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Backchecking: Clarke continues legacy in front office

Bob Clarke was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1987. (THN Archives)

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Bob Clarke was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1987. (THN Archives)

By Alan Bass

If we could all accomplish just a fraction of what Bob Clarke did in his career, I’m sure we would all be content with our lives.

Clarkie, as he is affectionately referred to by fans and friends, was playing for the Flin Flon Bombers of the Saskatchewan Junior League and had put up impressive numbers. However, he was rarely scouted, as few teams sent scouts to Western Canada in the 1960s. Clarke believed the only teams scouting him at the time were Detroit and Philadelphia.

Although he was a dangerous offensive threat, many teams passed on his services in the 1969 NHL draft because he had diabetes. “Just pissed me off,” Clarke said of teams not willing to take a chance on him. “But anyone who’s competitive would just say ‘(screw) you.’ ”

The Philadelphia Flyers decided to take that chance by drafting Clarke in the second round, 17th overall in 1969.

Fifteen seasons, two Stanley Cups, 358 goals and 1210 points later, Clarke had silenced his doubters.

He retired from his playing career in 1984 and was offered a position in Flyers management. The love and pride of an entire city would now be moving from leading the team to running the team. But the transition from the ice to the front office wasn’t an easy one for Clarke.

“It was really difficult to go from being part of what’s going on on the ice to just sitting there watching, not being able to do anything,” Clarke said. “So many times you have to just sit patiently and it can be frustrating if your team is struggling and you can’t do anything about it.”

One of the toughest tasks Clarke had to accomplish as GM of the Flyers was building a competitive team for the “New NHL” after the ’04-05 lockout.

“It was an impossibility to create a team for the new changes in the game, because we had no time to do it,” Clarke said. “All of a sudden we’re playing a game that none of us knew. Some teams had the right players for it, but it was all luck, none of it was by design. Some of us didn’t have the right type of players for the new game, but you’re still responsible.”

After the Flyers’ 2006-07 season began poorly, Clarke resigned from the GM position, citing a lack of desire and burnout from the game. A few months later, he was offered his current position of senior vice president.

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“Paul Holmgren will ask me questions of things I’ve gone through in similar situations - talk to me about making trades,” Clarke said of his role on the team. “He uses me to talk to so he can bounce things off of me because of my experience.

“For me, it keeps me with the Flyers, it keeps me involved in the game and you still sleep better at night in this position,” Clarke said with a laugh.

The Flyers have consistently been a tough team to play against throughout its history, owning the NHL’s second-best all-time winning percentage behind the Montreal Canadiens. Clarke attributes that to the tremendous support of owner Ed Snider.

“We were allowed to spend the money, we always tried to win,” Clarke said. “We didn’t do what Pittsburgh did; lose seven years in a row so they could get good. They did it twice, in fact. They went through six or seven different owners. We’ve had one owner.”

Clarke finds the strategies of some current teams appalling when considering the way other organizations have built competitive teams.

“It’s somewhat embarrassing that three of the last teams (in the 2009 playoffs) missed the playoffs six or seven years in a row; Washington, Chicago, and Pittsburgh,” he said. “Now they’re good and the teams that try to win all the time get penalized. Our philosophy has never changed since 1967.”

Although Clarke was never able to capture a Stanley Cup in the front office, it wasn’t for lack of effort or desire.

“We do everything we can to win; it is our responsibility to our fans.”

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