Although often portrayed as an organization that turns its back on the European talent pool in the top rounds of the NHL draft and is less patient with young European players in the organization than with North American prospects, the Philadelphia Flyers actually have one of the more complex histories in regard to tapping in to the European talent pool. For a quarter century, the Flyers have had a love-hate relationship with the hockey countries on the other side of the Atlantic. While the Flyers carried open enmity toward the former Soviet hockey machine for a longer period of time than with many other NHL teams, the organization showed itself to be progressive-thinking in other regards, both in Russia and throughout the rest of hockey-playing Europe.
Part I. The Roots of Antagonism and the Winds of Change
The Summit Series of 1972 was a crucial landmark in hockey history. The best of Canada took on the best of the Soviet Union and fought it out on equal terms until Canada finally rallied to take the deciding game and the series. Although the Canadians gained newfound respect for the talents of the Russian players, the immense political tensions between the east and west and the bitterly contested nature of the games in the Summit Series took the hockey rivalry to whole new level. It was in the Summit Series that young Flyers player Bobby Clarke began to truly emerge as a world class hockey player. It was also here that deep-seeded bad feelings were planted between Clarke and the Soviets. A key moment in the Summit Series came when Clarke felled Russian star Valeri Kharlamov with a nasty slash that broke Kharlamov’s ankle. The Soviets decried Clarke’s tactics and noted other gratuitous stickwork he had perpetrated during the series. Meanwhile, the Flyers player accused the Russians of being sneaky stickwork artists themselves, as well as crybabies and divers. In regard to the Kharlamov incident, Clarke shrugged off accusations of intentionally attempting to injure the Russian star.
A personal feud developed between Clarke and the Soviets. Clarke gained a deep-seeded distaste for the Soviet hockey program and, likewise, the Soviets came to hate him above any individual North American player. Even after the Cold War ended, negative feelings toward Clarke remained. In the final book he authored before his death in 1995, Anatoli Tarasov, the “Father of Russian Hockey,” took some pointed shots at Clarke while conceding Clarke’s talents as a player. In North American hockey, Clarke was widely considered a player with peerless leadership skills. Tarasov, however, accused Clarke of being a selfish egotist. He claimed that Canada was sunk in the 1982 World Championships largely because of Clarke’s unwillingness to “share of his expertise and glory” with his teammates, including a young Wayne Gretzky. According to Tarasov, Clarke’s ego demanded that he be the team’s unquestioned go-to player and team goals were placed secondary to protecting his stature as a premier player (which was slipping by this stage of Clarke’s career). While the vast majority of people on the same side as Clarke would dispute Tarasov’s description of his attitude toward sacrificing for the team, the trainer’s comments are instructive in revealing just how deeply the older generation of Soviet hockey leaders despised the longtime Flyer captain. Indeed, they came to hate the Flyers team as a whole.
The 1976 series of games between various NHL teams and two touring Russian teams, the powerhouse Red Army team and the somewhat lesser Soviet Wings squad, was another seminal moment in the tenuous relations between the Flyers and the Russian hockey program. The games, like the subsequent multinational Canada Cup Tournaments which also began in 1976, were not treated like exhibitions. Both the Soviet clubs and the NHL squads went all out to beat one another. Coming into the final match of their NHL gauntlet, the Red Army was still undefeated, having tied the Montreal Canadiens and beaten all of the other NHL teams they faced. Their final game was to be played in the Philadelphia Spectrum against the two time defending Stanley Cup Champion Flyers. The result was a 4-1 Flyers victory, a lopsided 49-13 shot total, and a whole new set of negative feelings on both sides.
