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The Verdict: Flyers an unlikely but formidable foe

Friday, 05.28.2010 / 10:37 PM / The Verdict
By Bob Verdi  - Blackhawks Team Historian
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The Verdict: Flyers an unlikely but formidable foe

When Jim Cornelison belts out our National Anthem Saturday night, and extends his left hand toward the stars and stripes, the United Center will rock in anticipation of a first time booking—the Stanley Cup final. Only a few years ago, had Cornelison done that, it would certainly not be during Memorial Day weekend, and his gesture might have been interpreted as a welcoming gesture to those four loyal and lonely fans in section 308.

Yes, through a lot of pluck and a little luck, the Blackhawks have graduated from the side of milk cartons to hockey’s marquee event. This season marks the 40th anniversary of their historic elevation from last to first, a wild winter culminating with the last game on the regular schedule, April 5, a Sunday night, when they punctured an empty net for five 3rd period goals en route to a 10-2 victory over the desperate Montreal Canadiens.

At the moment it seemed like the ultimate rebirth of a proud Chicago franchise. But in retrospect, what the Blackhawks have accomplished recently—a complete attitude adjustment, on and off the ice—makes the 1970 saga seem a minor correction. For a while recently, we imagined how special it would be for an Original Six final. After all, the Canadiens deprived the Blackhawks of the NHL’s ultimate prize in 1971 and again 1973. What symmetry that would have brought to this tournament.

THE VERDICT

Team historian Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributor for the Chicago Tribune. Verdi authored "Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy-Five Years" in 2001.

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But the Philadelphia Flyers do not pay much attention to symmetry, or the lore of averages. Saturday night’s foe eeked into the playoffs, then dumped the New Jersey Devils in workmanlike fashion; the Boston Bruins after falling behind 3-0 in the series and 3-0 in Game 7; then the upstart Canadiens, who finished below Philadelphia as the eighth and last seed in the Eastern Conference.

Indeed, the only symmetry attached to the Flyers is their annual stability. When the league doubled its size from six to 12 teams in 1967, Philadelphia promptly established itself as a model expansion organization, top to bottom. The Flyers have earned two Stanley Cups (1974 and 1975) since the Blackhawks won their last one (1961), and have missed the playoffs fewer times than the Blackhawks during that span.

Moreover, the Flyers attracted and nourished a solid fan base through progressive management and a pragmatic marketing platform that outperformed much of the establishment. They had fun by bringing in Kate Smith to sing “God Bless America” as a good luck charm, then developed a “Broad Street Bullies” motif that cut opponents down to size. The Flyers had no business whipping Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito’s Boston Bruins in 1974, but they won in six games with hard work and intimidation. When the great Bobby Clarke was your spiritual leader, you initiated checks and finished them, all the better with a serious scowl or a wayward elbow.

Yet, just when you thought it was safer to keep women and children away from these grizzly guys from the City of Brotherly Love, you saw another side of them. The Flyers visited the Stadium just prior to a bygone Christmas, no doubt intending to terrorize the Blackhawks. But the Flyers saw a story in the Chicago Tribune detailing a mother who was flat broke and depressed about how she would have no money to offer her kids a square meal, let alone presents.

After the game that night, Clarke waved to a Tribune reporter he knew. The Flyers’ captain turned over an envelope containing $250. “The guys read about that lady on the front page today,” said Clarke, still perspiring, with the rest of his teeth sitting in his locker. “Make sure she gets this in time for the holiday, OK?”
The Broad Street Bullies, while off-duty, were a class unit. Emphasis on unit. One for all, all for one. 

When the Blackhawks and Flyers had their only meeting this season—a rainy Saturday afternoon, March 13—the visitors were looking for their first victory in Philadelphia since 1996 and appeared to have it well in hand. But the Flyers stunned the Blackhawks for two goals in the last 2:04 to triumph, 3-2, two points that came in very handy for the Flyers at season’s end, which resulted in a playoff berth only after a shootout survival against the New York Rangers in Game No. 82.

Scott Hartnell tied the game 2-2 with an assist by goalie Michael Leighton, and then déjà vu all over again for the Blackhawks. The Flyers went virtually end to end, coast to coast, for a winning goal with 2.1 seconds left in regulation by Chris Pronger—you’ll be hearing his name again in the next couple weeks or so.

Cristobal Huet was so infuriated that he wheeled around and shattered his goalie stick over the crossbar of his cage, and if coach Joel Quenneville had something to snap, he’d have probably done likewise. He had to take a deep breath before even breaking his silence.

“Tough loss,” huffed Quenneville, who was as upset as you’ll ever see him. The Flyers advanced the game by saying it was a “measuring stick”. That is, would they stack up against one of the league’s elite teams, an infrequent guest from the Western Conference? Upstairs, in the preambles, there was celestial musing about what might have been.

The Flyers completed the 2006-07 season with 56 points, their worst ever, and thus were in prime position to win the draft lottery with a 25 percent chance. But the Blackhawks, with 71 points and the fifth-poorest record, beat the odds and snagged Patrick Kane with the No. 1 pick. The Flyers, selecting second, took James van Riemsdyk, who played with Kane on the USA-National Under-18 team.

“Yeah,” Kane remarked, leaving Philadelphia. “I could have been here instead.”

The Blackhawks might have assumed they’d seen the last of the Flyers, but listen to what Leighton uttered in the post-mortems.

“This,” he said, “would be a nice matchup again down the road.”

Little did we know.