The Game I'll Never Forget: Flyers–Red Wings, February 23, 1988

Randy S. Robbins@@RandySRobbinsContributor IIIDecember 22, 2011

Flyers fan recalls the Red Wings rout that suddenly became a Flyers blowout

February 23, 1988

Detroit, Michigan

It used to be fashionable among sports digest magazines to run “The Game I’ll Never Forget” columns, in which a well-known athlete would describe a memorable game during his career, “as told to” one of the staff writers. Well, it’s time for me to relate the game I’ll never forget, as told to me:

“Oh, I sure have some unforgettable memories watching the Philadelphia Flyers. Raising their second Stanley Cup, against the Buffalo Sabres, in 1975. ‘Course, I was only seven, and what I mostly recall is taking off all my clothes and running from the den up to my bedroom because I’d recently heard in school that streaking was the thing to do.

“Then, there was Tim Kerr’s four-goal eruption in 8:16 to sweep the stinkin’ New York Rangers out of the 1985 Division Semifinals. He singlehandedly snapped the Blueshirts’ backs. I was on the telephone the entire game to a girl whom I’d hoped might become my high school sweetheart. She was watching it too, and we could hardly believe what we were seeing.

“Naturally, Game 6 of the 1987 Finals against Wayne Gretzky and the mighty Edmonton Oilers will live forever in my mind, most vividly J.J. Daigneault’s go-ahead slap shot from just inside the blue line, which put the whole city in frenzy for the 72 hours leading up to the deciding game.

For four years the Flyers' Atlas, Kerr's shoulder finally gave out.
For four years the Flyers' Atlas, Kerr's shoulder finally gave out.

“But the game that stands atop all the others took place on February 23, 1988, at the old Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. As you might gather, I lived and died with the Flyers in those days. Never missed a game. Knew each player’s stats, each player’s mannerisms and stride.

“Read every article in the next day’s paper, victory or loss, and even though I was a sophomore in college when this game took place, my bedroom at the folks’ house remained covered with Flyers paraphernalia.

“1987-88 was a tough season. The Flyers had come so close to the Stanley Cup the previous spring, stretching Gretzky’s Oilers to seven thrilling games. I was so proud of them and had hopes that this would finally be The Year.

“But Kerr, who had netted 50 goals for four straight seasons and was one of the best snipers east of Edmonton, underwent shoulder surgery and missed all but eight games. Not surprisingly, Philadelphia struggled without him.

“The Flyers entered the Motor City that Tuesday night atop the mediocre Patrick Division, at 31-22-7, but they had been streaky all season and far from the dominant squad we'd seen the year before.

“It was the second half of a home-and-home series. Philadelphia had beaten Detroit 5-3 two nights earlier in the Spectrum, and the Red Wings, division leaders themselves with a virtually identical record of 31-21-8, were looking for revenge. I settled down on the floor, close to the television, with a bag of Cheetos.

Ron Hextall using his catching glove, instead of catching a flu bug.
Ron Hextall using his catching glove, instead of catching a flu bug.

Ron Hextall is slated to start the game. He’s having a good, but not great, season. After winning the Conn Smythe Trophy in the previous spring’s playoffs as a rookie, Hextall serves an eight-game suspension to open the season for slashing Kent Nilsson in the finals.

Like the rest of the team, he battles on-ice malaise and has yet to really find his groove. Yet Hextall's backup, Mark LaForest, stands in net as the opening puck is dropped.

“That took me by surprise, as I’m sure it did everyone. What’s LaForest doing in there against first-place Detroit? He spent the previous two seasons with the Wings, so maybe he knows something about stopping Steve Yzerman...?

“Turns out, Hextall has a stomach virus and was vomiting just before game time. Not the Glenn Hall vomiting-from-fear-but-I’m-gonna-play-great-anyway kind of sick, but rather the I-can’t-even-see-straight-and-I’m-gonna-blow-this-game-very-quickly kind of sick. Hextall eventually replaces LaForest 45 seconds into the game, but he should’ve stayed in the locker room.

“Well, even with an early delay-of-game penalty on Detroit goalie Glen Hanlon, the Wings are all over Philadelphia. Before the Flyers can capitalize, Brian Propp gets two minutes for hooking, and Petr Klima pots his 30th goal of the season while four-on-four. Then with Joe Kocur out of the box and Detroit on the power play, Brent Ashton slams one in, giving the Wings a quick 2-0 lead.

“It’s only six minutes into the game, but I’m discouraged—partially at the score but mostly because I didn’t buy a larger bag of Cheetos. The remainder of the first period stabilizes, until, with just under one minute to play, 87-year-old Harold Snepsts lights the lamp for the first time in more than a year on a shot not much faster than Hextall’s pregame regurgitation."

Harold Snepsts, who had scored but a single goal in nearly four years, gave Detroit a 3-0 lead.
Harold Snepsts, who had scored but a single goal in nearly four years, gave Detroit a 3-0 lead.

“That should’ve been a killer, going up by three with the period nearly over, but Rick Tocchet, who was really starting to come into his own as a goal-scorer, gets it back 23 seconds later. That was big—you can always fight back from a three-goal deficit, but had Detroit scored the next goal and gone up four—well, that’s usually too much to overcome. Same for badminton.

During intermission, Robbins learns that Flyers nemesis Ron Duguay has been traded for the second time in his career from the stinkin’ Rangers, now to the Los Angeles Kings. He gives the television a four-minute standing ovation.

