Fred Shero’s Long Lasting Legacy in Philadelphia
Editors’ Note: Lancaster Newspapers sports writer and author Ed Gruver recalls Fred Shero’s legacy with help from Bob Clarke, Bob Kelly, Joe Watson, Bill Barber, Bernie Parent, Dave Schultz and Ray Shero. Gruver, who has been a sports writer for 30 years, has written five books and been a contributing writer to two others.
By Ed Gruver
He was revered by his fellow coaches — Scotty Bowman, Don Cherry, Al Arbour — as a forward-thinker ahead of his time.
His team, however, was reviled by critics as bullies who had blackened the eyes of their sport.
The late Fred Shero was nicknamed “The Fog,” but for decades it was the Hockey Hall of Fame selection committee that seemed to be in a haze as it continually snubbed one of the game’s great innovators.
Behind Shero’s trademark tinted glasses was one of the most astute hockey minds in history. As head man of the Philadelphia Flyers from 1971-78, he was the first NHL coach to study game films, hire an assistant (Mike Nykoluk), create a system of positional play and have game-day morning skates. Each of the above has long since become standard practice in the NHL.
Critics, however, could not forget that this coaching genius also bossed the Broad Street Bullies, a squad seen by purists as barbarians who had stormed The Citadel when they seized consecutive Stanley Cups in 1974-75.
Enigmatic as he was, the biggest mystery surrounding Shero was why this coaching legend wasn’t in the Hall.
“Other than (former Flyers’ general manager) Keith Allen, Freddie Shero was the person who should have gone into the Hall of Fame ahead of myself, Bernie Parent, Bill Barber, any of us who have gone in,” former team captain Bob Clarke said. “He was that important to the success of the Flyers.”
This time around, the selection committee righted an old wrong and the Shero family finally got the Hall call.
“It’s a great honor to see my father recognized by the Hockey Hall of Fame,” Ray Shero, Pittsburgh Penguins Executive Vice President and General Manager, said.
“In addition to what he contributed to different teams and organizations as a coach, I also believe he made a real contribution to the game of hockey in general.”
Like many others, Bullies winger Bob “Hound” Kelly wondered why the selection took so long.
“I’ve stated before,” Kelly said, “that what Freddie accomplished in his nine, 10 years with us, if Ed Snider, Keith Allen, Bob Clarke and Bill Barber were in the Hall of Fame, why not Freddie?”
Barber, whose 1990 induction came the same year Shero passed away from stomach cancer at the age of 65, agreed the honor was overdue.
“Long overdue,” he said. “I’m happy for the Shero family and I’m happy for the Flyers family. I think it was an era in time that was very, very special, us winning championships, and I think it kind of completes the whole process as far as the Hall of Fame goes.”
Some believe the Bullies’ trail of black eyes caused committee members to blackball Shero.
“Nobody liked our style, we were the Broad Street Bullies,” defenseman Joe Watson said with a laugh. “But we were never given credit for the talent we had. We had guys who worked hard and had skill and were never given credit.”
The same went for Shero, despite the fact that the NHL’s most successful coaches of the 1970s and ’80s — Bowman, Arbour and Glen Sather — freely borrowed from The Fog’s system.
“The legacy of my father should be as an innovator,” Ray Shero said. “I believe he was ahead of his time in many facets of the game on and off the ice: The first assistant coach in ’72; video; off-ice training. … He made a positive mark on the game.
“People know the fighting of the Flyers, but St. Louis and Boston were fighting, too. (The Bullies) had an image, but they had good players. I’m sure he’s proud to say that he was a true ‘player’s coach.’ I think his players wanted to play for him. They played hard for him.”
Watson among them.
“People never talked about systems in the 1970s, but when Freddie came along he instituted systems,” he said. “Teams never had assistant coaches; he brought that into the game. There are so many wonderful things he did for the game.”
And for Philadelphia, a city whose sportscape in the early 1970s was described by former Inquirer columnist Bill Lyon as a “toxic wasteland.” Until, wrote Lyon, a team of “toothless, fearless Canadiens with a penchant for nicknames and fisticuffs” came to town.
“We had characters,” Watson remembered, and they were a colorful lot: “Hound” Kelly; Dave “The Hammer” Schultz; Andre “Moose” Dupont; Rick “The Hawk” MacLeish; Don “Big Bird” Saleski; and Reggie Leach, a.k.a. “The Rifle.”
Captained by Clarke — “Clarkie” to the Philly faithful — the Bullies were a collection of snipers and sluggers, backstopped by a brick wall in goalie gear, Bernard Marcel Parent.
A favored saying in the City of Brotherly Shove in the Bullies’ heyday was that “Only the Lord Saves More Than Bernie.”
Parent, however, recalled a particular Shero statement as having more lasting meaning.
“I’ll never forget the quote, the last quote before the first Stanley Cup when he said ‘Win together and we walk together forever,’” said Parent.
“And that quote went further than just the team — it meant the whole city. Today, 39 years later, it means as much to people as it did then.”
