The Numbers Game

October 7, 1990. An otherwise unremarkable day in the history of the universe.

In hockey circles, It was the Philadelphia Flyers’ 1990-91 home opener, played against the Detroit Red Wings after opening the year with two straight losses at Boston and New Jersey.

In and of itself, that 7-2 victory played out in front of a sell-out crowd wasn’t notable, unless you count falling behind 2-0 early and then scoring seven straight goals.

What did make it special was, it was the official retirement ceremony for Bill Barber’s #7. Honored first towards the tail end of the 1985-86 season for his 13 years of service to the franchise, on that Sunday night, Barber, still the Flyers’ all-time leading goal scorer, saw his number raised to the rafters to join Bobby Clarke, Barry Ashbee and Bernie Parent.

And that’s been it.

It’s getting mighty lonely up there, dontcha think?

It’s been 36 years since the last Stanley Cup. That’s three generations in hockey terms. The Orange and Black have seen dozens of talents at least worthy of consideration for rafter-raising since then.

But why have we not seen another retirement ceremony?

The easiest and simplest answer is, Ed Snider has always, and will always, put winning first. As long as he’s breathing, he’ll have the final say in that matter no matter who is actually pulling the strings. That said, since Clarke, Barber and Parent were the three prinicipals in taking home the organization’s two Cups, of course they’re up there.

How do you explain Barry Ashbee? His tenure in Philadelphia was brief — just three years. Technically, he didn’t win the Cup with that ’74 team because his career ended in semifinal round thanks to a gruesome eye injury. He was only a second assistant coach on the ’75 squad. Three years later, his life was cut short by leukemia. Up goes the jersey.

After that, the matter gets complicated because the club has existed so long, it has multiple worthy players who have worn the same numbers as those as-yet-honored Flyers who did take home championships.

Here’s a rundown of some numbers that should be given serious consideration.

#2 – Mark Howe, Ed Van Impe.

Van Impe was an original Flyer who became an integral part of both Cup wins as a rugged defensive defenseman. He remained an active part of the organization well after his playing days were over. Also, he personally caused the Russians to walk off the ice in 1976 with his vicious elbow to the head of Valeri Kharlamov. He was elected to the Flyers Hall of Fame in 1993.

Howe is one of the more intriguing characters in league history. Perhaps because of the long shadow of his father, Gordie Howe, or perhaps because of his late-career battles with back injuries that curtailed his effectiveness, Hall of Fame consideration has been sorely lacking.

The Detroit native is simply the best defenseman in Flyers franchise history. From 1982-92, he racked up 138 goals and 480 points in 594 games with Philly, adding 53 points in 82 postseason tilts. He set the tone in the go-go 1980′s as a player who can control the flow of the game at both ends of the ice.

A three-time runner up for the Norris Trophy, he was an incredible plus-85 in 1985-86 and was a plus player every single season here. Yet, his teams came up short twice to Edmonton in the Finals. Nonetheless, Howe is a 2001 entrant into the Flyers’ HOF.

#10 – Bill Clement, Brad McCrimmon, John LeClair

Clement was a valuable member of a rising Flyers club from the depths of expansion to champions, playing in Philly from 1970-76 and scoring the insurance goal late in the third period of Game 6 of the ’75 Final in Buffalo. He returned twice to the club as a broadcaster.

McCrimmon was never really welcomed to the Flyers by none other than Bob(by) Clarke during his five-year tenure (1982-87) in the Quaker City. Paired over his final three years here with Howe, they were arguably the best blue-line tandem in the NHL in the mid-80s. However, Clarke was quoted in Full Spectrum as saying he thought the Saskatchewan native was “a big boozer who I didn’t think cared” and that attitude was crucial in McCrimmon’s suspension early in the 1986-87 season and his eventual trade, for cash, to Calgary the following Summer. Still, he wound up with 187 points in 367 games, and 13 points in 46 playoff contests.

LeClair is a third-generation sniper, and a key component in the Flyers’ revival in the mid-90s. He, along with Reggie Leach and Tim Kerr, stand as the only players in team history to score 50-or-more goals on more than one occasion. Only Kerr did it more times in a row (4) than LeClair did (3). The former collegiate Catamount holds the club record for most consecutive 40-or-more goal seasons with five (1995-2000). All told, LeClair tallied 333 goals and 643 points in 649 games from 1995-2004. He ranks fifth all-time in franchise lore in total goals and seventh in points. Oh yeah…and he’s tops with 61 game-winners.

But…Clement won two Cups, while the Beast and Johnny Vermont won zip.

