Bullards and Dreadful Crowes

Overdogs to Underdogs

I became a Flyers fan somewhere between Lindbergh and Lindros, Zezel and Zelepukin, Fotiu and Forsberg, Hospodar and Hostak, when Paul Holmgren was a decent coach (36-36-8 with 10 playoff wins in 1988-89, winning twice at the old Montréal Forum where the Habs were 30-6-4 during the regular season) as opposed to a decent GM (Zhitnik for Coburn, Tollefsen for Leino, the Pronger trade), when—to paraphrase ex-Flyer captain Dave Poulin—the overdog became an underdog.

The Flyers would miss the playoffs five seasons in a row, from 1989-1994, never winning more than 36 or fewer than 30 games in a season, never being outscored by more than 21 goals and once (1992-93) breaking even, never memorably bad (the expansion Sharks, Senators, and Lightning were worse—Norm McIver led a 10-70-4 Senators team in scoring despite a -46; the Whalers and Nordiques went from bad to brutal as well) but never especially noteworthy (as opposed to: Winnipeg’s Teemu Selanne scored 76 goals as a rookie; the Oilers won a Cup without Gretzky; Montréal went 10-1 in overtime to win a Cup; Ed Belfour won 43 games, the Calder, and the Vezina; Brett Hull scored 86 goals and won the Hart)—in other words, the Flyers during their darkest days were the 2010 Milwaukee Brewers rather than the 2010 Kansas City Royals.

Six seasons of semi-darkness ended quickly. The 1994-95 Flyers went 28-16-4 and won the division and two playoff rounds. Eric Lindros won the Hart Trophy. Lindros, Mikael Renberg and John LeClair finished 2-8-9 in scoring. (Lindros actually tied Jaromir Jagr for the scoring lead, but Jagr scored more goals, 32 to 29.) The 1996-97 Flyers went to the finals, where a powerhouse Detroit team beat them in 4 (and won the Cup again in 1998, 2002, and 2008, more than any post-Oilers-dynasty team). Between 1995 and 2010, the Flyers would miss the playoffs a total of once: a whatever-could-go-wrong 22-48-12 season in 2006-07, the team’s worst ever; the 2007-2008 Flyers would go 42-29-11 and win two playoff rounds. Despite the endless search for a goalie and a Cup drought that only a handful of teams as old as the Flyers can match, the Flyers were rarely unwatchable, and when they were, didn’t remain unwatchable for long.

As opposed to the other teams I root for:

The Vancouver Canucks

Zero Stanley Cups in 39 seasons. A 1248-1413-391-36-28 (wins-losses-ties-OT losses-shootout losses), somehow working out to .474, overall record. A dumping ground for ex-Flyers in decline (Maxime Ouellet, Ossi Vaananen, Josef Beranek—who other than the Vancouver Canucks would actually trade Shawn Antoski and lose?—Murray Baron, Daryl Stanley, Jan Hlavac). A Wrong Brother Syndrome as bad as the Phillies’ (Steve Kariya? Sean Pronger? Fedor Fedorov??). The defensive woes of the Bure-Mogilny Canuck teams, where the joke “How do you drown a Vancouver Canuck? You can’t, they all float” began. The even more woeful late 70s/early 80s Canucks, topic of the immortal Harry Neale quote, “Last season we couldn’t win at home. This season we can’t win on the road. My failure as a coach is, I can’t think of anyplace else to play.” The now-execrable Dan Cloutier, who’s actually 4th in career wins for Vancouver, 37 ahead of Suitcase Smith. The team Wayne Gretzky tormented for his first NHL goal (vs. Glen Hanlon), 500th career goal, NHL-record 802nd career goal, and 50th career hat trick, and the team that (deservedly) booed Mark Messier.

I became a Canuck fan during the Pat Quinn era, when an old Stan Smyl, an even older Harold Snepsts, and a rookie Trevor Linden almost upset a 54-win Calgary Flames team that would eventually win the Cup thanks to Al MacInnis, Mike Vernon, and Joel Otto’s skate. The Canucks were the Flyers’ 10:30 pm Eastern time New Year’s Eve opponent, a West Coast team named after a Canadian who never existed, where obscure players with odd names like Tanti and Skriko walked the earth wearing hideously ugly jerseys, ridiculous mustaches and an improbable .500 record. I was hooked. Five years later, the Pavel Bure-led Canucks were in the Finals, where I suffered through a 3-2 Game Seven loss at an apartment rented and populated by a handful of smug New York Rangers fans (who then cruelly attempted to convince my Ukrainian friend Artem, a Bure fan who had invited me over but ended up working late and missing the whole game, that the Canucks had won when he returned during the postgame ceremony—“but-but why are Rangers skating with Cup??”).

