The Five Greatest Captains in Flyers' History

Joe BoylanCorrespondent IIAugust 11, 2011

The Five Greatest Captains in Flyers' History

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    The Philadelphia Flyers are a team steeped in tradition and has long held the captaincy role in high regard both within the organization and the fan base. As the Flyers transition to a new era under a new captain with the franchise changing trade of former captain Mike Richards to the Los Angeles Kings and the trade of sometimes alternate captain Jeff Carter here is a look back at the five greatest captains ever to wear the orange and black.  

5. Keith Primeau

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    Although the "Legend of Keith Primeau" in hindsight seems a tad overstated and hyperbolic,
    Primeau does stand out as one of the best Flyers' captains in team history. Acquired in 2000 from Carolina for fan favorite and consummate Flyer, Rod Brind'Amour, Primeau had a bull's eye on his back. The original plan was for the Flyers to have "Twin Towers" at center with Eric Lindros centering the first line and Primeau centering the second hoping to establish two big, punishing lines that would make it difficult for teams like the New Jersey Devils to play the trap against and create a forecheck that would be impossible to withstand. In theory it worked out great. Unfortunately in reality the plan was never able to be put fully into motion as shortly after the team traded for Primeau Eric Lindros suffered another concussion that would keep him out of action until May.

    In 2001 Eric Desjardins resigned his captaincy and Primeau stepped into the role. There were rough goings for awhile as the team never seemed to be on the same page as their coach and many believe that Primeau along with other veterans like Mark Recchi led an open mutiny that got Flyers' legend Bill Barber fired after the team's 2002 first round elimination that saw the Flyers score two goals in five games.

    In the 2002-03 season Primeau took a firmer leadership position, rededicating himself to the team and
    fully acknowledging that as one of the most vocal critics of Barber if things did not improve for the club he'd be the next to go. The team did improve winning a wild and exciting first round playoff match against the Toronto Maple Leafs. The following season he was asked to take a more defensive role as the team's third line center where he thrived earning a trip to the All Star Game. Towards the end of the season Primeau suffered a concussion on a questionable hit from Bobby Holik which jeopardized his season. Primeau returned in time for the playoffs.

    It was in the 2004 playoffs where Primeau cemented himself in Flyers' lore. Surprising a fan base that had been harshly and unfairly critical of him he dominated in the opening round against the Devils, was a physical and scoring presence against the Toronto Maple Leafs and scored one of the most memorable goals in Flyers history in game six against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Conference
    Finals. With just 1:49 remaining in the game, down one and facing elimination, Primeau kicked a rebound over goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin's leg across the goalmouth, skated behind the net and received his own kick pass and rammed the puck home before Khabibulin could cross the crease, tying the game and forcing overtime and the Flyers' eventual win. It was a moment that ranks up there with Bobby Clarke’s overtime winner in Game 2 of the Finals in 1974, JJ Daigneault’s game winner in
    game six of the ’87 Finals and of course Primeau’s own 5th overtime winner against the Penguins in 2000.

    Nine games into the next season Primeau's career was ended on another cheap hit that caused a
    concussion. His unexpected departure left a leadership vacuum within the team that derailed what was expected to be a Stanley Cup contending season with the offseason free agent signings of hockey great Peter Forsberg, big defenseman Derian Hatcher and the promotion of highly touted rookies Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and RJ Umberger.

    When Primeau's career was cut short it upset the balance of the franchise. 2005-06 was suppose to be not only a Cup run but the start of the next great era: an era that would ideally see Primeau lead the Flyers for the next four or five years as he nurtured the chosen "Next Bobby Clarke" Mike Richards into maturity and the leadership role that was predestined to be his. Instead the team was thrown into flux and ultimately the course of the franchise had been changed. The following season Peter Forsberg was dragged kicking and screaming into the captaincy and failed miserably in that role during a season where his attention was focused more on his injured foot than his leadership, scoring and playmaking. Eventually Richards was made captain too early in his career before he fully matured into a leader or earned the role and as it has played out that was a big part of what ended Richards' Flyers career.

