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October 23, 2006

The Legion of Doomed
Bob Clarke's legacy as GM is misunderstood at best and a disaster at worst, writes TFP columnist Greg Wyshynski.

(WASHINGTON, DC) -- Here in Washington, DC, the federal government is famous for delivering stunning news to the media late on a Friday afternoon; perfect for revelation in the Saturday morning papers and having already been spun by the time Monday rolls around.

But if you're in Philadelphia, the perfect time to break bad news is evidently a Sunday morning, when the city is counting down the hours before the latest football disappointment from the Eagles.

Ed Snider fires Ken Hitchcock and accepts Bob Clarke's resignation while most Flyers fans were more concerned about the number of touches Brian Westbrook was going to get against Tampa Bay that afternoon.

At the end of the day, it was all put into perspective: the Eagles lost on a 62-yard (!) field-goal, and the Flyers were now in a lost season — they're a rudderless ship that may still sail into the playoffs, but only as a first-round bye for a top seed.

The Flyers are done, toast, finished. They're beyond a rebuilding project — they're a reconstruction project, from the cracked foundation of their philosophy to their antiquated window dressings. They're now the Legion of Doomed.

The only way Black (and Orange) Sunday could have been more disastrous for the city's sports fans was if the Sixers traded Iverson for Kwame Brown and Ryan Howard decided to leave baseball and join a monastery.

How did this happen? Hitchcock lost the dressing room, for one. His managerial style had caused a subtle player revolt, and his handling of the goaltending situation — one of Clarke's many follies — was horrific. Maybe things are different if Keith Primeau is still in there to keep the chemistry experiment from exploding, but without that kind of leadership Hitch couldn't keep the team together. The fact that Snider refused to accept this was happening, giving the coach a three-year extension months before firing him, is damning to the owner's grasp on the reality of his team.

Clarke, as we were told, wasn't fired but rather resigned. Naturally, his resignation came after an extensive investigation by Snider, which probably consisted of watching the second period of the Buffalo game and then glancing at the current standings in USA Today.

After conducting my own extensive investigation, I've discovered that it's a minor miracle Clarke lasted this long. After his bitter, immature managing of the team's relationship with Eric Lindros. After not being able to take down the Devils with any of his Stanley Cup-caliber teams. After letting every Tom, Dick and Cechmanek embarrass the Flyers between the pipes in the postseason.

The only reason he was still the general manager of the Philadelphia Flyers was due to the wide-spread refusal that Bobby Clarke, the ultimate Bully, had morphed into Bob Clarke, building teams that were constantly being bullied. His legacy as a player was legendary enough to cloud the fact that his own mistakes led the Flyers to disappointment after disappointment. It reminds me of the slack that was cut to Willis Reed when the former Knicks icon was general manager of the New Jersey Nets; the only difference being that Reed couldn't build a contender if you spotted him Jordan and Pippen.

Did the game pass Clarke by? In many respects it did, both fiscally and competitively. Ironic, isn't it, that the man who lobbied for rules changes to handcuff his team's arch nemesis, Marty Brodeur, now finds himself a relic because the game has been so dramatically retooled.

But I've seen the "Clarke didn't know how to compete in the new NHL" harangue repeated throughout the hockey media, and quite frankly find it to be disingenuous. Clarke wasn't alone in thinking he knew how to build a winner under the new rules, only to realize he'd have to revolutionize his entire approach to the game. Fact is that it was a harsh education for all of us; and by all of us, I mean everyone who was ready to hand Philly the Cup in 2005 when it added Forsberg and two solid defensemen to its roster.

Clarke's signing of Derian Hatcher is lambasted now, but at the time the biggest concern about the acquisition wasn't his ability to play under the new rules. It was that his that his knee wouldn't hold up, and Hatcher played 77 regular season games and six post-season games for the Flyers. Would this signing even be a point of debate had Clarke been able to sign his top choice Adam Foote rather than Hatcher?

