Before Comcast SportsNet came about in 1997, there was PRISM. No, not the NSA’s mass surveillance program, but rather the cable television channel, Philadelphia Regional In-Home Sports and Movies. PRISM was launched in 1976 as a joint venture between Ed Snider’s Spectacor and 20th Century Fox. For a subscription fee of around $12, Philadelphians had, for the first time, the ability to watch all Flyers, Phillies, and Sixers home games, all Big 5 basketball matchups, and all WWF events held at the Spectrum.
In addition to broadcasting live sporting events, PRISM showed a variety of other programming. Under the direction of Sport Director Jim Barniak, PRISM and its sister station SportsChannel Philadelphia, had a slew of sport talk shows and anthologies (The Great Sports Debate, Broad and Pattison, and Sports Scrapbook among others), as well as countless movies (and even the occasional late night skin flick). PRISM had it all. However, the station had some teething issues.
PRISM spent the first five years of existence operating at a loss. This could be attributed to the cost of acquiring the rights to broadcast sporting events and movies, as well as management’s reluctance to run advertisements. At launch, PRISM had a grand total of six subscribers. In the early days of cable, there were very few cable providers and the vast majority of American urban areas were not wired for cable. Those who were fortunate enough to live in an area with the necessary wiring faced astronomical costs. In 1976 PRISM’s $12 price tag was the equivalent of $52.20 in 2017 dollars. At a time when gasoline cost $0.59 per gallon, and median income was around $13,000, PRISM was a luxury that many families could simply not afford.
By 1986, PRISM had a subscriber base of approximately 370,000 households in the Philadelphia area. The majority of these subscribers were suburbanites, as much of the actual city of Philadelphia remained unwired for cable. However, there was a slight loophole that Philadelphian’s could exploit. From 1983-1985, the signal for PRISM was broadcast over the air via WWSG Channel 57. The signal was scrambled, however, this scrambled signal was easily decoded with the proper equipment. This arrangement ended after channel 57 was sold to a new owner and changed over to an entertainment channel later to become UPN-57 (now CW Philly).
Ownership of PRISM varied a great deal over the station’s lifetime. Originally a joint venture between Spectacor and 20th Century Fox, the network became fully owned by Spectacor in 1982. Ed Snider’s group would promptly sell PRISM a year later to a joint venture between Rainbow Media and the Washington Post. In 1985, CBS purchased a minority share in the network before cashing out in 1987. The Washington Post also sold its interest in the venture to Rainbow Media, leaving the Cablevision (formerly owned by the Dolan family, now Altice USA) subsidiary as the sole owner. A deal to sell a 50% share to NBC for a 50% Cablevision interest in the new NBC cable channel CNBC fell through in 1989, leaving Cablevision as the sole owner of PRISM until shortly before the channel’s demise.
In 1990, Cablevision launched a sport-specific basic cable channel called SportsChannel. This channel carried PRISM sport events in the event that there was a scheduling conflict. While the channels were affiliated, they maintained their own separate graphics and announcing teams until 1995, when Cablevision created a uniform appearance that was used on both channels. With a growing network of channels, a new 10-year carrier deal with Comcast, and an ever growing subscriber base, life must have been looking pretty sweet to PRISM’s management. Unbeknownst to all, the end was nigh.
The end of PRISM came rather suddenly in the form of the juggernaut that is Comcast. In 1996, Comcast acquired Spectacor and all of its assets, including the Philadelphia Flyers, and the Philadelphia 76ers, the Spectrum, and the new arena now known as the Wells Fargo Center. The new Comcast-Spectacor behemoth announced that they would be allowing the Flyers and Sixers broadcast deals with PRISM to lapse in favor of starting a new regional sports network that would be centered around their team’s games. PRISM had already lost their TV deal with the Big 5 over a monetary dispute (The Big 5 wanted to be paid for the broadcast rights, while Cablevision felt that the Big 5 should have been paying them), and now lost two of their three professional sports broadcast deals. However, there was one saving grace: this new network would take some time to get started. As the Flyers deal had lapsed just after the merger, this meant that the team was without a broadcast partner. Cablevision, believing that they could get a one-year deal on the cheap, sent the Flyers (and thusly Comcast) a low-ball offer. The response from the Flyers was that they would be producing their own broadcasts in-house, and would sell the rights to said broadcasts to local networks until Comcast SportsNet was ready to air. Panicked, Cablevision agreed to a one-year deal worth approximately $5 million dollars.
