TSN Archives: Philadelphia’s Bobby Clarke, the modest Flyer with firepower (March 10, 1973)

This story, by Jack Chevalier, first appeared in the March 10, 1973, issue of The Sporting News, under the headline “Modest Clarke Flyer With Firepower” as Bobby Clarke, 23, was on his way to winning the Hart and Pearson (now Lindsay) trophies on a Flyers team that was becoming the “Broad Street Bullies” who would win back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1974 and ’75.

PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — In the Philadelphia Flyers’ hockey program, the players’ wives offer the recipes for their husbands’ favorite meals.

Mrs. Bobby Clarke, spouse of the team captain and super star, reports that he loves “Hot Dog Surprise,” which is nothing more than one frankfurter, one roll, a splash of mustard and a dab of relish.

That’s typical of Clarke, a 23-year-old center from Flin Flon, Manitoba, who prefers the modest and simple life.

When Flyer Coach Fred Shero named him the youngest captain in the National Hockey League, Clarke said, “Aw, he just did it to shake up the club.” Philadelphia immediately zoomed into second place in the West Division, losing just one of 10 games.

“It’s just a coincidence,” Clarke pleaded.

The Flin Flon Man has been shadowing Phil Esposito in the NHL scoring race all season. He has broken Red Berenson’s scoring record (82 points) for an expansion player and may become the ninth man in NHL history to top the 100 mark.

In the current bidding war between the NHL and the World Hockey Association, Clarke could demand an astronomical salary. But he signed a five-year contract for slightly over $500,000 last spring and said, “How much money does one man need?

“I’m happy if I can take care of my family, have a nice house and things like a nice car, be with my friends, play hockey and swim and play some golf in the summer.”

That’s Bobby, a humble guy who I thinks super stars are the product of fans’ imaginations.

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He can’t understand why The Sporting News would want a special article on him.

“It’s not because of me that we’re in second place,” he said. “We have some new, tough guys on the club this year. We’re the biggest team in the league or close to it. We’re hitting all the time and creating more opportunities for goals.

“The other guys are scoring now — that’s the big difference,” Clarke said. “It’s no good if just one man or one line is hot. Write about Rick MacLeish. Heck, he’s playing better than I am.”

It’s true that MacLeish, who came out of nowhere to break Clarke’s club record of 35 goals, is Philly’s biggest surprise. And it’s true that rookies Dave Schultz, Don Saleski, Billy Barber and Tom Bladon give the Flyers an aggressive, high-scoring machine.

But the bashful, blond-haired Clarke remains No. 1. His secret is uncanny stick control. He uses it to check his man from him, kill penalties and score from anywhere around the net.

Even when surrounded by scrambling bodies, Clarke seems to untangle his stick and produce an accurate pass or shot. He’s clever at sneaking around the cage, scoring from beside it or jamming in rebounds from the crease.

“Within a 10-foot radius, he’s the best in hockey,” said veteran Boston broadcaster Fred Cusick.

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Bobby began skating at age 2 1/2 in an outdoor rink in Flin Flon and developed some amazing instincts. He’s a whiz at faceoffs and keeps his left hand very low, almost on the blade, when he bends over for the draw. Clarke also has the knack of laying his stick flat on the ice at precisely the right moment to intercept a pass.

“If I were still playing,” Shero said, “I’d give half my salary to play with Clarke. He works so hard he makes it easy for the rest of the guys.”

Bobby will never win the Lady Byng Trophy for sportsmanship because, on defense, he’s always tapping his man’s legs or hips with the stick as a harassing device.

He riled up Stan Mikita one night and the Chicago star said, “I don’t think Clarke even knows that he’s doing it. It’s probably subconscious.”

Montreal Coach Scotty Bowman watched Bobby operate with the blade and said, “Boy, he’s changed his style. He didn’t slash like that his first year (1969-70).”

Bobby’s 30 goals and 86 points do not completely reflect his value to the Flyers. He plays aggressively on the league’s leading power-play unit and kills penalties with the same exuberance for the league’s best penalty killers.

“Clarke fights to win,” said former Philly Coach Vic Stasiuk. “He’s a nice teachable kid who listens. And he has something you need in pro hockey — a mean streak. Like, say, Gordie Howe.”

Stasiuk coached Clarke for two years and said, “He just gives and gives and gives. He loves to play. He loves the challenge of playing.”

Vic, now the bench boss at Vancouver, was fired after the Flyers lost four straight in the 1971 playoffs to Chicago. In 1970, Clarke’s rookie year, Philly missed fourth place on the final day of the season, losing 1-0 to Minnesota on Barry Gibbs’ 100-foot goal.

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“I still see that in my sleep.” Clarke admitted. “Making the playoffs is everything. When you’re winning and playing together, like we are this year, hockey is the greatest way of life.”

Philadelphia needed only a tie in its season finale in Buffalo last year to clinch a fourth spot in the always-jammed West. Clarke opened the game with a brilliant goal, sweeping the puck past Roger Crozier while lying on his belly.

But the Sabers rallied and eliminated the Flyers on an incredibly dramatic goal by Gerry Meehan with four seconds left.

Clarke wept after the game and said, “Nothing like this ever happened in 100 years of hockey.”

The sad ending was typical for the Flyers, who haven’t won a playoff game since April 1968. In that first year of expansion, they survived a blown-off Spectrum roof to finish first in the West. But then they dropped a seven-game series to the St. Louis Blues.

Nevertheless, hockey has replaced basketball as the king of winter pro sports in Philadelphia. Flyer attendance averages over 15,500 and the WHA Blazers are gaining interest because of their recent success.

The Flyers lead the NHL in penalty minutes for more than five hours and will shatter the league record of 1,371 minutes for the season. They’ve been involved in scuffles with fans in Vancouver, a referee in Pittsburgh and opposing players everywhere.

“The referees are watching us more closely,” Clarke said, “but we have to keep hitting. That’s our style.”

Philadelphia’s goal is second place, which would give it a home-game advantage in the first playoff round.

Clarke centers for right wing Bill (Cowboy) Flett, a bearded veteran enjoying his first 30-goal season, and rookie Barber, a 20-goal left wing. “The line is playing well,” is Clarke’s only comment about his own scoring pace of him, some 20 points ahead of last year’s.

As most hockey fans know, Clarke is diabetic. He contracted the disease at 15 and was passed over in the first round of the NHL amateur draft in 1969. Minor leaguers like Frank Spring, Tony Featherstone, Ernie Moser and Bob Currier (by Philly) were picked before him.

“If nobody drafted me, I would have sneaked out and played pickup games, anyway,” Clarke said. “It didn’t make any difference.”

The Flyers got Clarke as the 17th draft pick and had him examined at the Mayo Clinic. They learned that daily insulin shots and a proper diet, with emphasis on a big breakfast, would make him a normal and healthy hockey player.

“We have a tiger by the tail, but we can control the tiger,” said team physician Dr. Stanley Spoont.

Clarke’s only fainting spells in four years occurred after he skipped breakfast. The club would like him to skip practice occasionally, but Bobby said, “That wouldn’t be fair to the other guys.”

A hero for Team Canada last summer, Clarke is frequently named Flyer Player of the Month. Once he donated the accompanying $50 bond to a trainer’s daughter who needed a heart operation.

“I never met her, but I heard she’s sick,” he told the surprised trainer. And that’s Bobby Clarke in a nutshell.

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