    Primeau started out his career as a Flyer criticized more so than he deserved, he won the hearts of the
    fan base with a playoff performance for which he probably received a little bit too much credit (of his nine goals and seven assists in the playoffs all but one goal and one assist was scored at home). But he stepped up when needed, never shrunk from responsibility, stuck up for his teammates constantly, always lead by example and gladly put the team on his back when it was needed.

4. Ed Van Impe

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    Probably the most under rated captain in Flyers’ history Van Impe paved the way for Bobby Clarke and the ascension of the Broad Street Bullies.

    As the Flyers were in their infancy and just finding their way through the NHL wilderness they named Ed Van Impe their second captain in the team's second season. Though himself only in his third year of his career, he brought stability to the captaincy and led by example by bringing his hard nose toughness to the Flyers and he was one of the team’s best defenseman. Specializing in shot blocking and clearing the front of the net Van Impe's rugged play and leadership help set the tone in the formative years of the Broad Street Bullies as they evolved from expansion team pushovers into one of the most feared teams
    in the history of professional sports.

    Van Impe paved the way for Bobby Clarke as the team's leader and as Clarke matured into a super star Hart Trophy winner Van Impe stepped aside as the team named Clarke captain in 1973. The evidence of Van Impe's impressive leadership can be found in Clarke's emergence from his shadow as one of the game's all time great captains.

    Of course it was a few years after he handed over the captaincy that Van Impe threw that vicious hit for which he will be forever remembered in this town—and Moscow—on Valeri Kharmalov that nearly sparked an international incident during the Flyers defeat of the Soviet Red Army Team in 1976.  

3. Eric Lindros

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    Labeled “The Next One” before he even played an NHL shift Eric Lindros had a ton of pressure placed on his mountainous shoulders. From the time he was a teenager his destiny seemed to lay before him. He was to make the NHL, lead a team to multiple Stanley Cups, shatter records, change the game
    and go down in history as one of the greatest—if not the greatest—ever to play the sport. That’s a lot to put on an 18 year old kid.

    From the get go Lindros was the center of controversy. His refusal to play for the Quebec Nordiques had as much to do with them being a small, French speaking market as it had to do with playing for what his family viewed as a less than scrupulous owner, Marcel Aubut. That team’s double trade of Lindros to the Flyers and the New York Rangers lead to a bitter arbitration hearing that seemed to drag on and on. Finally the Flyers were awarded Lindros and “The Next One” had arrived. Lindros was not billed as “The Next Bobby Clarke” like Mike Ricci or Mike Richards. He was billed as the next Lemieux, the next Gretzky and the next Gordie Howe. Having been said to possess a combination of all of the aforementioned’s abilities. He could do everything. He could hit, pass, score, fight and he did almost every night.

    He was despised by many cities in the league, especially Quebec. Off the ice he seemed to be a gentle soul who almost could not understand the maelstrom of controversy that surrounded him and his manager parents but on the ice he possessed the demeanor of a man who would destroy you and everyone you loved just to dig the puck out of the corner.

    When the Flyers named him captain in 1994 the team was finally his and thanks to one of the franchise’s greatest trades landing the Flyers Eric Desjardins and John LeClair for Mark Recchi, the team put the previous five years of ineptitude behind them and bulldozed their way through the league. The Legion of Doom, the Flyers first line consisting of Lindros, LeClair and Mikael Renberg was as dominating a line that ever played in the league. There were nights when they were unstoppable. They wouldn’t just score they would pound the opposition into submission.