In the meantime, Cablevision sold a 40% stake in their sports holdings to Fox/Liberty media for a cool $850 million in June of 1997. PRISM was meant to be rolled into the new Fox Sports Networks, with national pieces being mixed in with local content. There was a slight issue with this however, as the Phillies had just jumped ship to Comcast. This left PRISM with no long-term commitments from any sport organization. Fox decided that the best way to handle this was at the negotiating table. In late summer, Comcast and Fox came to an agreement. PRISM and SportsChannel were shutdown on October 1st, 1997, and the Sixers were let out of their broadcast deal. In exchange, SportsChannel’s signal was purchased by Comcast to be used by the new Comcast SportsNet, while PRISM’s signal was retained by Fox/Liberty, and hosted the Premium movie channel Starz!. Just like that, PRISM was gone.
PRISM and SportsChannel undoubtedly changed the course of Philadelphia sports fandom. Prior to PRISM, Philly fans had three options for consuming Philly sports. They could go to the game, listen to it on the radio, or read about it the next day in The Bulletin, Inquirer, or Daily News. They could also hope and pray that their team was good enough to feature on nationally televised games. Outside of the ranks of the dedicated beat writer, the sport media lens was very broad and unfocused. PRISM was a key part in focusing that lens in Philly, and came about at a time where all of the teams were winning. This success, coupled with the ability to watch that success helped to create the Philadelphia superfan of today.
In autumn of 1927, long before the Flyers were even a glimmer in the eye of Ed Snider, Philadelphia received its first professional ice hockey team: the Philadelphia Arrows of the Canadian-American Hockey League, a minor league.
The Arrows played their home games at Philadelphia Arena, located on the 4500 block of Market Street in West Philadelphia. It was on the same block as the legendary WFIL television studio that hosted Dick Clark’s iconic American Bandstand TV program.
The Arrows got off to a very poor start, coming in last place in both of their first two seasons, and going through two head coaches in the process. The club’s fortunes changed dramatically in their third year with the appointment of Herb Gardiner as head coach. Gardiner, a World War I veteran and the winner of the 1926-27 Hart Trophy (NHL MVP), completely turned the team around and would coach the Arrows for the remainder of the club’s existence. They finished in second place during the 1929-30 regular season before an early playoff exit at the hands of the Boston Tigers. The team took a couple of steps back in the subsequent two seasons, just missing out on the playoffs in the 1930-31 and coming in second to last place in 1931-32.
The 1932-33 season saw the Arrows dominate behind league points leader, Center Paul Runge. They finished the regular season in first place, earning them an automatic berth in the Finals. In true Philadelphia fashion they lost the finals against the Boston Cubs. The Arrows would jump out to a two-games-to-none lead before losing the final three games of the best-of-5 series, culminating with a heartbreaking 4-3 loss at home. The following season saw the Arrows drop down to third place, losing to Boston in the first round of the playoffs. In 1934-35, their last season as the Arrows, the team slumped down to last place.
In the offseason, the team changed names to become the Philadelphia Ramblers. The name change must have helped as the Ramblers won the 1935-36 Canadian-American Hockey League championship. In 1936, the Canadian-American Hockey League merged with the International Hockey League to form the International-American Hockey League. This would later be shortened to the American Hockey League. The Ramblers would make the finals of this new league two out of the next three years, losing on both occasions. After three seasons out of the playoff picture, the Ramblers (Now with a new moniker: the Philadelphia Rockets) ceased operations for good in 1942.
Philadelphia Arena fell into disuse after the construction of the Spectrum in 1967, and was renamed after Martin Luther King Jr. in 1977. On August 24th, 1983, the arena was burned down by arsonists. Today the location where the arena stood is occupied by an apartment complex.
