Renewing the case for Tim Kerr

With the recent announcement that former Flyers defenseman Mark Howe will be among the class enshrined this coming November into the Hockey Hall of Fame, it’s a given that thoughts will turn to other members of those 1980s teams who might deserve a shot at immortality.

One such overlooked player is Tim Kerr, an oak of a man who patrolled the area around the crease and left defenders and goaltenders alike struggling for ways to stop him during the latter half of the decade.

Below is a dressed-up re-print of a column I wrote for The Phanatic Magazine back in November of 2008 regarding the absence of interest in Kerr when Cam Neely was elected to the Hall several years earlier.

One thing has really bothered me over the last couple years with regard to the Hockey Hall of Fame, the electoral process and the politics behind it.

Cam Neely has been enshrined while Tim Kerr pretty much continues to languish in obscurity.

The power forward position is one which grew out of the rapid development of the game in the 1980s, a new kind of game-changing task which demanded certain players subdue the opposition with their scoring touch and hammer fists.

Neely’s induction into the Hall back in 2005 didn’t officially legitimize the position, but it did finally cast a spotlight on a small niche of skaters which were prevalent roughly from the WHA folding in 1979 through the massive drop in goals in the late 1990s.

It also cast a spotlight on a clear injustice, whether you support the Flyers or are a hockey fan in general.

Looking back two-plus decades, Kerr and former Winnipeg Jet Paul MacLean were setting the standard for the power-forward position just about the time Neely’s career was warming up.

In fact, MacLean, who was centered by Hall resident Dale Hawerchuk, used to be called the “Tim Kerr of the Campbell Conference.” Who was Neely compared to, and who ever drew a similar comparison to him later on?

In fact, Neely, Gerard Gallant, Brendan Shanahan, Wendel Clark, Eric Lindros, Trevor Linden and others who continued the tradition owe a debt to both MacLean and primarily Kerr.

Each man had primes of roughly seven years, Kerr from 1983-90 and Neely from 1987-94, so it’s fair to examine each in that time frame.

After knee injuries sidelined him for most of 1982-83, Kerr exploded into history, recording four consecutive 50-goal seasons from 1983-87. In 1983-84, he notched 54 goals — equal to the total of his first three seasons combined. He led Philadelphia in scoring four times (1983-85, 1986-87, 1988-89), while placing second in the NHL to Wayne Gretzky (62) in total goals in 1986-87.

In addition, Kerr assumed the risk and took a tremendous beating over the years basically parking himself from the edge of the crease to about 20 feet. It’s no wonder his knee and shoulder went under the knife so many times. It’s a wonder his hands weren’t broken more often, since he had to layeth the smackdown on forwards or defensemen who drew his ire with the stick or body in the slot.

Each time, though, he persevered, and returned to play until his effectiveness was so limited that he retired at age 33.

Having missed all but 8 regular-season games in 1987-88 thanks to the shoulder issues that killed his ’87 playoffs, Kerr was awarded the Masterton Trophy for a 48-goal campaign in 1989.

Although the Flyers built themselves a club without a clear star in the period they contended with the Edmonton Oilers, Kerr was clearly the focal point for the opposition. Who knows how far the club may have gotten without him?

We know the impact of his loss in two Stanley Cup Finals had a clearly negative effect, and in the seven-game 1987 defeat, his absence was the chief deciding factor in Edmonton’s victory.

On the other hand, after 36 and 42 goals in his first two Bruins years, Neely hit 50 goals only twice in a row (1989-91) and again in that memorable run during the 1993-94 season when he became a folk hero in Boston for doing it on one good leg. Neely won the Masterton at the end of that year, and deservedly so.

If it were not for the combined efforts of he and Ray Bourque, the Bruins would not have reached the Stanley Cup Finals in 1988 and 1990; unfortunately Boston was nothing more than cannon fodder for Oilers clubs with twice the talent. Having him on the roster at full strength clearly wasn’t as much of a difference maker Kerr’s absence was for Philadelphia.

Plus, during the 1991-92 and 1992-93 seasons when Neely was limited to 22 games in the wake of Ulf Samuelsson’s cheap shot, the Bruins finished second and first respectively and the club’s overall goal production was not hampered.

When Kerr was out of the lineup in his later Philadelphia years, the remaining offense never could quite compensate properly, and his final team here in 1989-1990 missed the playoffs after he sat for 40 games.

And, unlike Kerr, Neely never made his living in the slot, and didn’t take nearly as much punishment. Plus, unlike Kerr, Neely seemed at times to chase down his prey and drop the gloves just to make a point. Though brought up in the Bullies mold early on, in his high-production years Kerr only fought when he needed to establish territory and was so feared that no one challenged him as his career continued.

Kerr also still holds a Flyers franchise record for total 50-goal seasons; an NHL record for most power play goals in one season (34 in 1985-86); a playoff record for most and fastest goals in one period (four in an 8:16 in the second period of a 6-5 Patrick Division Semifinal win over the New York Rangers, 4/13/85).

Neely has no bona-fide mark anywhere in the record books, save for being one of a handful of players to score 50 in less than 50 games — and even that record has an asterisk beside it, as he did not set the mark prior to Boston’s 50th game that season per league mandate.

Also, at best, you can say it’s a wash for both men in terms of what they would have done if they’d been goal-scoring machines over a longer, healthier period.

Neely ended with 395 goals in 726 games while Kerr netted 370 in 655. With three more quality seasons, each were a lock for 500 but Kerr still holds the higher goal-per-game percentage (.565 to .544).

What Neely also had going for him, which Kerr does not, is a high profile beyond his playing days.

I’m not saying that Neely has openly courted that support for his own ego or to advance his case for the Hall. However, his work with his foundation, operating the Neely House and his friendship with those in the entertainment industry, particularly Denis Leary, definitely boosted his image for the better.

Meanwhile, a bit closer to the hockey ethos, Kerr has chosen to raise his kids near Avalon, New Jersey while owning his successful realty company and operating his own charity. He’s mostly been out of the spotlight with Flyers and Flyers’ Alumni events save for his induction into the team’s Hall of Fame in March, 1994.

If you want a human interest story on Kerr’s side on par with Neely, how about the time his wife died suddenly after giving birth in October of 1990, and he not only returned to the ice, but he also soldiered on and raised his children as a single father?

As often happens with an era where there is a saturation of great players, there isn’t enough room to nominate or elect all of them in due time.

Still, I’ve barely heard mention of Kerr’s name as the years pass. There’s something curious about it, whether you believe in any anti-Flyers bias from Canadians or sports writers or not.

He’s also not the first former Flyer with star pedigree from beyond the 1970s you can say that about (with the selection committee finally coming around to electing Howe last week), but he’s the most glaring omission from the ledger, especially if someone who built his reputation in Kerr’s wake is already among the immortals.

Maybe Howe’s enshrinement will clear the way for greater consideration. Word of mouth into the right ear from his former teammate has to have some kind of weight to future decisions, right?

The Hall isn’t La Cosa Nostra…they can keep the books open, so why not find yet another Flyer worthy?

And if Phillies fans could flood the ballot boxes to get Shane Victorino into the All-Star Game on multiple occasions, there should be hundreds of hockey fans in the Delaware Valley ready to do the same thing for this franchise great.