Perhaps more, since the Flyers haven’t captured the Cup since Shero coached them.
It should be remembered that Shero’s success behind the bench wasn’t limited to his years on Broad Street. He was a hit on Broadway as well. In 1979, he guided the New York Rangers to a Stanley Cup final in his first season with the team.
“He had phenomenal success — first in the minor leagues and then he came in when there were just 12 teams (in the NHL) and won two Cups,” Schultz said. “He was a great coach.”
Shero’s greatness lay not only in his vaunted “system” — five-man units; short shifts; ferocious forechecking; organized breakouts; and yes, orchestrated mayhem — but also in allowing for individuality within the team concept.
“He let me do my thing. I don’t think many other coaches would have done that,” said Schultz, a fists-first enforcer whose 472 penalty minutes in 1974-75 remains an NHL record.
“He loved the team, he loved his players. He was a great coach — there’s just no question.”
Barber agreed with Schultz that Shero’s success had as much to do with dealing with people as it did with diagramming a playbook.
“I think Freddie was a unique man and I think he touched a lot of people’s hearts — especially mine, being a young kid and all,” Barber said. “He gave me an opportunity to play and have fun and succeed.”
Following the Flyers’ first Stanley Cup in the spring of ’74, Shero, the son of Russian immigrants, was the lone NHL head coach to accept an offer from the former Soviet Union to go behind the Iron Curtain and learn the Soviets’ strategies and training methods.
When Shero returned to the Flyers he blended the Soviets’ slick style with the NHL’s brand of physicality. The combination was devastating. The Bullies posted the league’s best record in 1975 and claimed a second straight Stanley Cup.
Shero’s most satisfying — and famous — win came in 1976. As the U.S. celebrated its Bicentennial, the Soviets sent their celebrated Red Army squad to North America for a series of games against NHL teams.
Fronted by future hockey Hall of Famers Vladislav Tretiak and Valeri Kharlamov, the Soviets steamrolled through several NHL cities before arriving in Philadelphia.
More than a quarter of a billion people worldwide tuned in to watch hockey’s greatest international team take on the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions.
“The Russians were the envy of hockey in Europe and we were the envy of hockey in North America and it all came down to a one-game series,” recalled Watson.
After studying film of the Red Army’s blowout wins over the Bruins and Rangers and their tie with the Canadiens, Shero constructed a blue-line defense that proved to be a forerunner of the famed “trap” the New Jersey Devils used to capture a Cup in 1995.
“When the (first) puck was dropped, the Red Army won the face-off and proceeded to make three or four tic-tac-toe passes,” Ray Shero recalled. “But the Flyer forwards never moved. They never got into chasing the puck all day. (It was the Flyers’) form of ‘trap’ for that game.”
Fred Shero’s strategy stymied the Soviets, and the Bullies — most notably defenseman Ed Van Impe — rattled the Russians with rugged play.
“The Russians wanted to know what it was like to play the Flyers in Philadelphia under NHL rules,” Kelly remembered.
“The NHL (commissioner Clarence Campbell and the league’s brass) came into our locker room before the game and made a big pitch that we were playing for them. We told them to get out. We weren’t playing for the NHL. The NHL hated us. We were playing for ourselves and our fans.”
Suffering a severe case of the Philly Flu, the Soviets stalled in the Spectrum. Feeding off a frenzied crowd, the Flyers won 4-1.
Because the Bullies were regarded by critics as a goon squad, Shero considered the tactical win over the Red Army more important than the team’s Stanley Cup titles.
And there are many who believe that the U.S. hockey team’s “Miracle” win over the Russians in the 1980 Olympics would not have happened had Shero not shown the way four years earlier. The belief being that U.S. coach Herb
Brooks borrowed from Shero’s 1976 game plan on how to beat the Russians.
“I think it was important for my father (to defeat the Soviets),” Ray Shero said. “The Russians were another way to judge how good his team was. My father had respect for the Russian game, systems, tactics and training.”
And now the same respect has finally been shown for Fred Shero.
“I know he would be thrilled with his election,” Ray Shero said. “To him, it was always about his players, so this is not only a tribute to him but to all the players who played for him over the years.
“I’m sure he would thank the selection committee, but he would also want to thank Mr. Ed Snider and Mr. Keith
Allen for taking a chance on him to coach the Flyers back in 1971.”
Said Kelly, “He came to us out of nowhere. He had been in the Rangers’ system, but he really typified what it meant to be a Flyer.
“He set a tone for what the Flyers are all about, what the organization is all about.”
Read more from Ed Gruver
– 29 years as a sportswriter, the last 14 for Lancaster Newspapers Inc.;
– has written five books and been a contributing writer to two others;
– has written feature articles for national and local magazines;
– B.A. degree in English and Journalism from York College of Pennsylvania; was editor of college newspaper and named to “Who’s Who Among College and University Students in America”;
– native of north Jersey, reside in Lancaster, Pa., married to Michelle and have two daughters, Patty and Katie.