#12 - Gary Dornhoefer, Tim Kerr, Simon Gagne

Dorny has been a near-constant presence with the organization since he was plucked off the expansion list in 1967. It’s hard to compete with that, along with 518 points in 725 games.

But Kerr manages to do it. From 1980-91, the strong-armed and strong-willed forward from the Ontario side of suburban Detroit poured in 363 goals — still third on the franchise list. He scored 50-or-more goals four straight seasons from 1983-87, and added a 48-goal year after coming back from debilitating shoulder surgeries. He also overcame the death of his wife early in his final year in Philly. A playoff performer who never fully reached his potential due to injuries during the club’s two Stanley Cup appearances against Edmonton, Kerr also holds the NHL record for fastest four goals in one playoff game.

Gagne gets a mention here because he’s coming off a decade-long tenure, which culminated in one of the most historic goals in franchise and NHL history in Game 7 against Boston. The Quebec native ranks ninth in club lore with 259 scores and 10th in points with 524.

#17 - Paul Holmgren, Rod Brind’Amour

Homer’s legacy is that of the toughest guy never to be a Broad Street Bully. He racked up 309 points in exactly 500 games from 1976-84 — only good enough for 25th place on the franchise list — but he does have the distinction of being a key part of the 1980 Streak squad and is the first American-born player to tally a hat trick in a Stanley Cup Finals game. His 1600 penalty minutes stood as a Flyers record until Rick Tocchet broke it during his second tour of duty at the turn of the Millennium.

Rodney, on the other hand, was the anchor around which the Flyers teams of the 90′s revolved. Basically stolen from St. Louis in 1991, Brind’Amour spent 8 1/2 years in Philly, most of that time spent in the center of constant trade rumors.  Often seen wearing the “A,” and tabbed a substitute captain during Eric Lindros’ Grade 3 concussion in 1998, the former Michigan State Spartan was shipped off to Carolina in January, 2000 after a mere 235 goals and 601 points in 633 games.

Who can forget his blistering 1997 playoffs, where he led the Flyers with 13 goals and tied for second with 21 points. Looking back, “The Bod” was probably the only member of the team or coaching staff that wasn’t scared stiff of the Red Wings in their four-game sweep in the Cup Finals.

#20 - Jim Watson, Dave Poulin

Watson, the youngest and more offensively-inclined one between he and older brother Joe, brought a solid blueline presence for 10 years before back and spine issues forced an early retirement.

Poulin was leadership personified in the 1980s as the Flyers got with the times and shifted into the fast lane of the NHL elite. Groomed by Bobby Clarke from his rookie season to eventually be a leader, Poulin was given the captaincy through Clarke’s subterfuge — he traded Darryl Sittler to Detroit on the day he was to be named captain and Poulin was the next logical choice.

An undrafted free agent who played in Sweden after his days at Notre Dame were over, Poulin scored twice in his first NHL game, at Toronto. He then set the club’s rookie goals, assists points record in 1984, and went on to register 394 points in 467 games. His worth to the club was shown best in the playoffs, however.

In both 1985 and 1987, broken ribs kept him out of key contests, but Poulin returned at key times. The first instance was his penalty-killing presence against Quebec in the ’85 Wales Conference Finals where he scored twice shorthanded, including the iconic breakaway 3-on-5 goal in the deciding Game 6 at the Spectrum. The second instance came in ’87, where he was hurt in the first round against the Rangers but came back for a Game 7 win over the Islanders and sat out before returning to a deciding Game 6 of the Wales Finals in Montreal where he scored a key shorthanded goal in the first period.

Even after his offensive skills were sacrificed for a defensive mindset under head coach Paul Holmgren, Poulin came through in the clutch — tallying an OT goal at Montreal to keep the Flyers’ 1989 playoff run alive.

#26 – Orest Kindrachuk, Brian Propp

“Oscar the Grouch” was the prototypical Flyers forward, one who got the most out of his talent through hard work. His 1975-76 season was a career-best with 26 goals and 75 points. He posted 260 points over five-plus seasons here and won two titles.

Propp was a bridge from the old guard to the new jack. Making his debut in 1979, the soft-spoken forward from Saskatchewan who could score with the best right off the bat also shook off questions about his ability to perform under pressure as he matured.

