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.
More than in any other sport, hockey players refer to their teammates by nickname only. Listen to one post-game interview with a player and you will hear nothing but nicknames when he is talking about his teammates. Other than the obvious ones which just add “ie” or “s” to a shorter version of the players last name (Richie, Carts), nicknames generally come from inside jokes. This phenomenon speaks to the camaraderie of the locker room; the “us” against “them” mentality.
Picking up on Johnny’s list of the Best Nicknames in Eagles History, here is a list of the best nicknames for players who’ve worn the Orange and Black. I’ve also thrown in the best names given to lines in team history. Be sure to let us know if I missed any.
- “Zeus” Dave Schultz (While the media stuck with “Hammer,” his teammates called him “Zeus.”)
- “Big Bird” Don Saleski (His mop top hair made him a dead ringer for the Sesame Street character.)
- Bob “Hound” Kelly
- Andre “Moose” DuPont (He was the size of a moose.)
- “Cowboy” Bill Flett (The guy was literally a cowboy. He grew up wrestling steer and riding broncos. And he dressed like one too, boots and cowboy hat included.)
- “Hawk” Rick MacLeish (After some off-color comments he made to a woman at a bar, she pressed his nose flat with her fingers and said “Hawk Nose! Hawk Nose!.” This happened within earshot of Bill Clement, who coined the name “Hawk.”)
- “Ash Can” Barry Ashbee
- “Frank” Antero Niittymaki (Named after the famous mobster Frank Nitty.)
- “Chico” Robert Esche (Keith Tkachuk saw Eshe’s sticks, which have “R. Esche” on them, and said “When did Chico get here?” referring to goaltending great Glenn “Chico” Resche.)
- “Arnie” Bill Barber (Teammates thought he looked like the pig on Green Acres, Arnold Ziffel.)
- The Legion of Doom (Lindros, LeClair, Renberg)
- The LCB Line (Leach, Clarke, Barber)
- The Fighting Dans (Dan Kordic, Daniel LeCroiux, Scott Daniels)
- The Deuces Wild Line (Gagne, Forsberg, Knuble- all had “2s” in their numbers)
- The Crazy Eights Line (Lindros, Recchi, Fedyk- all had “8s” in their numbers)
- The Blackhawk Down Line (Roenick, Amonte, Zhamnov- all former Blackhawks)
Larry Mendte needs no introduction. I doubt there is a Philadelphian who doesn’t know his name. He has a house swimming in Emmys for his terrific television work (including two earlier this year). And though his career at KYW ended in scandal in 2008, he has since recovered nicely, writing for Philly Mag, doing commentary for WPIX in New York, and becoming an advocate for the 9/11 First Responders. And this isn’t the first time he’s been gracious enough to respond to an inquiry from me. In 2006, he talked to me about ghosts. Well, here he talks about the ghosts of 1972, when Philly sports hit rock bottom, and how surviving during the lean years has made the recent success of Philly sports all the sweeter.
The present is the best of times for Philadelphia sports fans. The Phillies are the best team in baseball. The Eagles will be the Super Bowl favorites in football. The Flyers made moves that put them in the mix for a Stanley Cup run. Even the Philadelphia 76ers are showing signs of something better than mediocre thanks to the return of my favorite Sixers’ player, now my favorite Sixers’ coach, Doug Collins.
And that takes us back to the worst of times. For to truly be able to bask in what is, you need to have suffered through what was. In 1972 I was 15 years old and a sophomore at Monsignor Bonner High School in Drexel Hill, Delaware County. It was an age and a year when you were fully invested in your sports teams for better or worse. But in Philadelphia there was no column A – everything was worse, record setting worse.
The Philadelphia 76ers started out the year losing their first 15 games and the season went downhill from there. In the middle of the year they suffered a then record setting 20 game losing streak. And yet I can remember the names of every player on that team as I used to go to the Spectrum, buy a nose bleed seat and by the 3rd quarter I was courtside. The team was so bad I had the urge to yell “next.” When the team ended the season 9-73, the worst record in NBA history, it was depressing.