Even before the Red Army arrived in Philadelphia, the Russian players and hockey leaders were well aware of the rough-and-tumble reputation of the “Broad Street Bullies.” A Pravda cartoon portrayed the Flyers as a bunch of Neanderthalic thugs wielding clubs instead of sticks. Clarke’s reputation was already cemented in their eyes, but they also looked warily at the entire Flyers team. The Flyers, meanwhile, viewed them with equal distrust. A “goodwill” get-together before the game was fraught with tension. Legendary Flyers announcer Gene Hart, who spoke Russian almost fluently, taught Flyers owner Ed Snider to say a phrase in Russian wishing the best for both teams in the upcoming game. When the time came, there was no mingling whatsoever between the Russian contingent and the Flyers staff and players. When Snider took to the podium, he spoke tersely and omitted the phrase Hart had taught him. Snider later said, “when I looked at all those cold faces, I just couldn’t do it.” Clarke later said that he, too, “really hated those bastards” on the Russian side and couldn’t wait to take to the ice against them once again.
Flyers owner Snider had his own set of reasons to dislike the Russians. The first reason had little directly to do with hockey. In addition to Soviet-Western political tensions, there were special considerations in Snider’s case, pertaining to the issue of the treatment of Jews in the Soviet Union. Active in several Jewish charities, including the appeal for Soviet Jewry, Snider was criticized by some as being hypocritical for allowing his hockey team participate in a series that would pump money into Soviet coffers (not to mention lining his own pockets). The second set of reasons were related to the tough, often contentious, negotiations that took place with Soviet official before the series became a reality. Snider was actively involved in the negotiations. The volatile Flyers owner found his patience tried by the difficult negotiating process with the Soviet officials. Finally, there were strictly hockey-related reasons for Snider to dislike the Soviets so strongly. The diametrically opposite styles of hockey practiced by the Flyers and the Red Army Team created an instant source of conflict. Although the Flyers of the mid-1970s were actually a very skilled team (with the likes of future Hall of Famers Bob Clarke, Bill Barber, and Bernie Parent plus all-star caliber talents such as Reggie Leach, Rick MacLeish, and defensive defenseman Jimmy Watson), they were best known for their aggressive, sometimes excessive, brand of physical play. Snider’s ultra-competitive fires were stoked by the realization that the chance to play the Soviets represented a chance to prove that his squad was the best team in the world; much more than the goon squad they were painted to be by their critics.
The Flyers dictated the tempo of the game, upsetting the Soviets game plan. The Flyers were able to take the body on the Soviet players and avoid getting caught in the Russians’ deadly transition game. In the first period, with the game still scoreless, Kharlamov was toppled by a hard, elbows up, check from Flyers defenseman Ed Van Impe. Red Army coach Konstantin Loktev responded by pulling their team from the ice and heading back to the dressing room. Veteran watchers of international play, including Flyers coach Fred Shero, knew that the Soviets occasionally used this unorthodox strong-arm tactic when the momentum of a game would swing strongly in the opposition’s favor. When they felt ready to return, they Soviet team would be returned to the ice and try to start asserting their own game plan. Those who were unfamiliar with the tactic, however, were shocked and outraged at the Soviets’ actions. Snider got into a shouting match with Soviet Hockey Federation President Vyacheslav Koloskov, threatening that the Soviets would not be paid for the series if they did not return to the ice. The Soviets prolonged the game stoppage by arguing to make their return to the ice conditional on the referee canceling their impending delay of game bench penalty. Eventually, they accepted the penalty and came back to the ice. The game delay tactic ended up backfiring on the Soviets as they returned to find the Flyers even more resolute than before. The Flyers scored quickly after play resumed and never looked back.
After the game, Shero jokingly told low-scoring defenseman Joe Watson that he had set the Soviet Hockey program back twenty-five years by scoring a shorthanded goal on the great Vladislav Tretiak. Amidst the Flyers great pride in their convincing victory against an outstanding team, the seeds of contentiousness had grown even further. To this day, Tretiak, who views the tie game in the Montreal Forum as the highpoint of the series, says that the Flyers won by playing “rude hockey.” Coach Loktev called the Flyers “a bunch of animals.” The Flyers, meanwhile, left with the belief that the Soviet team had confirmed their feelings that Russian players were skilled but soft.
