and Jagr became el capitan, so the hair was steadily reined in over the intervening years.
As Therien grew and aged, his skills on both ends of the ice waned. But his closeness to Jagr remained, and his four-times-yearly homework assignment often brought out the best in what existed in his own defensive game.
The devolution of the game during that period thanks to the neutral zone trap also robbed the fans of their say, since you can’t rightly whistle at a player when you’re not sure he has the puck during endless battles along the boards.