    It cannot be under stated that Lindros’ arrival saved the franchise. When he arrived the team was
    floundering having missed the playoffs three straight years in a row. There was no truly marketable star save for Mark Recchi or Rod Brind’Amour, two very good players in their own right but neither was a super star. There was a complete lack of identity. That all changed with the arrival of Lindros. An arrival that lead to the building of what is known today as the Wells Fargo Center which at the time kept the Flyers in the city. Had a marquee name like Lindros not have come to the Flyers and not have backed up the hype and injected such excitement into the team and the city in those first few years who knows which direction the franchise may have taken? That Peter Forsberg was traded for Lindros is irrelevant as at the time Forsberg was almost as reluctant to join the Flyers as Lindros was to play for the Nordiques and may never have come to Philly regardless.

    Unfortunately for “The Next One” he was never surrounded by the Hall of Famers that Gretzky and Lemiuex were given. The teams Lindros captained had that dominate Legion of Doom line, Rod Brind’Amour on the second line and not much else. Inconsistent goaltending and the front office’s refusal to address that issue hurt those Lindros teams. Their lone trip to the NHL Finals saw them going up—much like the late 80’s teams—against a dynasty in the making, the Detroit Red Wings, who would go on to win three of the next six Stanley Cups. Their coach Terry Murray kept juggling goaltenders Ron Hextall and Garth Snow, their defense was decimated to the point that their best blue-liners by the end were Eric Desjardins, an extremely injured Petr Svoboda and, um, Michel Petit who they inserted as a winger earlier in the playoffs.

    Not only did Lindros not have the supporting cast of a Lemieux, Gretzky or even Yzerman, he was not protected by the officials as those other stars were. A behemoth of a man who was also more often than not the toughest man in the building each night it was considered by the league, and sadly often by his own teammates not named Luke Richardson, that "The Big E" could take care of himself. Whereas if a defenseman even looked crooked at Gretzky he was either sent to the box or pummeled by Marty McSorely, Lindros was subjected to almost as much punsihment as he dished out. This led to multiple injuries including 8 concussions.

    Lindros’ teams never reached the goal of winning a Stanley Cup and he will unfortunately always be remembered for the “choking situation” against the Red Wings in the Finals in 1997, the coaching carousel that followed and the acrimonious split from the team highlighted by the feud with General Manager Bob Clarke and, of all people, trainer John Worley.

    But there were nights during that era, many more than not, when Lindros took over games and looked and led the Flyers truly like “the Next One”.

2. Dave Poulin

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    The man with probably the most unenviable task in Flyers history—replacing Bobby Clarke as team captain—was a player who thought his future lay ahead of him in the world of business not hockey.

    Dave Poulin was an undrafted business major at Notre Dame who was accepted into Proctor & Gamble's mangement training program before he went to Sweden to play hockey for a year when his college playing career ended. Ted Sator, his coach in Sweden also happened to be a Flyers scout who convinced the team to add Poulin to their roster. Upon making his NHL debut with the team he scored on his first two shots and his potential career at Proctor & Gamble was quickly forgotten. Poulin was blessed to have played alongside Bobby Clarke and even receive the great man’s public blessing as the heir apparent. It also helped that Poulin possessed the same grit, determination, heart and leadership qualities as his predecessor. If ever a player left a franchise with big shoes to fill it was Clarke, and if ever the right foot came along it was Poulin. Bad analogy or not, it works.

    Poulin was not a standout star like Clarke. Although he did win one major NHL award as a Flyer, the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward  in 1987. A very valid argument can be made
    that had Poulin and the team of Flyers he led, had played in almost any other era of the NHL he too would’ve captained the Flyers to two Stanley Cups. As it so happened Poulin’s Flyers had to go up against an Edmonton Oilers hockey juggernaut that may very have been the greatest squad assembled in NHL history—twice.  

    Like Clarke Poulin constantly played through injuries. The most famous being playing the in the magnificent 1987 Stanley Cup Finals playoff run with broken ribs and then playing the 1989 Conference Finals on a broken foot.