Fun Facts about the Philadelphia Arrows:
- The Arrows had three Hockey Hall of Fame members involved with the club. They were Herb Gardiner (enshrined in 1958), Marty “Goal-a-game” Barry (enshrined in 1965), and Art Coulter. (enshrined in 1974)
- When the Philadelphia Flyers were created in 1967, Ed Snider sought out Arrows coach Herb Gardiner (still living in Philadelphia) and awarded him the honor of being the Flyers first season ticket holder. Gardiner attended Flyers games until his death in 1972.
- Tommy Anderson, who played for the Arrows from 1930-1934 won the Hart Trophy (NHL MVP award) in 1942 with the Brooklyn Americans. He became the last player from a non Original Six team to win the award until Flyers great Bobby Clark won in 1973.
- In 1930, the NHL moved its Pittsburgh Pirates franchise to Philadelphia and rebranded them as the Philadelphia Quakers. The team was so bad that they were out-attended by the Arrows. The Quakers folded after just one season.
Shibe Vintage Sports features this vintage Philadelphia Arrows shirt now available.
The Philadelphia Ramblers that joined the Eastern Hockey League in 1955 were actually the second minor league hockey team by that name. The first had played in the American Hockey League in the 1930s as a farm club for the New York Rangers, but folded in 1941. One of the Ramblers players during their first go-round was a gentleman named Bryan Hextall. You’ve probably heard of his grandson.
After hockey sputtered in the city over the ensuing 14 years, the Ramblers made a return in 1955, coached by an English native named Chirp Benchley. The team was owned by a rather well-to-do fellow by the name of George L. Davis, who married Grace Kelly’s sister Margaret and who owned The Arena at 4530 Market, which is where the Ramblers played. They were later owned by Bud Dudley, who founded the Liberty Bowl.
The team was entertaining but not particularly good. Their best known players were Ted Harris (who would play for the Flyers second Stanley Cup team many years later) and John Brophy, who would later coach the Maple Leafs.
Perhaps the highlight of their existence was a thrilling 3-3 tie with the Soviet National Team in 1959, a game in which the Ramblers scored twice in the final four minutes before a sellout crowd of over 5,611 at the Arena. The Soviets had steamrolled their previous opponents but were stopped by Rambler goalie Ivan Walmsley.
In 1964, the team packed up and headed across the river, where they became the Jersey Devils, and played at Cherry Hill Arena. Players on the Devils included Bobby Taylor, who later backed up Bernie on the Flyers, and Vic Stasiuk, who would coach the Flyers for two seasons. That team would fold with the rest of the EHL in 1973.
One of the great things about the Ramblers was their game programs. The artwork on them was really, really cool. Here are a few game programs below. At the request of Ray Didinger, who used to attend Ramblers games as a kid, Shibe Sports has created a Ramblers shirt, which they decided to create in the style of one of the game programs. You can also check out some great old photos of the team posted online by the daughter of former player Rocky Rukavina.
On January 6th, 1972, the St. Louis Blues got into a fight with Flyers fans that made the Malice in the Palace look like child’s play. It started after the two teams had skated off the ice following the second period, with the Flyers taking a 2-0 lead into the intermission. St. Louis Blues coach Al Arbour went over to referee John Ashley to complain about a call on his way down the ramp. As the two spoke, a Flyers fan decided to pour beer down Arbour’s back. Soon other fans followed by throwing trash and taking swings at Arbour. Incensed at the treatment their coach was getting, several Blues players took off in the direction of the ramp and started to swing their sticks and climb into the stands to fight the fans in question. The cops at the arena quickly got involved, and the then-notorious Philadelphia police (Interestingly, the game occurred three days after Frank Rizzo was sworn in as Mayor) were all too happy to use their nightsticks on the Blues players, beating them back into the locker room. Legend has it that a Philly newsman who had rushed over to the scene of the mayhem asked a nearby cop what was going on.
“It’s the Saint Louis Blues against the cops, and we’re winning.”
Blues coach Al Arbour received a gash needing 10 stitches and Blues player John Arbour (no relation) needed 40 stitches. They were also among the four Blues who were arrested following the game. Bail was set at $500, and they weren’t released from the police station until Ed Snider paid their bail at 5 in the morning. They had an arraignment the next month when they came to visit the Flyers again, but all charges were dropped. You can see some video footage of the fight here.