He ranks second all-time in goals scored (369) and assists (480) third in points (849) and fourth in plus-minus (+311). He hit 90-or-more points in a season four times and tallied at least 30 goals on eight occasions. In 116 playoff games, Propp posted 112 points. It took him nearly eight years to find the answer, but Propp’s 1987 playoffs will long be remembered as career-defining. In 26 games, he notched 12 goals and 28 points — the points mark stood for 23 years until Danny Briere broke it with 30 last season — and scored another iconic goal, the game-tying power-play goal late in Game 6 of the Finals.

#27 – Reggie Leach, Ron Hextall

Before Kerr or LeClair, the Flyers had “The Rifle.” Plucked out of obscurity in California ony five days after the ’74 Cup win, Leach turned into the franchise’s most feared goal scorer. He still holds the club record for goals in one season (61), most goals including playoffs (80), and is tied for the NHL mark  for most scores in one playoff year (19) — all coming in 1975-76. Cemented in team lore by scoring five goals in one playoff game against the Bruins that year when rumored to have been passed out drunk the night before, Leach finished with 306 goals and 514 points in 606 games from 1974-82.

Hextall was everything a Flyer should be wrapped up into one. A fiery spirit, and endless competitor who had no qualms about helping his team with his pads, hands, or scoring touch. He is the first goaltender in NHL history to actually score a goal in both the regular season and in the playoffs. He holds the franchise record, by a wide margin, for penalty minutes by a goalie (476). In two separate tenures, the usually reserved Manitoba native won a franchise-high 240 games with 18 shutouts and a 2.91 goals-against average. He added 45 playoff wins and a Conn Smythe Trophy in his rookie season of 1987.

#88 – Eric Lindros

Yeah…well…he does have some numbers. Eighth all-time in goals (290), fifth in assists (369) and fifth in points (659). His presence did turn around the fortunes of the franchise despite his departure, from Philadelphia and later the NHL, reading like something out of Sophocles.

The fact that he posted 57 points in 50 playoff games was obscured by his untimely injuries and small play back in the ’97 Finals. Still, he’s got a Hart Trophy, a 100-point season, four 40-or-more-goal years, an untouched Prince of Wales Trophy. And it’s pretty much a lock that nobody else who will ever wear his number.

What can make the process easier, though it will require a shift in philosophy, is simply retiring the number itself and not honoring just one player associated with the jersey.

No less a franchise than the Montreal Canadiens have done this recently, because their pantheon of greats pretty much runs the length of Rue Sainte-Catherine and it would be idiotic to hold up honors while squabbling over which player who wore which number was greater.

Their English Canadian counterpart, the Toronto Maple Leafs, technically don’t retire numbers. Instead, their primary method of celebration is by making a particular number “honored” with multiple worthy players attached to the digits. The Leafs have “retired” numbers before, but only for players who have died while in action.

Whatever the next move is, it should at least try and cut one string that binds the 21st Century to the Broad Street Bullies.

At last count, Barber has been honored the most, with three separate ceremonies, while Clarke, Parent and Ashbee have had two (counting the banner lowerings at the Spectrum). There have been a slew of Flyers HOF fetes since 1988, while both Keith Primeau and Eric Desjardins have had recent nights of general honor.

But it just doesn’t have the same majestic ring as raising a banner to the rafters — especially when the latest date any of those looking down from above had played is 1984.

  • Perogie27

    If Lindros’ ever had his number retired or honored, I think there would have to be a hiatus for me as a Flyers fan.

    As far as any other numbers, there’s an easy one that you missed: #8 for Schultz/Recchi

    • Bob H

      @Liza – Pelle’s still a delicate issue given how brief his time here was, and he died.

      @Perogie – I purposely left some numbers out so you wouldn’t get bored with reading. I’m not sold on Recchi because of his clubhouse lawyer tendencies that got both Terry Simpson and Bill Barber fire. Schultz was a defining element of the Cup squads but he was only here for 4+ years.

  • Perogie27

    If Lindros’ ever had his number retired or honored, I think there would have to be a hiatus for me as a Flyers fan.

    As far as any other numbers, there’s an easy one that you missed: #8 for Schultz/Recchi

    • Bob H

      @Liza – Pelle’s still a delicate issue given how brief his time here was, and he died.

      @Perogie – I purposely left some numbers out so you wouldn’t get bored with reading. I’m not sold on Recchi because of his clubhouse lawyer tendencies that got both Terry Simpson and Bill Barber fire. Schultz was a defining element of the Cup squads but he was only here for 4+ years.

  • Gutter

    I was at the game when Barber’s number was retired. It was against the Devils – not the Red Wings.

  • Gutter

    I was at the game when Barber’s number was retired. It was against the Devils – not the Red Wings.