But the 76ers were not alone, every team was pitiful. I challenge anyone to come up with a worse year in Philadelphia sports than 1972 bleeding over to the beginning of ’73. I contend it stands as the worst year in Philadelphia professional sports history.
The Philadelphia Phillies were 59 – 97 that year and finished last in the National League East. Cy Young award winner Steve Carlton won 27 of those games. Without Carlton the Phillies could have easily contended for the title of worst team in Major League Baseball History. One shudders to think how many games the team would have lost without Lefty.
The other team to play at The Vet was even worse. The Philadelphia Eagles were 2-11-1 in 1972 and finished last in the NFC East. They beat the Kansas City Chiefs and the Houston Oilers both by one point, so they were just two points away from a winless season. The team scored just 12 touchdowns in a 14 game season.
The Philadelphia Flyers finished with a 26-38-14 record in 1972. In a city of last place teams, the Flyers fourth place finish in the NHL West made them a giant among midgets. But there was more than that, a new coach named Fred Shero seemed to have a vision. And Bobby Clarke in his third season had the making of a superstar.
The four teams I mentioned had a combined record of 96-219-15. 1972 may not only be the worst year in Philadelphia sports history, but the worst year that any city with at least four major league franchises has ever suffered.
Philadelphia was dubbed The City of Losers. It was depressing for a 15 year old kid in Lansdowne who felt a deep connection with the teams. It was no wonder that Big 5 basketball and Penn State football was so big in the early 70’s. The college teams gave Philadelphia our only taste of winning.
But that would quickly change, for Fred Shero did have a vision. The very next year, the Philadelphia Flyers would shed their reputation for mediocrity; emulating the swagger of a city that had something to prove and nothing to lose. I watched all six games of that Stanley Cup series from the kitchens and living rooms of friends and family. It was on everywhere.
Famously, before game six against the great Boston Bruins, Shero posted a note in the locker room. “Win today and we walk together forever.” They won game six and the Stanley Cup series 1-0 thanks to the brilliance of goalie Bernie Parent.
That night I remember celebrating with my friends and a few hundred other people in the middle of street in Yeadon, Delaware County. The crowd chanted “1,2,3,4. Who the F—is Bobby Orr.” There was sheer elation. Philadelphia became a hockey town that year. The team known as the Broad Street Bullies defiantly ripped the label “City of Losers” from all of our chests.
Philadelphia became a hockey town that year. Suddenly kids, who used to play stick ball, pick-up basketball and touch football, were playing street hockey. And Fred Shero’s prophecy came true, as Clarke, Shultz, Barber, Parent, DuPont, Dorhoefer and Saleski were overnight household names. They were walking together forever into Philadelphia Sports immortality.
Everything seemed to change after the cup came to town. The Flyers would win again and the Phillies, 76ers and Eagles all seemed to drink from it. The City of Loser was now the City of Winners. Clarke and Parent were joined by Schmidt, Dr J and Vermeil. Within the next ten years the City would have a World Series win, an NBA Championship and a Super Bowl appearance. I was there when Tug McGraw lifted the trophy over his head at JFK stadium and I chanted “Fo, Fo, Fo” as Moses moved down Broad Street in a victory parade. But my favorite sports moment in Philadelphia happened at the intersection of Church and Whitby when I shared in shared in a loud and emotional mass transformation of Philadelphia sports fans from what we were, repressed and resigned, to what we are today, proud and passionate.
The suffering of 1972 made 1974, 1980, 1981 and 1983 more meaningful. It makes those of us who remember 1972, the worst of times, treasure today, the best of times.
This is Part 4 of our series on Philly sports memories. Here are the previous entries.
Part 1, with Nick Staskin of Phillies Nation.
Part 2, with John Finger of CSN Philly.
Part 3, with Maxx of Black Landlord.