After the 25-minute melee the Blues, seemingly inspired, came out in the third period and scored three unanswered goals to win 3-2. After the game, the Blues owner was furious, saying, “That was the worst case of police brutality I’ve ever seen or heard about.” He threatened a lawsuit against the city. Ed Snider disagreed, arguing that the Blues players had no right to go into the stands.
Remarkably, the win would be the Blues last one in Philadelphia until the late 80s. The Flyers would go 31-0-3 against the Blues over the next 16 seasons at the Spectrum until finally falling in November of 1988.
The Philadelphia Firebirds were a minor league ice hockey team that began play in Philly in 1974. One of their first owners was former Phillie great Robin Roberts, though he left after they lost a ton of money in their first season.
They began play in the North American Hockey League, where they played from 1974-1977. Among the players on that inaugural team was goalie Reggie Lemelin, who would play for the team for five years before later enjoying some success with the Calgary Flames and would be the Flyers goaltending coach for 13 years.
The team had some great nicknames. The best was Gordie “Road Hog” Brooks, but they also had Dave “Crash” Kelly, Fred “Fats” Williams, Bob “Waldo” Neely, and enforcer Mike “Barretta” Haworth.
The Firebirds won the league’s Lockhart Cup in 1976, defeating the Beauce Jaros, a team based in Quebec, 4 games to 2. (Here’s a great photo of a packed house in Philly for one of those games. A friend of mine who was at one of those games said that Paul Newman attended, as he was scouting for his upcoming film Slap Shot, which was based on the NAHL.)
The league folded in 1977, and the team moved to the American Hockey League. They played there for two years (in one of those seasons, they featured a right wing named Steve Coates; they also had a young left wing named Mike Eruzione who played with them for 6 games before becoming a national hero), then moved to Syracuse in 1979, where they played for one year as the Syracuse Firebirds. They folded a year later. For their 5-year run in Philly, they played at Convention Hall on the edge of Penn’s campus near Franklin Field.
Here’s our final list. A bartender who heard the list thought it should have been most under-appreciated, not underrated. “Everybody knew Joe Frazier was great, they just didn’t appreciate that he was great.” Perhaps a fair assessment, but I guess the final word here is that these are guys who don’t get their just due when great athletes in this city come up in conversation, and we want to make sure they don’t get overlooked. Whatever word best applies to guys who don’t get their just due, please feel free to apply. Feel free to agree, disagree with these in the comments. Thanks to Lalli for helping me put this together.
#1. Paul Arizin
#2. Hal Greer.
#3. Donovan McNabb.
#4. Ricky Watters.
#5. Joe Frazier.
#6. Bobby Abreu.
#7. Kimmo Timonen.
#8. Dick Allen.
#9. Eddie Plank.
#10. Del Ennis.
#11. Brad McCrimmon.
#12. Freddy Leach.
#13. Von Hayes.
#14. John LeClair.
#15. Byron Evans.
Kimmo Timonen was underrated from the start of his career. He was selected in the 10th Round (250th of 286 total picks) by the L.A. Kings in the 1993 Entry Draft. In today’s NHL, there are only 7 rounds in the draft, so it’s pretty easy to see what NHL front offices thought of Timonen. That being said, there’s a reason the Flyers haven’t missed the playoffs since Kimmo joined the team.
After playing several years in Nashville, the Flyers acquired Timonen in what now looks like one of the more lopsided trades in team history. As part of the deal that sent an aging Peter Forsberg to the Predators, the Flyers obtained a 1st round pick which they then traded back to Nashville in 2007 for Scott Hartnell and Kimmo Timonen.
In hockey, it’s easy to underrate good defensemen. The guys you don’t notice are likely the ones who are most effective. Timonen fits that description to a tee. Night in and night out, Timonen is paired against the best offensive lines of the Flyers’ opponents and he puts in his work, quietly. Even when an HBO camera crew was following around the team for weeks prior to the Winter Classic, Timonen didn’t want any part of the spotlight and made himself an extra.