“Second period starts, and it’s clear that I have no intention of working on my Pre-Columbian Lingerie mid-term due the next morning. Yet I don’t care. When I’m watching my beloved Flyers, the rest of the world takes a back seat, including the class that may make or break my grade-point average this semester.

“But soon, the Wings are making me see red. LaForest has replaced Hextall again—this time for good—but he's as wretched as the retching Hextall. Goals by Darren Veitch and goon-gone-sniper Bob Probert (29 goals despite 398 penalty minutes that season!) are turning this contest into a rout.

“Just past the halfway mark of regulation, it's 5-1 Detroit. I feel utterly dejected.

“Maybe it has something to do with Leap Year, only six days away, because things start happening that don’t happen very often.

Only a third-grader's drawing kept Mark Howe from Flyers immortality.
Only a third-grader's drawing kept Mark Howe from Flyers immortality.

“I don’t have much time to wallow in that dejection. Forty-three seconds later, Mark Howe—the best defenseman Philadelphia ever had, unless you count the picture I drew in third grade of Bobby Orr in a Flyers jersey—bangs in his 14th of the year. Okay, 5-2. Big deal. Detroit is outclassing us completely.

“Yet before I can continue my silent lament, Craig Berube muscles in his second career goal less than a minute later, and less than a minute after that, he sets up Murray Craven’s 20th of the season. Suddenly, the Flyers have risen from the dead.

“Goals are coming fast and furious. Unfortunately, the next one launches from the blade of Yzerman, who establishes a new Red Wings’ single-season record with his 48th. Five goals in less than three minutes. Detroit leads 6-4, but at least Philadelphia has life.

“My shirt is looking more and more like a Flyers jersey thanks to smeared Cheetos dust. Who has time to run to the kitchen for napkins when this slugfest rages on?

Robbins takes a slow drag of his candy cigarette. (“They’re a bitch to light, but once you get them going, it’s really worth the effort,” he muses as he ponders what occurred next.)

“Then everything got weird. Heart of Darkness–weird. Colonel Kurtz–weird.

“Third period's about to start, and I’m a wreck. Almost as orange now as an Oompa Loompa, sweaty from pacing, voice hoarse. Down by two, Philly has a fighting chance.

“Now, I’ve seen a lot of hockey in my time. And I’ve seen a lot of strange things in sports. But I have never witnessed what took place in that third period. Something otherworldly beset Joe Louis Arena as the third period commenced.

Robbins doesn't advocate 'em...but he can't quit 'em.
Robbins doesn't advocate 'em...but he can't quit 'em.

“Just over two minutes into the final period, Doug Crossman pops in one from the point, cutting the lead to 6-5.

“And from that moment on, virtually every time Philadelphia shoots the puck, it goes in—as if the little rubber disc controls itself and swerves around and between every piece of Hanlon’s equipment (sweet, if belated, revenge for those three times he beat the Flyers while tending goal for the stinkin’ Rangers).

“At 6:10, Daigneault, eternal hero of Game 6, rifles in the tying score. If a pin is to be heard dropping in Joe Louis Arena, you’d never know it for [Flyers’ announcers] Gene Hart and Bobby Taylor’s frenetic whoops of joy.

“Then, the snowball really gets rolling. Adam Oates incurs a double-minor for high-sticking, and Howe makes him pay, incredibly giving the Flyers a 7-6 lead.

“But the strange sojourn up this frozen river is long from over. Flyers keep shooting—and scoring. Ron Sutter tallies unassisted, and before anyone in the Delaware Valley can fathom the magnitude of this wild comeback, Craven and Captain Dave Poulin chip in two more. Poor Hanlon, flogged for 10 goals, is mercifully relieved by former Flyers farmhand Sam St. Laurent.

“In a final indignity, enforcer Dave Brown, having, by far, the best offensive season of his career, slides a shot from the bottom of the left faceoff circle that rolls off his blade almost indifferently toward the Detroit net.

The February 24, 1988, Argus-Press of Owosso, Mich., confirms it really happened.
The February 24, 1988, Argus-Press of Owosso, Mich., confirms it really happened.

“St. Laurent, cold from inaction and undecided whether to stop it with his stick or drop to his pads, waits too long, and the puck, with all the speed of an Atari ping-pong ball on the lowest level, slips between St. Laurent's pads and over the goal line, for Philadelphia’s 11th score.

“This bizarre sea-change is complete...

“Seven straight goals, on only 13 shots in the final period—11 on 36 for the game—after being whipped by Detroit for the first 28 minutes. Who can explain such an utter reversal of fortune? Logic simply skated away. Detroit was a good team playing a great game—or maybe they only succeeded in angering the hockey gods by beating up a flu-ridden starter and a second-stringer.

“I went to bed feeling that the Flyers had finally turned the corner and were ready to make a serious run for the Cup.

“Alas, Philadelphia would finish a disappointing 38-33-9 that season and blow a 3-1 lead in the first round to the Washington Capitals—one of many in a long string of heartbreaking moments for Flyers fans.

“It was the beginning of the end for those great Flyers teams of the 1980s, and the franchise quickly disintegrated into a long stretch of mediocrity. Yet although I’m too old to live and die each game with Philadelphia anymore, I still care enough that they continue to break my heart.

"And in 35 or so years of watching Flyers hockey, that’s the game I’ll never forget..."

Robbins remains an ardent Flyers fan but has given up Cheetos.


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