The signings of Hatcher and Mike Rathje are now treated like mistakes, saddling the defense with a pair of immobile dinosaurs. How many critics were claiming that when they were signed? Not many; the majority sounded like Philadelphia Inquirer writer Tim Panaccio did:

"It was a recurring nightmare for several members of the Flyers' brass. Visions of Marian Hossa, Daniel Alfredsson, Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley, Mats Sundin, Vincent Lecavalier and Jaromir Jagr - all coming across the blue line with speed. Who among the Flyers' defense was big enough to stop them? Late Monday night, in a swift assault on free agency, general manager Bob Clarke addressed that concern."

So give the ex-GM points for trying. Clarke gets no credit for sending Tony Amonte and John LeClair packing — going with faster, younger talent at forward — mainly because the Flyers traded goal-scoring for quickness and grit. It's too earlier to see if the Kyle Calder trade pays dividends, but with Handzus gone for the season it's looking pretty good. These were moves made by a man attempting to change with the times, even if they were changing too quickly for him.

But now, as I meekly attempt to defend the indefensible, we all have to wonder how many of Clarke's many disappointments and few successes he can actually claim to be his. Because the most shocking, pathetic and condemnable comment from the deposed general manager was that he really didn't do much managing in general over the last two years:

"I don't know if the right word is burnt-out or tired or something," he said. "The decisions that had to be made, I was not willing to make them. I was lettin' ... other people make them."

I hear a man say something like that, and I expect him to be shuffling around in a bathrobe and slippers, clutching a Flyers teddy bear and mumbling something about Reggie Leach's skate size. I don't expect him to be a paid professional who was entrusted by management, and more importantly the fans, to bring a championship home to a city that needs one as badly as an Eagles fan needs a 9-volt with good hang time.

Looking back on his last few seasons, it's clear that Clarke may have been passing the buck. Rathje was then-scout Dean Lombardi's choice. Chris Therien's return was all but demanded by Roenick and Primeau. The only move I'm confident Clarke made was signing Ryan Kesler to an offer sheet, because it was such a Clarke-type move.

If Clarke had health concerns, he should have resigned earlier. If he lost his desire for the job, he should have resigned earlier. If one of hockey's all-time greatest competitors on the ice was content to be a figurehead off the ice, he should have resigned earlier.

But he didn't. Because whether he's Bobby, or Bob, Clarke, he's symbolic of the Flyers organization: stubborn to change, no matter how far their fortunes and reputations have fallen.


Speculation begins immediately that the Flyers are going to seek out a big name general manager or coach. Cue the usual suspects: Neil Smith, Brent Sutter, Pat Quinn....and Mike Keenan? That last option is always going to be on the table, but the fan revolt would be palpable if Keenan returned to the Flyers.

(By the way, am I the only one who envisions Keenan waiting for a job a lot like Beetlejuice waiting for someone to free him from the afterlife? I picture Iron Mike relaxing on a miniature zamboni, until Ed Snider walks in and says, "KeenanKeenanKeenan!" Mike slicks back his hair and says, "It's shooooooooooooowtime!")

I received about 50 e-mails all making the same joke: that Robert Esche was going to be named the general manager of the Flyers, ala Garth Snow with the Islanders.

You know, it wasn't so much Esche getting the front office gig that worried me; it was Nittymaki getting a 15-year contract.

The best hockey news of the week came during the worst television news of the week: that NBC Sports was going to be untouched by the monstrous cost-cutting by NBC Universal, which wants to slash expenses by $750 million. With the NHL expected to extend its relationship with NBC through the next Winter Olympics, the opportunity remains for the network to try and continue to revolutionize its coverage of the sport from a technical standpoint without financial constraints.

If baseball is to blame for the embarrassing attendance numbers coming out of St. Louis, why is Detroit playing to capacity every night in an Yzerman-less season?

Finally, Brendan Shanahan told the Toronto Sun that potentially taking over as NHL Commissioner was "kind of a dumb idea."

Memo to Shanny: Right now, I'm looking at the NHL Directory's listing for the current staff in the league's New York office.

And I've seen dumber.

Greg Wyshynski, also the Sports Editor of The Connect Newspaper, is a columnist for and the Washington Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine. 
His book, "
Glow Pucks and 10-Cent Beer: The 101 Worst Ideas in Sports History" is now on sale.




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