He’s not the type of player who’s going to deliver bone-crunching hits, or picks fights, or dazzle the fans with flashy play, or fire 105 mph slapshots from the point. At 5’10” and 194 lbs, he surely doesn’t stand out because of his size. But he brings his mistake-free play, both mentally and physically, to the rink every game. And I do mean every game. Although he’s built like a finesse winger, he is one of the more durable players in the league. Since joining the Flyers in 2007, he’s never missed more than 6 games in any season.
His decision making, puck movement, and positional skills are probably his greatest assets on the ice. As a Flyer, Timonen has averaged 36 assists and 41 points per year. He’s also a plus 38 over that span. This year, he hit both the 100 goal and 500 point milestones in his career. Timonen shines on the power-play. From ’06-’07 to ’07-08 (Timonen’s first year in Philly), the Flyers power-play success rate shot up from 14% to 22%.
He’s won three Barry Ashbee Awards, given to the Flyers’ most outstanding defensemen as decided by a panel of sportswriters. He’s just the third Flyer to take home that honor three times (Eric Desjardins- 7, Mark Howe- 4). Over the course of his career, he’s been selected to 5 All-Star teams (3 with the Flyers).
Just as important as his durability and play is the leadership that Kimmo brings to the Flyers. In years past, he was a locker room and on-ice leader, but with Chris Pronger’s injury this year, Timonen has had to become team spokesman. With his direct, no-nonsense approach to the Philadelphia media, his teammates know they are going to be held accountable for mistakes or lack of effort. For example: When he was asked what the difference was between the Rangers and Flyers this year after the Rangers 4th straight win against the Orange and Black, Timonen had two words: “The goaltending.” After a February loss to those same Rangers, Kimmo didn’t mince words about the effort: “The emotional level, playing against the top team in the conference…league…to be honest I think we got half the guys going half the guys not.” Hearing those kinds of quotes in the land of “upper body injuries” and “maintenance days” speaks volumes about how much respect Timonen has in the Flyers locker room.
Brad McCrimmon was the kind of player that every coach would love to have. The 5’11” defenseman combined exceptional positioning with hard-nosed play. “Beast” did all the workman-type, little things that need to be done for a team to be successful, but also contributed offensively when called upon. He sits at #11 on our list of the Most Underrated Athletes in Philly Sports History mainly because he was paired with Flyers-great Mark Howe. Howe was much more offensive than McCrimmon, and thus enjoyed much more of the spotlight. However, McCrimmon’s teammates and coaching staff knew that his solid play and defensive mind allowed Howe to roam free without sacrificing the team’s defensive integrity.
McCrimmon joined the Flyers for the ’82-’83 season and never registered a negative plus/minus in his five years in Philadelphia. He was integral to the ’84-’85 and ’86-’87 teams that reached the Stanley Cup Finals. Statistically, the Howe-McCrimmon pairing’s best season was ’85-’86: Howe scored 24 goals, totaled 83 points, and had a plus-minus of 83; McCrimmon scored 13 goals, totaled 56 points, and finished with a plus 83. Surprisingly, not one other Flyer defensemen finished on the plus side that season.
It wasn’t just Howe who benefited from being partnered with McCrimmon. McCrimmon’s error-free play and leadership made him a great partner for young defensemen. In 1987, McCrimmon was paired with young Gary Suter in Calgary. In 1991, while in Detroit, Brad McCrimmon was partnered with rookie Nicklas Lidstrom. Two years later he was paired with rookie Chris Pronger in Hartford.
Bill Meltzer interviewed Brian Propp and Mark Howe, who echoed the fact that McCrimmon never got his due:
Brad was a tremendous defenseman and teammate. He never got as much credit as he deserved, but the only thing he really cared about was winning.
He was a horse and an excellent all-around hockey player. I would play 33 and a half minutes a game and Brad played 27. He never got the credit he deserved but if you look at the defensemen playing then – or now for that matter – Brad was the kind of player who is rare to find.
The Brad McCrimmon story ends with tragedy. After his playing career ended he got into coaching. He served as an assistant for various teams in the NHL over the course of a decade and was hired to coach the KHL’s Yaroslavl Lokomotiv just prior to the 2011 season. Sadly, he was on the plane which crashed on September 7, 2011 and died along with 42 other players, coaches, and staff.
