NHL lost colourful personality

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:27 AM ET

In a hockey world immersed with vanilla diplomats, Bobby Clarke has always been a myriad of distinct flavours.

He could be tasty or tasteless, all in the same afternoon, if not the same sentence.

He could be a breath of fresh air or full of hot air, depending on the moment, the minute, the circumstance.

He wasn't always correct, politically or any other way.

What he has never been, not as player, not as general manager, not as team spokesman, not as one of the few known faces and voices recognized by hockey fans everywhere, was dull or predictable.

And in a sport where dull and predictable is often applauded -- and can get you hired, for example, to manage the Toronto Maple Leafs -- Clarke's 37 years in the National Hockey League -- 15 as player in Philadelphia, 19 as Flyers general manager, two as GM in Minnesota, one as GM in Florida -- the departure of Clarke is indeed unfortunate

From the moment he first flashed the toothless grin of a hockey assassin, Clarke was a figure to reckon with. And the game, sometimes forgotten as an entertainment product, was the richer for it.

An NHL with Clarke is a far better place than one without him. The league always has been in need of character and characters. On Sunday, in a resignation that doesn't necessarily make sense, the Flyers and the league lost both.

No matter how you choose to analyze the current troubles of the Flyers -- and they are many -- the combination of Paul Holmgren and John Stevens is not an upgrade over Clarke and Ken Hitchcock. It can't be.

The deck chairs have been shuffled: The accomplished -- and we mean really accomplished -- have been replaced by those with no similar history. These are the Flyers, with a desperate owner, a signature franchise in a league short of signatures, and the best they can come up with is Holmgren and Stevens?

It won't be the same around Philadelphia. Not without Hitchcock, one of the great coaches and even better people in the game. Not without Clarke, who has lived with natural fire burning within him and now says, if you believe it, he is burning out.

Part of this dirty charm of Clarke, historically, has been his insistence of being right even when he was apparently wrong. He wasn't a GM as much as a lightning rod.

He was the former president of the Players' Association who came to hate the Players' Association. He didn't care who he insulted if he invited the disgraced Alan Eagleson to be his guest at a hockey game.

Bobby Clarke did what Bobby Clarke wanted to do: The rest he left for others to interpret. The more anyone tried to tell Clarke he was wrong, the more willing he would be to tackle conventional wisdom.

In 19 years, he had 15 different starting goalies with the Flyers. If anything was apparent, it was Clarke never learned from how he won his own Stanley Cups as a player, on the back of Bernie Parent.

The best of his Philadelphia goalies, Pelle Lindbergh, died in a car crash. The rest -- other than Ron Hextall -- always were found wanting. Clarke believed in Bob Froese and Chico Resch and Ken Wregget and Pete Peeters and Dominic Roussel and Garth Snow and Sean Burke (twice) and John Vanbiesbrouck and Brian Boucher and Roman Cechmanek and Jeff Hackett and Robert Esche and Antero Niittymaki. Even if no one else did.

With all those also-rans in the nets, he still managed to serve up nine 100-point seasons in Philadelphia, 14 years in which his teams finished either first or second. Four times his teams (Philadelphia and Minnesota) played for the Stanley Cup: Twice, they lost to Gretzky's Edmonton Oilers, once to Mario Lemieux's Penguins, the last time to Steve Yzerman's Red Wings.

A record that has stood the test of time.

Even this year, circumstance partially did him in. His best leader, Keith Primeau, was forced by injury into retirement. His captain, Eric Desjardins, picked this time to quit. The kids, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, aren't quite ready to take over. This was transition time for a team that misread the changing face of the NHL.

And no transition greater than this: The face and voice and anger and passion of Philadelphia hockey is gone, never to be replaced by anyone quite so compelling.

WHO'S NEXT?

There are people in hockey who insist that Ken Hitchcock is the best coach in the game. Now, he becomes the most available. If Jim Playfair gets fired in Calgary, expect Darryl Sutter to go back behind the Flames bench. But what of Columbus, where the Jackets never get better? How safe can Gerard Gallant be?

SELECTING CLARKE

Bobby Clarke was the 16th choice in the 1969 entry draft and the only player in the Top 16 to be inducted in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Among those selected before him: Don Tannahill, Frank Spring, Ernie Moser (by Leafs), Bob Currier (by Philadelphia), Jim Rutherford, Pierre Jarry, J.P. Bordeleau, Marc Tardif and Rejean Houle.

OUR GAME

As of yesterday, there is not a Canadian player in the Top-12 point-getters in the NHL. The top Canadian, Daniel Briere of Buffalo, ranks 13th. Ahead of Briere are three Russians, three Czechs, two Americans, one Slovakian, one Austrian, a Swede, and a Slovenian.


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