Since the day he was drafted in 2003 until the day he was anointed the 17th captain in Philadelphia Flyers history, Mike Richards has been touted—by the "organ-I-zation" and the hockey media alike—as a player in the mold of Bobby Clarke.
Maybe I’m being a little thick, but I’m having difficulty drawing the parallels between Michael Richards and Robert Earl Clarke. With the exception of both being widely regarded as gritty, physical, gifted two-way players trapped in smaller men’s frames in a larger man’s game, the similarities appear to end for No. 16 and No. 18.
There are a lot of players that have passed through Philadelphia since Clarke's retirement in 1984 that have fit that bill.
Sure, both Richards and Clarke were bestowed the Flyers' captaincy at the tender age of 23. But when you take into account that the Flyers have spent the past five years cultivating the Clarke/Richards paradigm, that decision seems to be more by design rather than the result of some mystic stroke of orange and black fate.
What’s interesting is there is a different player on the Flyers' roster that appears to be cut from the same cloth as Philadelphia’s most beloved and reviled hockey player, yet nobody really wants to say it. His name is Steve Downie.
Yes, that Steve Downie. The undisciplined, poorly socialized pit bull, who would certainly benefit from a steady diet of Prozac, professional counseling, and hugs. Yes, that Steve Downie.
When Philadelphia Flyers fans think of Bobby Clarke, they tend to think of the highlights of a storied Hall of Fame career; the four trips to the Stanley Cup finals; the three 100-point seasons and three Hart Trophies; the biggest pair balls in the history of Philadelphia sports; the single-minded determination that No. 16 brought to the ice every season, which helped transform the Flyers from an expansion team to an elite team in the NHL.
However, when you step outside of the bubble of Philadelphia sports and look at Bobby Clarke from the perspective of other hockey fans, their memories of Philly’s toothless grin is, well, less flattering.
Beyond the Delaware Valley, a Bobby Clarke Mad Libs exercise would probably include the adjectives of “cheap,” “dirty,” and “criminal.” Appropriate nouns would most likely be “bastard,” “cheap-shot artist,” and “impaler.” Verbiage would most certainly contain “hack,” “slash,” and “hide behind Dave Schultz.”
To be a Bobby Clarke fan outside of the safe environs of the Philadelphia sports scene would have most likely gotten you shouted down in any other hockey city in North America. In the Soviet Union, it might have gotten you shot.
Because he played his entire career in Philadelphia, and because every other NHL city has been on the business end of a Bobby Clarke hockey stick (whether it was burying a puck in the twine or a taped up blade in the gut), it’s pretty easy to come to the conclusion that Bobby Clarke was a hockey player that only Philadelphia could love. To be a Clarkie fan outside of the tri-state area would raise questions about your morals, ethics, and worth as a human being.
Sound like anyone on the current Flyers roster you might know?
Make no mistake. If it had been Valeri Karlamov in 1972 instead of Dean McCammond behind the Flyers net in 2007, “The Hit” would have seen Steve Downie become the toast of the NHL, rather than burnt toast in the NHL. In Clarke’s era, punching Jason Blake in the face (as he was being restrained by the officials) would have been another day at the office at Broad & Pattison, and not a call for banishment.
Because Downie’s rookie campaign was marred by suspensions and banishment to the Flyers' checking unit for most of what remained of his 2007-2008 season, his overall grade as a rookie player remains largely incomplete. However, his accomplished junior career (also marred by controversial incidents and behavior) says that he has many of the tools Mike Richards possessed before making the leap to the professional ranks.
Bestowing the Bobby Clarke mantle on any player so early in their career seems a little foolish, but if Steve Downie can approach the quality of play that Mike Richards has produced heading into his fourth season as a Flyer, we may need to rethink who fits into the Bobby Clarke mold.
Bobby Clarke was not only a great hockey player. He was a great villain.
Downie has the villain part down to a science.