Picture a smallish pro hockey player — he’s 5-foot-10 — with a big, wet mop of curly hair atop his choirboy face. A huge smile lights up that face, a smile made even larger by the wide gap where his top front teeth once were. His eyes mischievously twinkle; he might even give you a wink. A trickle of blood streams down the side of his face and splashes onto his distinctive orange and black jersey decorated with a stylized “P” and the number 16. On the left chest of that jersey sits an oversized letter “C.”
This can only be Bobby Clarke and, for a sizable portion of fans, he represented not just an overwhelming and fierce desire to win at all costs but the NHL of the 1970s itself.
Nearly a half-century after he first pulled that Philadelphia Flyers sweater over his head, Clarke remains one of the great leaders in the history of the sport and the player who helped give a franchise its identity.
Like the club he sparked to consecutive Stanley Cup championships in 1974 and 1975, Clarke combined high-level skill with high-level antagonism. On one hand, he was a supreme playmaker, a crafty and timely goal-scorer, an indefatigable checker, a virtuoso faceoff specialist — a complete player. On the other hand, he could also be a vicious stickman, a cheap-shot artist and an incorrigible instigator.
But his was no split personality. Rather — as with Ted Lindsay and the young Stan Mikita, two small, exceptional NHL players who preceded him — Clarke’s talent and truculence were inseparable. The glue that bonded the two sides of Clarke’s game was an incomparable work ethic, a personality trait to which all Flyers had to measure up. He made sure those who skated with him did just that.
“I loved to get on the ice,” he said on the “Legends of Hockey” TV series. “I loved to practice and I loved to play. The rest of the time, I wasn’t that good at anything else, but playing and practicing, that’s what I loved to do. So I could at least demand from other people that they work hard because I would always be able to do that.”
“If Bobby Clarke were a sewer digger in Flin Flon,” said Fred Shero, his coach during the Cup years, “he’d be the best sewer digger and hardest worker.”
Flin Flon, the northern Manitoba mining town called “The City Built on Rocks,” was Clarke’s home. Born there on Aug. 13, 1949, he played his hockey mostly outdoors until he was around 9. He’d even skip school to play. Hockey was all that truly motivated him.
He’d worn only hand-me-down skates during his entire youth hockey career. But at 16, weeks before his tryout with the junior Flin Flon Bombers, he took the money he saved from working all summer at the town’s only gas station and hitchhiked south to Brandon and back, having found a shoemaker who custom-made skates. The round trip took four days, but those skates, he believed, would help him get a spot on the roster.
Bombers coach Patty Ginnell didn’t need much convincing. He had already seen Clarke play 40 minutes a game in youth hockey. The skinny kid with big glasses and big teeth may have been a diabetic, but Ginnell recognized he never lacked energy. He could skate all day and he was one of those players the puck seemed to follow around, a sure sign of good hockey instincts. He already had great stick skills. And he possessed the heart of a lion.
Ginnell liked the whole package and he became a primary influence on Clarke’s career. “Every day he just made us work — just skate and skate and skate. And just shoot. And just practice hard every single day,” Clarke told his daughter Jakki for her book, “Flyer Lives.” “… And we learned that if you were going to have any success, it was because you had to work.”
Clarke absorbed another of Ginnell’s important lessons: how to survive the rugged and wild Western Canadian Junior Hockey League (now WHL), where intimidation tactics ruled. “He made you play with courage,” Clarke said. “If you were afraid, he made you go out there and do things.” Whatever those “things” may have been, he learned how to handle himself against bigger foes and led the league in scoring twice, setting assists and points records, largely by feeding big-shooting wing Reggie Leach.
Still, Clarke suspected his diabetes would limit his career, scaring off NHL clubs. Ginnell believed otherwise and took Clarke to the Mayo Clinic, where doctors attested Clarke could indeed play in the NHL as long as he took proper care of himself. Ginnell would show their findings to any scout coming to watch Clarke.
Regardless, every NHL team passed on him in the first round of the 1969 NHL Draft, concerned about his illness. When the Flyers’ second-round pick came up, scout Gerry Melnyk piped up at the draft table, saying: “I don’t give a damn if this kid’s got one leg; he’s the best player I’ve seen at this level. He’ll right away be our best player.” Melnyk’s insistence got Flyers executives to contact a Philadelphia doctor, who concurred with the Mayo Clinic verdict. They picked Clarke at No. 17. He’d never skate one game as a minor league pro.
If Clarke’s first two NHL seasons were unremarkable in terms of points, he attracted much attention while steadily growing. Fourth in Calder Trophy voting (for rookie of the year) in his 46-point rookie season, he received consideration for the Hart Trophy (MVP) the next season, when he had 63 points.
Shero took over prior to Clarke’s third season in 1971-72, and it didn’t take long for the mercurial coach to realize his young star’s special character. If Shero occasionally threw a worthless drill at his team during practice and if Clarke saw it was nonsensical, he’d challenge the coach. Shero was actually testing Clarke’s brains and guts.
