When you are a kid, there’s always that one figure that made you fall in love with sports for the rest of your life.
A player that stood out as super human. An event that made you stop in amazement. A time which makes you run home each and every night that they play, park yourself in front of the television and make sure that Mom and Dad do nothing to bother you until the matter has been decided.
For this generation of Philadelphia sports fans, the 2017 Eagles are going to be that team. They are fun and personable. And perhaps most importantly, they have won to the point that the imagination has been stirred for what greatness may lie ahead.
For those in their late 20s, that team was probably the 2001 Sixers or the 2008 Phillies. For those now residing in their mid-30s, it probably goes back to the 1993 Phils that won the National League pennant in the wildest baseball summer around here.
But for those of us who are now entering that going gray area of the mid-40s, there’s one team that will always fit the bill as our sports romance: the 1987 Flyers that pushed the greatest NHL team ever to the final minutes of a Game 7 despite the fact that they were walking wounded to the finish line.
They were something to watch. And if you were around at that time, you never forgot them. Because they were the reason you loved this sport.
When the Cup-winning Flyers era was taking place, I was still a toddler. By the time that magical year of 1980 rolled around and all four Philly teams ended up playing in their league championships, I was seven years old. A sports fan? Yes. But there were some clear hurdles technologically at that point- especially if you lived in Philadelphia and cable was still five years away from being installed in most homes within the city. We were the original cordless generation, in a way. Except we never had a cord to cut. And not every game was available to everybody.
So when we did get cable in ’86 and could order PRISM – the bill in total probably ran about $40 a month even with the premium station- the biggest thing I looked forward to was watching a full season of the Flyers and never having to rely on just radio for home games. (Which was weird since WIP basically would just simulcast the PRISM feed at that time so that both audiences could hear Gene Hart and Bobby Taylor.)
Unlike this Eagles team, the Flyers had already tasted success by going to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1985 behind a stellar goaltender in Pelle Lindbergh, who won the Vezina that season. They fell to the Oilers that year in five games, but they were so young and so talented in Mike Keenan’s first year as coach that you had the feeling that this was just the beginning.
Then, Pelle died the following November in a car accident caused by a night of drinking near Voorhees.
That Sunday morning still echoes in my head- my father waking me up at around 9 in the morning to tell me and answer questions. As a kid, I had a ton- but how do you even process what had happened? You really couldn’t. It seemed so senseless.
The rest of that year felt so empty. They lost to the Rangers in the first round of the playoffs behind Bob Froese at goaltender. Suddenly, that stellar future seemed a little bit in doubt.
And then, that’s when Ron Hextall appeared.
Back then, there wasn’t the strong interest in the minor leagues like there is now. If you wanted info about what was going on at Hershey with the AHL affiliate, you better gas up the car and have exact change for the tolls. Maybe there would be a throwaway score update from Hart during the slow moments of a broadcast, but that was it.
But when Hextall showed up on Opening Night in October of 1986 against the Oilers at the Spectrum, there were two thoughts that immediately crossed everyone’s mind.
How bad is Froese hurt? And when the answer came back negative, the natural follow-up was “Has Keenan lost his mind?”
As it turned out, Keenan was right on the money. Hextall won that night by beating the Oilers 2-1. Froese would only play three games for the Flyers before getting traded to the Rangers in mid-December. By then, the city was going ga-ga over Hextall, who had this rough edge to him that was never quite seen before. At Christmas, they were 25-8-2.
At that point, I was hounding my Mom and Dad for my first jersey- a Ron Hextall No. 27 orange with the big white sleeves. To this day, Hextall is my favorite Flyer of all time. A large part of that is time and circumstance
But he wasn’t the only one. There was the blue line top tandem of Mark Howe and Brad McCrimmon – one is in the Hall of Fame and the other could make a damn good case for it. Brad Marsh, Kjell Samuelson and Doug Crossman were solid as well. Philadelphia’s penalty kill was outstanding with an 82.3 percent kill rate. The league average? That was 79 percent.
Up front, that Flyers team always felt like they did more as a collective group than they actually had in talent. Tim Kerr would score 58 goals that season camping in front of the net. Peter Zezel scored 33 goals and had some nifty skills in the open ice.
That Flyers team had 14 players that had double figures in goals. The 2016-17 Flyers had six in double figures. The 1996-97 Flyers that went back to the Cup Final had 11.
And then, there was the playoff run. My God, those playoffs were something to see.
From the second round series against the Islanders – which saw Philadelphia nearly lose a 3-1 lead before blowing New York out in Game 7- to the Game 7 3-1 loss in the finale in Edmonton – it was a drama every night.
Pelle Eklund’s stellar games mid-series in Montreal to put them up 3-1 against the Canadiens in the Wales final. The pre-game brawl before Game 6 that may have been the last real gasps of the Broad Street Bully legacy.
There was Hextall – who was on top of his game and frustrating both the defending Cup champion Canadiens and Oilers.
There was the coming of age of Rick Tocchet as not just a brawler, but a legitimate goal scorer.
Time and time again, a player would go down and the Flyers kept marching on. And when J.J. Daigneault – a player who would otherwise be a footnote in Philadelphia history except for one moment- blasted a slapper from the point by Grant Fuhr in Game 6 to send the Cup final back to Edmonton, it provided one of the loudest roars this city has ever seen.
Everyone knows how it ended- with the Oilers finally closing the Flyers out on a Glenn Anderson slapshot with a few minutes to play in Game 7 for the insurance goal. But all these years later, I’m not sure if the legacy of that group in the mind of people my age really would have changed if the Cup had come here.
After all, sports is about the journey. And the journey was really rewarding for someone my age, even if there wasn’t a trophy at the end of it. It is hard to believe that team never got back to a Finals.
I think of that team now as the Eagles head to Minnesota to face the Patriots. There’s a lot of Oilers qualities if you want a comparison to the Pats. New England has arguably the greatest player ever in Tom Brady. The Oilers had the unquestioned GOAT in Wayne Gretzky at that time. On the surface, the challenges looks daunting and the key injuries that the Eagles took along the way to the Super Bowl – Carson Wentz, Jason Peters, Darren Sproles, Jordan Hicks- look awfully similar to the ones the ’87 Flyers took during their road to the finals with Tim Kerr missing the final two rounds with a shoulder injury, Dave Poulin in a flack jacket with cracked ribs, Ron Sutter and Murray Craven all missing large parts of the playoffs.
No Flyers team has come close to duplicating that feeling and I’m not sure anyone in the future ever could. But the best part is that for some kid growing up, there will be another team that comes along to make them feel the way I did back then.
That’s the beauty of sports. And that’s why your first love is sometimes always the sweetest.