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Bill Clement

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Wednesday, November 19, 2003
Orr, WHA changed hockey in the '70s
By Bill Clement
Special to ESPN Classic

Bobby Orr's scoring changed the game. The "Broad Street Bullies" won two Cups. The Canadiens dynasty was reborn. ESPN hockey analyst and former "Broad Street Bully" Bill Clement gives his top memories of professional hockey in the 1970s.


In 1970-71, the rule making home teams wear white and road teams wear dark was passed, but there was still plenty of room for creativity. Because of expansion and the WHA, people were treated not only to different colors, but also to some bizarre fashion approaches, including a baby-blue uniform in Pittsburgh, white skates in California, and orange and black in Philadelphia. The players took the move toward trendy colors to a new level off the ice. Fashion in the '70s was generally garish and flamboyant, but the hockey players often wore platform shoes and bright suits with huge checks and had big hair.


By the time the '70s rolled around, train travel was becoming a thing of the past. The NHL was the last of the four major sports to travel by air. During the Original Six years, teams only used trains to travel. By the early '70s, all teams began traveling by airplane out of necessity and because of the improved availability of air travel. Most teams chartered planes. That was a major change for the sport and the athletes. One thing air travel did, though, was remove the train car as a bonding vehicle for hockey teams. The day-and-a-half train rides from Montreal to Chicago, for instance, really allowed a team to bond and end up with a sense of unity that disappeared pretty quickly once teams started traveling by plane.


Peter Puck, the character used on NBC NHL Game of the Week, was the poster cartoon for network hockey, something that was pretty new to people in the U.S. Debuting in 1973, it lasted two years on NBC and five more on Hockey Night in Canada. It was a creative innovation and something close to my heart because Scotty Connell, who first hired me at ESPN, was actually the creator of Peter Puck. The cartoon helped so many people understand our game so they could appreciate it. Even nearly 30 years later, at least a few times a season, people talk to me about Peter Puck and ask me where it is and if it will ever come back. People still miss Peter Puck.


In the '70s, while the Bruins, Flyers and Canadiens were winning Stanley Cups, the foundation was being laid for a New York Islanders dynasty with Denis Potvin, Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy all winning Calder trophies as the league's top rookie. In 1977-78, Bossy scored 53 goals -- the most ever for a rookie and for an Islander -- and the Islanders dethroned Philly in the Patrick Division, but lost to Toronto in the first round in seven games. But besides Potvin, Trottier and Bossy, Billy Smith was coming into his own as one of the most colorful goalies in the history of the game, and a group of role players named Bob Nystrom, Clark Gillies, Garry Howatt and Bob Bourne were soon to become household names. They just didn't know it in the '70s.


The '70s marked a trend away from helmet-less players. At the end of the decade (1979-80), the NHL passed the rule making helmets mandatory for players entering the league. It was the last decade where fans could see the players' faces and visually recognize them without having to look for their numbers. As the game got bigger and faster, people realized that being helmet-less was going the way of the dinosaur.


Winning six Stanley Cups -- and four consecutively -- the Montreal Canadiens easily had the most significant dynasty since their own dynasty back in the 30s and 40s maybe. While most of the teams were beefing up to the mirror the Flyers, Montreal stayed the course. With sheer excellence, which included speed, finesse, courage without a great amount of glove-dropping and incredible personalities, the Canadiens were able to sometimes win at will. Their record in 1976-77 (60-8-12) is still staggering. They had nine Hall of Famers -- Yvan Cournoyer, Ken Dryden, Bob Gainey, Guy Lafleur, Guy Lapointe, Jacques Lemaire, Serge Sevard and Steve Shutt; that says it all.


The Flyers -- "The Broad Street Bullies" -- were the first expansion team to win the Stanley Cup. Typical of most teams that win more than one Cup, the Flyers had a great influence on the whole NHL culture in subsequent years. Teams felt they had to get bigger and stronger to win. Coach Fred Shero had the quote, "If you canít beat 'em in the alley, you canít beat 'em on the ice." Dave "The Hammer" Schultzís record of 472 PIMs in 1974-75 still stands as the NHLís single-season record. The one thing that bothered those of us who played on those teams was that we were never given any credit for being a team that knew how to play the game. Our ability was underrated. That was what was so underrated about the Flyers. We combined skill with muscle; we had more muscle than any team ever had, plus enough skill at the same time. 3. BOSTON BRUINS
Bobby Orr
Bobby Orr won the Hart Memorial Trophy (MVP) in three consecutive seasons (1970-72).
Combining Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, Gerry Cheevers, Johnny Bucyk, John McKenzie, Wayne Cashman, Derek Sanderson and a cast of others, the Bruins of the early '70s became the most colorful team in NHL history. They had swagger, toughness, talent and incredible skill. When I look back, I not only think they should have won more Stanley Cups, but I wonder how we beat them in '74 for our first one in Philadelphia.

The most significant incident in relation to the Bruins winning two Stanley Cups was Orr shattering all scoring records by defensemen. In so doing, he reinvented a position, doing something nobody thought was possible. He helped people see the position of defenseman as a place from which teams could generate offense. To me, Orr will always be the most dynamic player and the second greatest player to Wayne Gretzky of all time. But as far as being the greatest player a fan could ever watch, Orr was it -- and still is. To win four trophies in a single season as a defenseman, including the Art Ross Trophy as the scoring leader, was unprecedented.

Another significant achievement was Esposito shattering the single-season goal mark with 76 goals, beating the old mark by 18 goals. At the same time he broke his own points record by 26 points. Until then, the NHL had not seen a player able to crush records with such force.


The Summit Series between the Canadian NHLers and the Russians was one of the most incredible hockey happenings ever. We really didn't know how good the Russians were. There was all kinds of speculation about how the series would go before it took place. The more cautious said, "Look out -- the Russians are really good." The smug and the arrogant felt we were far superior in North America. There was great anticipation about how good they were. Immediately, the hockey world learned that the Russians were for real. The question went from, "How bad can we beat them?" to "Can we beat them?" That's what made the eight-game series, which Canada won on Paul Henderson's goal, so tremendously dramatic. We had to assert our superiority and do it on Soviet soil.


The NHL went from the Original Six teams in 1966-67 to 21 by 1979-80. Expansion not only opened up the sport to more athletes, but it also opened it up to so many more fans in North America. It started putting hockey on the map as one of the four major sports. Expansion was also significant because the multitude of players who were a millimeter from being NHL caliber immediately got a chance to play. As a former athlete who took advantage of it, I wonder if I would have made the NHL without it. I'm not the only player who asks that question.

At the same time, when the 12-team WHA started in 1972, it both exposed the sport throughout North America and started salaries moving in the right direction. Because the WHA competed with the NHL for top players, the players had leverage in contract negotiations for the first time ever. NHL teams had typically given players a take-it-or-leave-it contract, knowing if the players drew their guns, they had no bullets. They had no choice but to take what the team offered. And back then, nobody withheld services. Because of the WHA, Bobby Hull was able to become the first million-dollar player. The new league made waves and expanded the North American player reach over to Europe, but the NHL ultimately absorbed the WHA in 1979-80.

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