He is the greatest player to ever don the orange and black. Bobby Clarke represents the toughness and grit that would come to symbolize what it means to be a Philadelphia Flyer. He demanded nothing less from his teammates and from the coaches and players he would hire while he was the general manager of the team he loved so much.
Clarke would be the GM of the Flyers through two stints. The first was from 1984-90 and was a great era of Flyers history as the team transitioned away from the Bully Era of the 1970s. He would return in 1994 and remain as general manager through 2006 as the NHL transitioned again.
He had a lot of successes as GM, but the Stanley Cup Championship eluded him. Likewise, he made a lot of mistakes; giving up on players too soon and becoming impatient with coaches. But as you look at the team today, it is probably safe to say we’d switch out Chuck Fletcher with Clarke any day of the week.
Before we look at the successes that Clarke would enjoy, let’s examine some of the less-than-stellar decisions he made as GM.
Flyers: The Lindros affair
We all know the story, so I’m not going to go into all the details. The long story, done in a short way is that Clarke pushed Eric Lindros to be the best he could be. When he wasn’t, Clarke dragged him onto the carpet for it. Lindros’s father, who was also the agent, got involved and that made it personal. Coaching decisions and player personnel decisions were made to appease the superstar. When injuries mounted, tempers and feelings flew. In the end, the marriage between Lindros and the Flyers became untenable.
Clarke was not responsible for the Lindros trade, but he took on the responsibility of trying to find the best players to play with him. Most of the time it worked. However, when the team fell short of the Stanley Cup, blame was often laid, fairly or unfairly, at the feet of their captain. Much of that blame was issued by Clarke.
The worst part about this was the public nature of the feud that lasted for years. Contract talks became personal battles. While the two have made up; especially in light of Clarke advocating for Lindros’s induction into the Hall of Fame, it still leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Eagles fans know this more recently with the whole Carson Wentz affair. Every Flyers fan wonders “what if” had that relationship been more solid. Maybe it wouldn’t have turned out so sourly.
Flyers: Now coaching for the franchise
It’s kind of hard for a team to gel when they are getting a new coach every year. After the Flyers lost the 1997 Stanley Cup, the team dispatched Terry Murray. Rumors had swirled that he lost the respect of the locker room. Other rumors spread that he and Lindros had had a falling out. Either way, Murray was out the door.
Following Murray’s departure, the Flyers had a revolving door of coaches. Wayne Cashman lasted just a few months before he was replaced as head coach on a second-place team. Roger Nielson took over before the season ended and then lasted about two years before he had to stop coaching because of cancer…which lead to this unfortunate remark about Nielson, who would pass on in 2003.
Nielson was replaced by Craig Ramsay. Ramsay lasted six months into his tenure and was out before Christmas of 2000. His old teammate Bill Barber replaced him and took the Flyers to the Eastern Conference Finals and was named Coach of the Year. But alas, Barber would be ousted at the end of his second season. At that point, Clarke found the right guy in Ken Hitchcock, who would guide Philly for the next four years.
Having a new coach every few months means a new system to learn. Every coach has their favorite players and players they are not fond of. Travis Konecny flourished under Dave Hakstol, suffered under Alain Vigneault, and reenergized under John Tortorella. But this sort of inconsistency behind the bench probably did more damage than it helped. And most of this was probably ego-driven battles between the coach and GM.
Flyers: Giving up too soon
Patrick Sharp, Janne Niinimaa, Justin Williams, Brian Boucher, Vaclav Prospal. All of these guys were young players who were traded away while they were still young players with a big future in front of them. Other young guys, like Karl Dykhuis or Dmitri Yuskevich, would be traded and then reacquired years later.
Clarke made it known that he didn’t really care to watch players develop. He’d rather flip a guy who still had something to prove for a vet. Sometimes it worked. Danius Zubrus became a good role player for years but never was a top-talented player. Clarke flipped him for Mark Recchi. But giving up on a player like Sharp or Williams hurts. Both of them won multiple Stanley Cups while the Flyers stood by and watched.
Still, there were times that it looked like Clarke was being impatient rather than letting the players learn how to play.
Flyers: Rebuilding the bullies
Clarke won two Stanley Cups with Philly and lost two others. In his mind, the Flyers were the best team in the NHL; and for a brief time, they were. Then came the dynasties of the Islanders and Oilers of the 80s. Suddenly, the Flyers were second fiddle.
By the time the 90s rolled around and Clarke was back in Philly, he tried to rebuild the Bully Era team. Big guys were brought in. Some were physical, like Joel Otto, Donald Brashear, Shaun Antoski, and Kevin Haller. The idea was that the Flyers will bash their opponents into submission, just like they did in the 1970s.
However, the league had changed. Especially in the season that followed the 2004 lockout. The Flyers acquired Mike Rathje and Derrion Hatcher to be their big bruising defenders. That might have been a good move in 2000 or even 2002. But with the elimination of the center ice line, there goes the “two-line pass” penalty and the ice was opened up. The NHL became a speedier league. The big hulking Flyers couldn’t compete. The game had changed. Clarke was too slow in changing, and this would be one of the reasons he would resign in 2006.
