Winter Classic notebook: All hail Bernie
December, 31, 2011
By Craig Custance | ESPN.com
PHILADELPHIA -- Even at 66 years old and his legacy secure in hockey history, Bernie Parent was nervous heading into Saturday’s Winter Classic alumni game.
"You’re a competitor,” he explained. “It never leaves you.”
The Hall of Fame goalie hadn’t played in decades and shoulder replacement surgery in June meant his training was limited. Ten days, to be exact.
“Only 10 days of skating out of 30 years -- that’s not much,” Parent said after the game, a 3-1 Flyers win in which Parent played the first five minutes.
In those five minutes, Parent was tested and decades of time off didn’t remove the fight from a guy who led the Flyers to two Stanley Cups. He was perfect on six shots -- even diving to stop one. The Citizens Bank Park crowd was quick to chant his name.
Ron Duguay, the former Rangers forward who once scored 40 goals in a season, had a breakaway opportunity on Parent that was just long enough for Parent to prepare.
“I said, ‘Lord, save me one more time.’ He did,” Parent said. “I was fortunate they went easy on me for the first five minutes. What a great experience. ... Just to go out on the ice and this big crowd and perform again? C’mon. It doesn’t get any better.”
Those watching Parent enjoyed it as much as he did. For a new generation of hockey fans in Philadelphia, it was a rare chance to see one of the greats in action. It was a chance to put a visual with all of the stories. Even for a few short minutes.
For others who grew up idolizing him, such as Rangers goalie John Vanbiesbrouck, it was a chance to share how much he meant to their hockey fandom.
“You can’t describe it. I said it to him a bunch of times, how much honor and respect a young goalie from Detroit, Michigan -- 5-8 1/2, 170 pounds -- has for a guy like Bernie, who is basically the same size,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “Whether he realizes it or not -- I think he may tonight when he puts his head on the pillow -- but man, this is something. For him, this is a Hall of Fame night.”
When he was asked to play in the alumni game, Mark Howe made a request back. He requested that he be allowed to wear the No. 10 of former defense partner Brad McCrimmon on his Winter Classic jersey. McCrimmon was the coach of the Lokomotiv team that was killed in the Russian plane crash this summer.
But it wasn’t just Howe who honored one of the most popular players of his era. The entire Flyers team had a No. 10 patch on their shoulder. It was a nice touch to remember a player who would have thoroughly enjoyed lacing up the skates in front of the Philadelphia fans one more time.
“He would have loved it,” Howe said. “He would have been a part of this.”
Howe said McCrimmon’s family is traveling to Philadelphia to be a part of the Winter Classic and that the rugged defenseman’s years here were among his most favorite. Howe wanted to make sure his close friend was a part of this special moment in Philadelphia hockey history.
“I want to make sure his family, they get recognized,” Howe said. “People who talk to Brad, if you talk to his family, although Brad was well-respected wherever he went, his favorite place to play was in Philadelphia.”
John Vanbiesbrouck admitted he was also a bit nervous before the alumni game -- not because of how he might perform, but how the game might be received.
“We can’t forget why we do this; we do this for the fans. I know there were questions before, like who wants to watch a bunch of 50-year-old guys play. But if the fans do, then let’s do it,” Vanbiesbrouck told ESPN.com.
“Maybe once a year, we don’t have to do it every week like the senior tour. But maybe once a year. Look, for us it’s an honor to throw it back on and go out there and feel the bumps and bruises. I mean, I’ve got a little groin pull here going on."
Vanbiesbrouck, who hadn’t had his pads on since a 2006 reunion game with his former Florida Panther teammates, is part-owner of a company called FASTHockey.com that provides live streaming of a variety of hockey events.
Defenseman Mathieu Schneider played as recently as the 2009-10 season and is now the special assistant to National Hockey League Players’ Association executive director Donald Fehr, but still sounded like a
wide-eyed kid after the alumni game.
“It’s really a lot of fun,” Schneider told ESPN.com. "I think when you’re out there with legends like Mess [Mark Messier] and Leetchie [Brian Leetch] and Bobby Clarke on the other side -- Big E [Eric Lindros] got the biggest ovation tonight. It’s great to see. Someone once told me your past defines you, your history defines you. I truly believe that. This is a tremendous sports town; it’s a great place to have an event like this. It’s just fun to be in the dressing room atmosphere. It just makes you really appreciate what you had for a long time."
Forced to retire at age 22 because of a shoulder injury, former Rangers goaltender Dan Blackburn was thrilled to put the pads back on for Saturday's alumni game.
"It was great," he said. "Highlight of my hockey career."
Blackburn, whose career ended after only two seasons with the Blueshirts because of nerve damage, wore two blockers instead of the traditional blocker/catcher set -- something he has had to do since suffering the injury.
The 28-year-old netminder, who now works in real estate, gave up only one goal -- on a penalty shot to Flyers legend Mark Howe.
"I don't like getting scored on but I guess if you're going to get scored on by a Hall of Fame guy, it's not the worst thing that can happen," he said.
Flyers GM Paul Holmgren sounded almost overwhelmed after Saturday's alumni game when sizing up the experience.
"It was pretty cool,'' he told ESPN.com. "I was walking around the stands a little bit, trying to find out where my family was sitting. There was a lady literally crying saying, 'This is great.' It's a neat experience for the city and a real celebration of hockey in our town.''
-- Scott Burnside, Pierre LeBrun and Katie Strang contributed to this report.