    He was a pillar in the community, a great representative of the team with the press. He also led the team through the darkest period in the franchise’s history the 1985 death of star goalie Pelle Lindbergh. Leading a team that was so young (Poulin said most of them still had both sets of grandparents living let alone having lost a friend) to a division title in 1985-86 Poulin, and
    coach Mike Kennan, kept the franchise afloat when they easily could have crumbled having lost both a beloved teammate and arguably their best player. That 1987 Finals run probably would not have happened had the team—understandably—collapsed the previous season.

    Poulin was traded in 1990 to the Boston Bruins. The Flyers failed to make the playoffs that season for the first time since 1972 and the Bruins went on to the Finals where, once again for Poulin, the Edmonton Oilers and their roster of Hall of Famers waited. Poulin would go on to win his second Major Award, The King Clancy Trophy, with the Bruins as the Flyers failed to make the playoffs
    for five straight seasons. 

    The Flyers, a franchise that has been desperately seeking their “Next Bobby Clarke” whould
    be lucky should they eventually find their “Next Dave Poulin”.

1. C'mon. It's Bobby Clarke, but You Knew That.

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    Bobby Clarke is so well known and beloved within the Flyers fan base there is nothing much left to say. 27 years after retiring Clarke is still the player who most comes to mind when thinking of the Philadelphia Flyers. He was a man who was the epitome of “Flyer Hockey” whose background growing up and working in the Zinc mines of Flin Flon, Manitoba taught him early on that the key to success in all facets of life was found in selflessness and hard work.

    Undersized and diabetic Clarke played so far above his head his nose should’ve constantly been bleeding. Many times he was seen on the ice covered with his own blood. There are so many famous images of Clarke with stitches and gashes on his face; his toothless smile alone was a testament to his hard play and disregard to his person safety--not to mention cosmetic appearance. None is more famous than the night he took a Reggie Leach slap shot straight to his head. He left the game only to be stitched up and return, his white jersey stained red with blood, to record his 1,000th career NHL
    point. He suffered a torn calf muscle in a playoff series against the Bruins and played on through incredible pain. In the 1983-84 season he had a skate blade almost remove his eyelid in a game against the Chicago Blackhawks. He left, had his eyelid stitched back to his face, and returned to score the game winning goal in overtime. Those are just a few of the many examples of his physical fortitude to play through pain.

    His blue collar attitude and hard work set the template for a franchise. The teams he led to Stanley Cup victories in the seventies were, almost to a man, personally interwoven into the fabric of the Philadelphia community based on Clarke’s example. That Flyers team was a team in every sense of the word. They played together, they hung out together, they watched each other’s backs with a
    ferocity seldom seen and many planted themselves in the Philadelphia area when their careers ended and still to this day hang together.

    Clarke never took a shift off, never gave up on a play, never refused to back check, never pulled up to protect himself from injury, never held out for more money, never sought a big payday, never renegotiated a contract, never put himself above the team and never gave up. He loved to play,
    he loved to practice and he detested losing. He was the antithesis of today’s modern athlete. Hockey analyst Bill Clement once called him the greatest leader ever to play the game. And lead them he did. He led them to two Stanley Cups, four Stanley Cup Finals, as a player/assistant coach he lead them to the greatest unbeaten streak in sports history in the 1979-80 season and he still leads the team in assists and points. Former NHL official Bryan Lewis said during an interview that Clarke had complete control over the team. “As fast as the Philadelphia Flyers could blow up and start mayhem,” Lewis said, “I can tell you this, Bob Clarke had as much control as anybody in terms of stopping it…they reacted and they responded to the team leader.”

    Every player the Flyers have signed, drafted or traded for has had to live up to the example set forth by Clarke. Writer Jay Greenburg may have put it best when he said Bobby Clarke didn’t just hustle and work hard he “gave of himself” to the Philadelphia Flyers organization.

    Clarke, of course, would rather not have any of this placement on a pedal stool. Reflecting his humble, small town background when discussing his leadership and the impact he had on the team and the game for a Legends of Hockey documentary Clarke simply shook his head, smiled and said, “as far as individual leadership, I don’t know. I just went by the ass of my pants.”