In his first tenure, the Flyers made five trips to the playoffs including two trips to the Stanley Cup finals in his first three years. In both seasons, they ran into the juggernaut that was the 1980s Edmonton Oilers led by a whole slew of hall of famers. In 1985, they were downed in five games but an injury-depleted squad took the mighty Oilers to seven games just two years later. In 1989, the Flyers fell in six games to the Montreal Canadiens. After failing to make it back to the playoffs in 1990, he was fired.
Then he returned in the summer of 94. In his first two seasons, back helming the club, the Flyers went to the Eastern Conference Finals, but fell, in succession, to the New Jersey Devils and the Florida Panthers. The following year, they bulldozed their way through the Eastern Conference playoffs before being swept by the Detroit Red Wings in four games in 1997.
Following their ouster, the Flyers had two straight first-round outs. They then fell in seven games to the New Jersey Devils in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals after being up 3-1 in 2000. This was then followed by two more first-round outs, a second-round out, a seven-game final to Tampa Bay in 2004 that the Flyers lost, and then a first-round out the year following the lockout.
In short, the Flyers made the playoffs every single year but one in which Clarke was GM. In that time, the team lost three Stanley Cups and five Eastern Conference Finals. That’s consistency. That’s something this team hasn’t had in a long time.
Flyers: Good draft picks
During his first tenure, the Flyers’ draft picks were nothing special. Probably the best player selected was sixth-rounder Gord Murphy in 1985.
But take a look at his first-round picks his second time around: Brian Boucher (1995), Dainius Zubrus (1996), Simon Gagne (1998), Justin Williams (2000…with Roman Cechmanek in the third round), and Jeff Carter and Mike Richards (2003). Those are pretty decent players who would play a major part in the history of this organization (or others) for years to come.
To be fair, the Flyers traded away a lot of first-round picks and many of his other rounds didn’t pan out as much. Some became decent role players, but few became stars. Drafting may not have been his strongest suit, but he was surely a master at making some deals.
Flyers: Some great pickups
Clarke did give up a lot of young talent and draft picks to acquire talent. However, sometimes he made some really great moves.
Bob Froese was a great goalie, but with the rise of Ron Hextall, he became expendable. Clarke flipped him for Kjell Samuelsson, who would become one of the hardest-hitting defenders in Flyers history. Garry Galley was one of the better defenders in Flyers history, but Clarke flipped him for Petr Svoboda, who would become one of the mainstays of the Flyers’ lineup in the 90s. Reliable old-school Craig McTavish was traded away for future hall of famer Dale Hawerchuk.
Probably the best move he made involved trading away star forward Mark Recchi. The loss of Recchi brought John LeClair and Eric Desjardins into the Flyers family. What made the trade even better was that a few years later, Recchi was brought back by trading away Zubrus.
Clarke had a way of finding diamonds in the rough. He traded for players like Trent Klatt, Garth Snow, Paul Coffey, Mike Sillinger, Daymond Langkow, Keith Jones, reacquired Rick Tocchet, John Vanbiesbrouck, Kim Johnsson, Tony Amonte, Sami Kapanen, Michal Handzus, Alexei Zhamnov, and Peter Nedved for next to nothing compared to what it took to get them.
Sometimes, he had to make tough trades, like the one that acquired Keith Primeau but at the cost of Rod Brind’amour. Not every trade he made was good (Adam Oates), but you knew in his heart that he was doing what he could to bring the best possible talent to this team. He never backed himself into a corner where the salary cap would limit what this team could do.
Others, like Mike Knuble and Joel Otto, came in as free agents and played well in supporting roles for the Flyers. In the post-Lindros era, Jeremy Roenick added a spark to the lineup that had been missing.
At one point, going to the playoffs was a birthright, not a distant memory. This is where we need to get back to. Under Clarke, the team made 16 trips to the playoffs. He retired in 2006 before the team missed out on what would have been just the second time under his tenure. When he left, Paul Holmgren ascended the GM throne and the consistency continued. Six trips to the playoffs in eight years with a Stanley Cup Finals trip in 2010 and an Eastern Conference finals loss to Pittsburgh in 2008. Since then, only three playoff runs in eight years.
Clarke was feisty and temperamental. At the same time, you knew he cared. He bleeds orange and black. When the Flyers lost, he took it personally. That is more impressive than a general manager who kind of Eeyore “ho-hums” it with a “Watcha gonna do?” kind of attitude. Yes, Clarke was a bit aggressive and kind of a micromanager. At the same time, the Flyers were one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference every single year.
I, for one, miss that dominance. I miss the fact that the Flyers were feared wherever they went. The same sort of feeling teams see now when the Bruins or Lightning have when they take the ice…I want that back.
Clarke was not perfect, but he knew what he was doing. He made mistakes. He made bad trades. But find me a GM in any sport that doesn’t land a few clunkers in the draft, free agency, or as a trade. If anything, I’d take Clarke, or someone like him, back in a heartbeat. Right now, this team could use someone with some fire in their belly and passion in their heart for this once magnificent franchise.