Part II: Early Inroads in Europe
While it is true that the Flyers early relations with players and officials in the major European hockey countries were often strained and sometimes downright hostile, the organization also has a parallel history of being surprisingly progressive in recognizing that the European continent had a lot to offer the NHL.
Often lost amidst the recounting of the bitter rivalry with the Soviets during the 1970s is the fact that Fred Shero, the Broad Street Bullies era coach of the Flyers, was a dedicated student of Russian hockey. Even during the days when the Iron Curtain was firmly in place, Shero was able to travel to Russia during the offseason to study the Soviet style of play and meet with Tarasov. Shero and Tarasov developed a strong admiration for one another and spent a good deal of time together, comparing notes on their respective hockey philosophies. Shero borrowed ideas on practice methods and game tactics from the Soviets and adapted them to be useful in an NHL setting. For example, Shero brought back from Moscow a three man passing drill which simultaneously utilized three pucks, rather than one.
Much of the system that Shero drilled into his Stanley Cup champion Flyers was a combination of hand-picked North American and Soviet tactics from which Shero extrapolated his own set of rules. Flyer wingers were required to stay on their assigned wing between the bluelines except if they had a chance to intercept a stray pass from the opposition. No forward was allowed to turn his back to the puck at any time and the only time a defenseman was allowed to do so was to quickly swing to a defensive corner. Blind centering passes in the offensive zone were forbidden. Defensive zone coverages were organized to prevent the chance of being outnumbered, whether along the boards, in the slots, or up high. Diagonal passing in the defensive zone was forbidden as was skating the puck backward in the defensive end, although it was acceptable for players to pass backwards in the defensive zone to avoid the opposition. Shero also preached that it preferable to stack up your defensive resources from the neutral zone to the defensive blueline, rather than to get spread too far on the forecheck. Shero preached that effective team defense began with taking away the opposition skating room and passing lanes before they could gain the blueline on the fly; in other words, playing a form of the Neutral Zone Trap. Where Shero disagreed the most strongly with the Soviets was in his advise on checking methods once the opposition was contained. While this coverage method was Soviet-influenced, Shero diverged strongly from the Soviet system in his preferred tactic for eliminating opposition puck carriers. Rather than relying on sweep checking, Shero encouraged his players to get a good angle on the opponent and take the body.
Of course, Freddie the Fog had one other pet tactic that was decidedly different from anything he had learned on his trips to Russia. The longtime minor league coach also subscribed to the old “if you can’t beat ‘em in an alley, you can’t beat ‘em on the ice” school of hockey thought. Shero’s Broad Street Bullies were the most penalized and the most despised team in the league. With so much attention being paid to the brawling and taunting the Flyers engaged in, a little extra operating space was opened up for Shero’s skill players. When all else failed, Shero could rely on the brilliant goaltending of Bernie Parent to give his team a chance to win. Shero’s system made the Flyers almost unbeatable (especially on home ice) for most of the mid-1970s. Shero also deserves full marks for crafting the game plan he devised for taking on the Soviets in 1976. Because few in North America, including Scotty Bowman, had a more complete knowledge of the Soviet system than did Shero, no NHL team was better prepared to take on the Red Army and win than were the Philadelphia Flyers, even though an injured Parent was unavailable for the game and the Flyers lacked the type of mobile defensemen that Shero believed ideal to execute his game plan.
Shero was not the only one in the Flyers organization who saw value in the European schools of hockey. While Shero studied hockey tactics, Flyers general manager Keith Allen and even owner Ed Snider soon had an eye trained toward bolstering the roster with European talent. Recognizing the success of Salming and others, the Flyers took their first forays into European drafting and scouting during the mid to late 1970s. Many are surprised to learn that the Flyers drafted their first Russian player way back in 1975, becoming the first NHL team to select a Russian-trained player in the NHL draft. In the ninth round of the ’75 draft, the Flyers selected Viktor Khatulev of Dynamo Riga. Although Khatulev never got to suit up for the Flyers, the very fact of his selection demonstrated that the Flyers organization was more open than they let on in regard to exploring the talent pool from Eastern European, or more accurately, in bringing them into the fold if they were successful in defecting to the west.
The Flyers next European talent development efforts were directed toward another Soviet Bloc nation, the former Czechoslovakia. The Flyers made their first European contract signing when they signed undrafted Czech defector Rudy Tajcnar in the summer of 1978. A fellow Czechoslovakian expatriate named Louis Katona delivered Tajcnar to the Flyers. Tajcnar was a brief training camp sensation before fading to obscurity in the minor leagues. Nevertheless, the Flyers were intrigued by the hockey riches that lay within Czechoslovakia and crafted an even more ambitious plan to bolster the roster. Having selected Slovakian left wing Anton Stastny in the 12th round of the 1978 draft, the Flyers later revealed that they had made an all-out attempt to lure not only Anton to Philadelphia, but also his brothers, Peter and Marian.
Katona was paid $20,000 up front and promised an additional $280,000 if he could secure the defections of the three Stastny brothers and deliver them to the Flyers. The team budgeted $1.25 million dollars for signing Peter and Marian and $830,000 for Anton. This was an almost unheard of sum of money by 1970s NHL contract standards, but the Flyers realized that the Stastnys were special talents who could potentially swing the balance of power in the NHL. If the Flyers could have added the Stastnys as a line to the roster that was already in place, they very well might have been able to reclaim the Stanley Cup from the Canadiens. Imagine the thought of rolling out the famous LCB Line on one shift and then sending out the Stastnys on the next. The Flyers also would have been extremely deep through the middle, with Clarke, Peter Stastny, and Rick MacLeish as their top three centermen. The Flyers saw opportunity knocking and took their best shot financially at bringing all three Stastny brothers to Philly.
Instead, the Flyers found themselves ripped off by Katona. He took his $20,000 up front money and never even attempted to fulfill his end of the bargain. Despite threatened lawsuits from the Flyers, the money was never returned. Insult was added to injury when the Flyers fell just short of the Stanley Cup during the 1979-80 season and then, on August 26, 1980, Peter and Marian Stastny signed to play with the Quebec Nordiques. Realizing that Anton would not play in Philadelphia, the Flyers sold off his rights to Quebec, enabling him to join his brothers.
The Flyers finally hit paydirt in Czechoslovakia when they drafted veteran Czech national team star defenseman Miroslav Dvorak in 1983. Dvorak was allowed to leave Czechoslovakia as part of a similar, although less restrictive, program to the one that Russian officials later employed. In effort to curb defections and raise some money for their hockey program, Czechoslovakian hockey officials let selected older national team veterans go to the NHL in return for a one-time fee for letting the player leave to come to North America. Although already over 30 years of age, Dvorak immediately stepped into the Flyers lineup and was one of their top defensemen for several years. Moreover, the good-natured Dvorak quickly became one of the most popular players on the team.
(Next Week: Part III: Ilkka and the Pelles)