A little more than a decade after the showdown in the Spectrum, the Soviet Union was crumbling politically. In order to raise funds, the Soviet hockey program started to negotiate to auction off selected prominent national team veterans to be dispersed to NHL teams. The Sniders refused to get the Flyers involved in seeking to acquire any Soviet players, citing the fact that the Soviet officials were demanding a large portion of the players NHL salaries be diverted into their hands rather than being given to the players. The family also mentioned their involvement in the Soviet Jewry issue as a reason for refusing to participate. Later, of course, the Flyers began to scout and draft Russian players on the same basis as they would players from any hockey country. However, the ramifications of the Flyers initial boycott were that the Flyers got a late start into tapping into the now-open Russian market, which spilled over into an early scouting disadvantage during the early period after the Soviet Union dissolved. During the 1990s, the Flyers have employed a full-time scout in the former Soviet Union. In a sign of just how much times have changed, the Flyers selected former Soviet player Evgeny Zimin as their main scouting representative for Russia and outlying former Soviet republics.
In yet another intriguing twist of hockey fate, Zimin works as part of the substaff run by Flyers chief European scout, Inge Hammarström. Hammarström, a former NHL player and Central Scouting Bureau official. Hammarström has headed the Flyers European scouting efforts for the last decade. To the casual observer, this fact may not seem so odd. After all, it is not as though Hammarström’s native land of Sweden has had the same sort of contentious recent history with North America that the former Soviet bloc did. Moreover, even before Hammarström’s hiring, the Flyers had, on the whole, found their greatest degree of European drafting and trading success with Sweden players. So why was it odd that Hammarström came to work in such an important position for the Flyers?
To get the answer, it is necessary to once again turn the clock back to the 1970s. Hammarström was one of the early European players to make the jump to North American hockey. He and his Maple Leafs teammate, Börje Salming, faced some severe tests when they first played in the NHL. Although all new players in the NHL are tested to see if they can handle physical play, Salming and Hammarström underwent an especially tough trial by fire. In a reputation that lingered until very recently, it was widely believed that European players in general, and Swedish players in particular, could be intimidated into ineffective play if they had to go up against a physical style of play. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was the ultra-physical Flyers who tested out the Swedes with more gusto than any other team.
Every time the Flyers faced Salming and Hammarström, the two players not only found themselves run at with legal bodychecks and repeatedly challenged to fight, they also endured numerous gratuitous elbows, high sticks, slashes, and sucker punches. There is a story that Flyers alumni often tell about Flyers defenseman Andre “Moose” Dupont repeatedly running at Salming and then taunting him by saying “What about it, Swiss cheese?” Finally informed by a teammate that Salming was Swedish not Swiss, Dupont said,“Swede, Swiss, what’s the difference?”
Salming eventually gained the Flyers respect by not backing down from them and by giving back everything they threw at him. Eventually, they backed off from him. Hammarström, on the other hand, did not respond nearly as effectively as Salming. A fine sniper during the regular seasons, Hammarström was a non-factor in two mid-1970s playoff series against the Flyers, allegedly because Philly’s rough tactics had gotten to him. For the rest of his NHL career, Hammarström remained a favorite target of the Broad Street Bullies. He was run at gratuitously and goaded mercilessly with taunts of “Chicken Swede” whenever he took the ice against Philadelphia.
Things changed greatly over the next decade. Within 10 years of Hammarström’s NHL debut, it was no longer at all unusual to see Swedes or Finns in the NHL. By the mid-1980s, the Flyers, like most NHL teams, had already found players from Sweden and Finland who made impacts on their lineup. In the Flyers case, the most notable players were draftees Pelle Lindbergh and Pelle Eklund, undrafted free agent Ilkka Sinisalo and Kjell Samuelsson, who was acquired via trade during the 1986-87 season. After his playing career ended, Hammarström became a respected figure at the Central Scouting Bureau, known for having a keen eye for spotting European players who had what it takes to make it in the NHL. It was not surprising, then, that Hammarström was eventually sought after by individual NHL teams to head their full-time European scouting operations. What was a bit of a surprise is that the organization that wanted him the most was the very same one that made his life miserable during his playing career. After Russ Farwell succeeded Bob Clarke as the Flyers general manager in 1990, Hammarström became one of the most influential scouting voices in the Flyers organization. No one, least of all Hammarström, ever would have predicted that back in the 1970s.
(Next Week: Part II: Early Inroads in Europe)