American-born NHL star John LeClair sits at No. 14 on our list of the most underrated athletes in Philadelphia sports history. His career spanned 16 seasons, 10 of which were spent wearing the Orange and Black (’94-95 to ’03-’04). There’s no denying the fact that John LeClair was one of the best scorers in the history of the franchise. A quick run-down of his resume makes this abundantly clear:
- As a Flyer, he averaged 43 goals and 83 points per year.*
- He scored 50+ goals in three consecutive seasons from 1995-1998, becoming the first American-born player to accomplish that feat.
- He amassed 70+ points in five consecutive seasons from 1995-2000.
- He won the NHL Plus-Minus Award for the ’96-’97 season and the ’98-’99 season.
- He was an NHL All-Star in 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, and 2000.
- He ranks 5th in Flyers history in goals and 7th in Flyers history in scoring.
So how is a guy with those stats underrated? Two words: Eric Lindros. Most Philadelphia sports fans credit Lindros for most, if not all of LeClair’s production. Obviously, playing on the same line as one of the most talented players in the history of the league has its benefits, but the Vermont-native’s size (6’3″- 236lbs.), strength, and finishing ability can’t be questioned. Whether he was parked in front of the net- taking a beating, deflecting shots, or pouncing on rebounds; or letting one of his heavy slap shots go, LeClair was a force for the Legion of Doom. Lindros’ raw talent and play-making ability overshadowed LeClair’s consistency and production, which were vital to the success of that line. And don’t forget Mr. Lindros wasn’t healthy all that often. In the ’96-’97 season during which Lindros was absent for 30 games, LeClair still scored 50 goals.
No Flyer has dared to wear #88 since the Flyers traded Lindros to the Rangers in 2001, but there’s a 20-year-old kid wearing #10 for the Flyers now.
*In seasons he registered at least 76 games played.
On January 6, 1980, the Flyers and Sabres were knotted at 2 heading into the third period. Just 3 minutes and 45 seconds into the final period, Bill Barber scored on Buffalo goaltender Don Edwards to give the Flyers a 3-2 lead. A lead which the Flyers would not relinquish. While a win in January doesn’t usually amount to much when looking at the NHL regular season as a whole, Barber’s game winning goal on this date 22 years ago elevated the ’79-’80 Flyers to a place no other professional sports team has ever, or will ever reach.
The win over Buffalo marked the 35th game in a row in which the Flyers were unbeaten, the longest such streak in professional sports. After a 1-1 start, “The Streak” started with a win in the 3rd game of the regular season. On October 14th, 1979 the Flyers beat the Leafs at home on a late goal from Bob Kelly. For the next 84 days, the Flyers would not lose.
Over the course of The Streak, the Flyers won 25 games and tied 10. They played every team in the league, except the Washington Capitals, earning at least one point in each contest. On December 9th, the Flyers tied the Blackhawks 4-4 pushing the streak to 24 and surpassing the previous team record of 23. On December 22nd, they went to the Boston Garden, a building in which the Flyers hadn’t won in nearly 5 years. However, the tear continued and the Flyers dominated en route to a 5-2 win and their 29th straight game without a defeat. This win set a new NHL record. The previous record (28 games) was held by the ’77-’78 Montreal Canadiens.
Finally, on January 7, 1980, the Flyers streak came to an end in a 7-1 defeat at the hands of the Minnesota North Stars
Credit for the streak lays mainly with the Flyers goaltending. In this case, it was the tandem of Phil Myre and rookie Pete Peeters who carried the team through almost 3 months of unbeaten play. Myre and Peeters shared duties, with a virtual even split in starts during the 35 game streak. Fittingly, both played in the 35th game against the Sabres as Myre started but became ill and needed to be replaced by Peeters. Offensively, Ken Linseman, Reggie Leach, and rookie Brian Propp led the way.
If you watched HBO’s 24/7 series on the Flyers and Rangers Road to the Winter Classic, you got to see the teams celebrate the New Year. For some reason, I imagine watching the ’79-’80 Flyers ring in the New Year 33 games into their streak with with only 1 loss would have been much more entertaining.