As our Penguins prepare to square off with the Philadelphia Flyers tonight in the latest installment of “The Battle of Pennsylvania,” it occurred to me that many younger fans may not understand or fully appreciate the deeply rooted hatred between the two clubs. Especially considering that it’s a kinder, gentler Flyers team we face these days.
I thought I’d provide a little primer.
Many fans would be surprised to learn that Philly’s infamous orange-and-black color scheme actually has Steel City origins. Way back in the 1920s, Pittsburgh had an NHL team named the Pirates, which was descended from a local amateur club named the Yellow Jackets.
Naturally, the Yellow Jackets wore yellow and black jerseys. The yellow morphed into a dingy mustard color with the Pirates, which in turn transformed into orange when the Pirates relocated to Philadelphia and became the Quakers in 1930.
Obviously, there’s more to the story.
In my mind, the hostilities began in earnest during the 1972-73 season. Like the Penguins, the Flyers had enjoyed only modest success through their early years while icing a predominantly peace-loving team. Indignant after watching his club get mangled by the boisterous St. Louis Blues of Plager brothers’ fame, Flyers owner Ed Snider vowed to fight fire with fire.
The ensuing muscle-building spree resulted in a collection of bruisers and on-ice miscreants, the likes of which the NHL had never seen. In an era when most teams carried one or two tough guys, the Flyers boasted four players who topped 200 penalty minutes that season—heavyweight king Dave “The Hammer” Schultz and rowdy henchmen Andre “Moose” Dupont, Bob “Hound” Kelly and Don “Big Bird” Saleski.
Initially dubbed “the Mad Squad” (later “the Broad Street Bullies”), the Hammer and his cohorts initiated a reign of terror throughout the league. Like an outlaw gang from the old west, the villainous Flyers arrived at the Civic Arena on January 27, 1973, to take on the Penguins in the back end of a home-and-home set.
Noting his club had been drubbed two nights earlier in the Spectrum, 6-3, Pens coach Ken Schinkel challenged his troops to make a statement. Especially in front of a Saturday night crowd.
Bad move. When the Penguins shoved, the Flyers shoved back…in spades. The tone was set with a pair of bouts just 1:25 into the contest. While the 205-pound Saleski swapped punches with the Pens’ Bryan Hextall—a tough cookie but a middleweight at best—Dupont mauled Jean-Guy Lagace, a hard-hitting little defenseman who, unfortunately, couldn’t fight a lick.
The results were predictable.
“Lagace shoulda got five minutes for receiving,” crowed de Mooze.
The beatings continued unabated. Saleski fought Nick Harbaruk, while the luckless Lagace was set upon by the fast-swinging Kelly. For good measure, Ed Van Impe high-sticked Hextall.
Even the officials weren’t spared. Philly defenseman Barry Ashbee slugged referee Bryan Lewis to earn an early shower, but not before the damage was done. The Flyers tucked a 5-3 victory into their saddlebag and rode off to the next town, secure in the knowledge they’d intimidated another foe.
So began the Flyers’ total domination, physical and otherwise. After watching Philly eviscerate his team, 6-0 and 7-0, the next season, Pens GM Jack Button joined the arms race and acquired heavyweights Steve Durbano and Bob “Battleship” Kelly (no relation to Hound) from St. Louis on January 17, 1974.
With Kelly and prior pick up Bob Paradise riding shotgun (Durbano was serving a suspension), the Pens visited the Spectrum three days later and skated away with a surprisingly easy 5-3 victory.
Hardly a harbinger of things to come. The locals wouldn’t win again in Philadelphia until February 2, 1989, a skein of utter futility that spanned 15 years and some 42 games.
Penguins vice president of communications Tom McMillan put “The Streak,” as it became known in black-and-gold lore, into perspective.
“I graduated from high school, graduated from college, got a job, got married, got divorced, moved to San Diego, moved back to Pittsburgh, and the Penguins still hadn’t beaten the Flyers in Philadelphia,” he said.
Former Pen and current radio color man Phil Bourque offered a similarly dreary take from player’s point of view.
“When we went to the Spectrum, as much as you wanted to believe you were going to win, you just knew something bad was going to happen,” lamented the Ol’ Two-Niner. “You had the feeling you were going to get beat up, and not just on the scoreboard. They never took their foot off the gas pedal. They kept hammering us. It wasn’t enough to rub our noses in it, they grabbed us by the hair on the back of our heads and shoved our faces into the pile.”
Craig Berube, Dave Brown, Glen Cochrane…our own Rick Tocchet. The list of Philly rogues went on and on, to say nothing of mammoth goal-scorer Tim Kerr.
Fortunately, change was in the wind. Powered by superstars Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Pens would gain a measure of respect and revenge over time, most notably with playoff victories in 2008 and 2009, but physically, too. Darius Kasparaitis’ crushing check on Philly superstar Eric Lindros back in ’98 vividly comes to mind.
However, as recently as 2011-12, the Flyers—aided by expatriate Pens Jagr and Max Talbot—derailed a sure-fire Stanley Cup contender in the opening round of the playoffs.
A pretty good basis for hatred.