No other Canuck team has won two playoff rounds since the 1994 team, despite outstanding seasons from the Sedin twins, Markus Naslund, Todd Bertuzzi, Ed Jovanovski, Alexander Mogilny and Roberto Luongo. The 2010 Canucks are arguably the deepest Vancouver team ever, with a checking line (Torres-Malhotra-Samuelsson) that would have been most other Canuck teams’ second line and 9 NHL-ready defensemen (plus Sami Salo when he isn’t injured, i.e. never). Will they have enough puck luck? Will recurring nightmares of hearing “Chelsea Dagger” become a rallying cry? Or will Vancouver fans know 40 years without a title as well as Buffalo Sabres fans and fans of…

The Los Angeles Clippers

When I moved to LA in the fall of 1991, I became a Clippers fan mostly because they were the opposite of the Lakers. No titles. No winning seasons for 13 years. No bad blood with the Sixers. (No bad blood with any other NBA team, actually—who would bother hating them?) 80’s teams whose marquee attraction was Benoit Benjamin, who wore #00, had zero work ethic and now owes over $500K in child support, rather than Kareem/Worthy/Magic. A team whose NBA-worst 17-65 season in 1987-88 was actually a five-game IMPROVEMENT from a 12-70 season that was one of the worst ever. Notoriously bad drafts (Benjamin the same draft as Karl Malone, Reggie Williams, Yaroslav Korolev, Michael Olowokandi with the #1 overall pick).

Odd things were happening, though. Magic Johnson retired. Mychal Thompson went to Italy. The 22-25 Clippers fired Mike Schuler, hired Larry Brown and went 23-12 the rest of the season, ending 7th in the West at 45-37, the most wins for the franchise since the 1974-75 Buffalo Braves went 49-33. Arguably the deepest Clipper team ever, leading scorer Danny Manning, Ron Harper, Doc Rivers, Charles Smith, Ken Norman, James (Buddha) Edwards, Gary Grant and Olden Polynice would take an even deeper Utah Jazz team to a fifth game before losing 98-89 at the Delta Center.

It wouldn’t last. The 1992-93 Clippers were a .500 team, 41-41, trading Rivers and Smith for Stanley Roberts, who was out of shape and then injured, and eventually losing a tough five game playoff series to the Houston Rockets. The 1993-94 Clippers won 27 games. The 1994-95 Clippers won 17 and were the worst team in the NBA, drafting Antonio McDyess with the second overall pick ahead of Kevin Garnett, then trading him to Denver for Rodney Rogers and Brent Barry, whom they would later trade for Ike Austin. Fifteen years later, the Clippers were now at zero titles in 39 seasons, with seven total playoff appearances—three of them in Buffalo. In the immortal words of Ralph Lawler, “Oh me, oh my!”

The Philadelphia Phillies

10,232 losses, more than the Red Sox, Cubs, Pirates, Dodgers, or any other current or former cursed team in baseball, or hockey, or football, or basketball. Two World Series titles in 128 seasons. Two seasons with 100+ wins. Fourteen seasons with 100+ losses. Five 100+-loss seasons in a row (1938-1942), bottoming out at 43-11 in 1941. An 1883 debut (as the Philadelphia Blue Jays) of 17-81, .173, being outscored 887-437—basically, losing every game 9-4.

No question, two titles in 128 seasons beats zero titles in 80 seasons. Still, when it comes to the Phils, Clippers, and Canucks, the Flyers (two Stanley Cups and 36 playoff appearances in 44 seasons) are world beaters.

Crowe

Phil Crowe was born to be a Flyer. He was 6’2”, 230, a winger from rural Alberta (Nanton, a town known for its historic grain elevators), undrafted, willing to drop the gloves no matter whom the opponent, plus his name was Crowe, meaning when he destroyed Mick Vukota or Dennis Vial, the Spectrum would echo with the caws of 17,380 Flyer fans. But he wasn’t Tiger Williams (241 career goals and 3,966 career PM) or Paul Holmgren (30 goals and 267 PM in 1979-80) or Derek Boogaard (even worse offensively, but 6’7”, 260, literally a huge difference), and as far as the 1995-96 Flyers were concerned, he wasn’t even Shawn Antoski (204 PM plus his trademark six-shooter gesture whenever he devastated an opponent) or Dan Kordic. Crowe’s Flyer career would be over after 16 games (1 goal, 1 assist, 28 PM, 4 fights). When he retired in 2004, his NHL totals with the Flyers, Kings and Senators were 94 games, 4 goals, 5 assists, and 173 PM.

Why do I remember Phil Crowe 15 years later? The few weeks he was a Flyer were the same weeks I moved in with a woman who had both her own apartment and the now-defunct PRISM, TV home of the Flyers. (Being 22 and out of work, I had neither.) We rooted for Crowe, half-mockingly, half-reverently; when we saw Total Eclipse at the Ritz and Leonardo di Caprio as Rimbaud quoted “Les Corbeaux” (“let them fall from vast fuming skies—the beloved, delicious crows”), we both cawed in honor of #53.

Phil Crowe was a memory to me. He was barely a memory to the Flyers. Were he a Canuck, or a Clipper, or a Phillie? We’re talking mythology.

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