Clarke had 81 points that season, earning League-wide recognition with the Bill Masterton Trophy for dedication and perseverance, and then a spot with Canada for the Summit Series against the Soviet national team in September 1972. He was Canada’s youngest player at 23 but grew into a leader.
Centering Ron Ellis and series hero Paul Henderson, Clarke got two goals and four assists in eight games, but his most important contribution may have been slashing Valeri Kharlamov in Game 6, cracking the ankle of the Soviet team’s best player and neutralizing him for the balance of the competition. “If I hadn’t learned to lay a two-hander once in a while, I would’ve never left Flin Flon,” he said. Over time, Clarke’s deed took on a darker hue, but he never let it bother him. “I have no regrets,” he said.
Clarke brought the confidence he gained playing with and against the world’s best back to the Flyers. In January 1973, Shero named him the youngest captain in NHL history (23) at the time with Clarke on the way to a 104-point season that made him the first player from a post-1967 expansion team to score 100 points. Philadelphia, on the rise, improved by 19 points in the standings in 1972-73 and made it to the Semifinals of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, where it lost to the Montreal Canadiens. Clarke won the Hart Trophy, another first for a player on an expansion team.
Still, few expected Clarke and the Flyers to reach the heights they did in 1973-74. They took a 27-point leap in the standings and won the West Division (finishing one point behind the Boston Bruins for first overall) before reaching the Stanley Cup Final against the heavily favored Bruins. After losing Game 1 in the final minute, Philadelphia took Game 2 — its first victory in Boston in seven years — on an overtime goal by Clarke. After forcing a turnover on the boards, he skated across the goalmouth, got a pass and fired a backhander. It was stopped by diving Bruins goalie Gilles Gilbert, but Clarke picked up his own rebound, pivoted and shot forehand from a sharp angle to win it. That goal, still considered the most important in franchise history, announced to the world the Flyers, in their seventh season, could hang with an Original Six powerhouse. Philadelphia won the Cup for the first time, in six games.
For an encore the following season, Philadelphia again won its division and Clarke set an NHL record for assists by a center, with 89, as Leach joined the Flyers and formed a formidable trio with Clarke and Bill Barber. Clarke led all playoff scorers with 12 assists as the Flyers won the Cup for the second straight year, defeating Buffalo in the six-game all-expansion Final. Again, Clarke was awarded the Hart Trophy.
Just as prominent as the Flyers’ point totals were their penalty totals, and they rewrote the record book there as well. Clarke was not only the Flyers’ offensive and defensive catalyst, he often initiated those frequent punch-ups.
“It happened like in a Western movie,” Stephen Cole wrote in his book “Hockey Night Fever.” “The Flyers would ride into town spoiling for a fight. Bobby was the guy on the lead horse, squinting into the sun, figuring out how to bust into the local Wells Fargo. The plan, always improvised, usually began with a calculated provocation — a face-wash, a spear, a wild elbow. The other team retaliated, as expected. And then the Flyers bench emptied, alive with manufactured rage, justified in beating the hell out of smaller, more law-abiding teams. Afterwards, the Flyers galloped off, waving their hats in the air, two points safe in their saddlebags, heading off to the next town, another job down the line.”
Clarke matched his assist record in 1975-76 and had an NHL career-high 119 points and a League best plus-83 rating. He earned his third Hart Trophy as the Flyers led the Campbell Conference with 118 points, the best showing in franchise history, and made a third consecutive trip to the Cup Final, though they were swept by Montreal.
Over the next eight seasons, Clarke remained a productive player. He received serious consideration for the Hart Trophy nearly every year and began drawing more attention for his defensive excellence, capturing the Selke Trophy as a 33-year-old in 1982-83, which was also his most prolific late-career season (85 points). Along with his 1987 induction to the Hall of Fame, winning the Selke was one of his most cherished honors.
In 1979 the Flyers named him a playing-assistant coach to coach Pat Quinn, and for a few seasons he surrendered the captaincy. The 1979-80 team had a 35-game unbeaten streak, and Clarke got at least one point in 26 of them. The Flyers returned to the Cup Final, losing to the New York Islanders that spring, and Clarke had 20 points in 19 playoff games.
On March 19, 1981, he scored his 1,000th point, on a goal against the Bruins at the Spectrum. Earlier in the game, a Leach shot creased his temple, cutting him and resulting in a few stitches. Clarke never bothered getting a clean sweater, and the photos of his historic point include the blood spots on his shirt, symbolic of the effort Clarke expended along the way.
When he retired in 1983, Clarke was fourth all-time in NHL assists and 11th in points. He still holds numerous franchise records, including those for: seasons (15), games (1,144), assists (852), points (1,210), playoff games (136), playoff assists (77) and playoff points (119).
Asked if he had any regrets, if there was anything more he’d like after such an accomplished career, daughter Jakki wrote, “He grows a bit wistful at this and, after a long pause, he says, ‘I’d just like one more shift.'”