Commentary

Shero was one for the ages

Updated: November 9, 2012, 3:04 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

Fred Shero Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty ImagesFred Shero made his name in the NHL by standing behind some of the game's greatest players.
PITTSBURGH -- On the wall in Ray Shero's office at Consol Energy Center is a yellowed newspaper clipping showing a hockey fight that took place sometime in the late 1940s between Gordie Howe and some guy named Fred Shero.

From the description in the paper, it was a pretty good tilt. But it is a reminder that while Fred Shero was a defenseman made of good, stern stuff -- he had learned to box while in the Navy -- he would make his mark on the game standing behind some of the game's greatest players, not leaping onto the ice to tangle with them.

From the book shelf behind his desk, Ray Shero withdraws a series of binders that include his father's coaching manuals, drills and notes he sent to players and even to their wives.

There are pictures, too, of the elder Shero with players such as Terry Crisp and assistant coaches such as Pat Quinn, hair longer, curlier, coats and pants denoting that special time in fashion history that marked the 1970s. Each piece of that past is a reminder of not just the life of one of the game's most influential coaches, but the life of a father and how that father passed along his knowledge to a son who carries on both the family name and the family's significant bond with the game.

The pictures and binders also serve as a reminder, in these days leading up to the annual Hockey Hall of Fame celebration in Toronto, of the ongoing injustice that Fred Shero hasn't been so honored.

"I've had really prominent hockey people ask me when my dad was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame," Ray Shero said recently with a wry grin.

Ray has to tell them that Fred Shero has never been inducted, and there is always an awkward moment of, Gee, how is that possible?

Freddie The Fog

Fred Shero was born a little more than 87 years ago in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Longtime friend Lou Vairo, who worked with Shero when both were with the New Jersey Devils, recalled a trip to Winnipeg years ago, when Shero was looking out the window of the Devils' plane at the rows of houses near the airport. Shero remarked that no one in those houses would have been able to use their bathrooms if it weren't for him. It turns out that, while a player, Shero had spent offseasons digging the ditches that would form the septic system for the housing development.

Although bothered by a bad back, Shero would play until 1957-58, finishing a mostly minor-pro career in Shawinigan, Quebec, where he would meet his future wife, Mariette. Legend has it that longtime NHL netminder Ed Johnston introduced them.

The next year, Shero began a coaching career in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, that would see him become one of the most innovative coaches of his time, a dedicated, sometimes absent-minded coach dubbed "Freddie The Fog."

To Ray Shero, of course, Fred Shero wasn't The Fog. He was "Dad."

Given his father's profession, it's not surprising that young Ray spent an awful lot of his time as a kid in arenas, whether it was in Minnesota -- where his father coached the St. Paul Saints of the old International Hockey League to back-to-back championships -- or in Omaha or in Buffalo, where Fred Shero coached the Bisons to a Calder Cup championship in 1969-70.

Whenever he's had the chance, Ray, now the general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins, has taken his family past the modest homes in which he grew up as a kid. There's always a quiet joke about whether the teams Grandpa worked for ever paid him any money.

On weekends or when there was no school, Ray would make sure he was up early because his dad always went to the rink early. The youngster would wait patiently in the kitchen while his dad made coffee.

"I'd be sitting there waiting and hoping he'd say, 'Want to come to the rink?'" Shero recalled. "He was a great dad that way. It's how I try to be with my kids."

When Ray was younger, it meant heading to the Aud in Buffalo, where he would skate before or after the team worked out. When he was older, it meant trips to the Spectrum and the legendary Flyer teams of the mid-1970s. Sometimes Hall of Fame netminder Bernie Parent, who lived nearby, would drive Fred to practice. Sometimes, if Fred was busy and Ray was at the rink, Parent would drop the youngster off at home.

Team-First Attitude

Joe Kadlec knows Fred Shero's stats by heart. He should. Kadlec was the Flyers PR guru, a Flyer employee from the day the team joined the NHL in 1967 until he retired full-time, in 2007.

"Just knowing the man and knowing him over the years, everything was for the team," Kadlec said.

Between 1959-60 and 1975-76, Shero-coached teams would win six pro hockey championships and go to the finals three more times.

He was the first coach to lead an NHL expansion team to a championship, and for a city passionate about its sports to the point of mania, Shero and those Cup-winning teams remain larger-than-life figures after back-to-back Cup wins in 1974 and 1975 and a trip to the Stanley Cup finals the following year.

The Flyers have not won a championship since.

Shero got the Flyer job after winning a CHL championship with the Omaha Knights in 1970-71. Flyer president Keith Allen sold owner Ed Snider on Shero, even though Shero wasn't a known quantity and had played sparingly in the NHL.

The first season, the Flyers missed the playoffs on the last day of the regular season when netminder Doug Favell muffed a long shot against the Buffalo Sabres in the waning seconds of the game. The Flyers ended up tied with Pittsburgh with an identical won-lost-tied record but lost the tiebreaker on goals-for.

Ray Shero recalled going to school the next day and being heckled.

"'Hey, Shero, your old man and Favell blew it,'" Shero recalled kids saying. "I was like, man, these Philly crowds are tough."

[+] EnlargeFred Shero
Steve Babineau/NHLI/Getty ImagesFred Shero taught his assistant coaches that the two basic principles to coaching were patience and repetition.

Kadlec recalled hearing Shero mumbling to himself in the coaches' room after that final game.

"He was saying, 'I'm going to do it my way from now on,'" Kadlec said.

In the offseason, Shero told management he needed help -- he wanted to hire an assistant coach, something no other NHL team did at the time. It was a mark of Shero's belief in his own systems and way of coaching that he would buck the standard, even though he must have had precious little currency at that the stage in his NHL coaching career.

But the Flyers went for it, and so Shero hired Mike Nykoluk, with whom Shero had played near the end of his playing career with the old Winnipeg Warriors of the Western Hockey League.

The two won a WHL championship together but didn't have much communication after that until the summer of 1972, when the Flyers approached Nykoluk about joining Shero's staff.

The Flyers made it clear this was an experiment and not necessarily a long-term gig. But Shero and the team never looked back; Nykoluk became the first non-playing, full-time assistant coach in the league.

"He and Fred were just perfect together," Kadlec said.

The following season, the Flyers not only made the playoffs but defeated Minnesota in six games to give the team its first playoff victory. The Flyers lost to eventual champion Montreal in the second round, but captain Bob Clarke won the Hart Trophy and Rick MacLeish became the first Flyer to score 50 goals, and the Broad Street Bullies became a force under Shero.

"The players couldn't wait to get back for the next season, they were so excited," Kadlec said.

What struck Kadlec was that everything was done with a purpose. Every drill, every meeting.

"Everybody was involved. Everybody had a hand in it," he said. "I never saw him cut up the players, and the players knew that."

Crisp was part of those Flyer teams and would later join Shero's coaching staff en route to his own successful head-coaching career.

"I love talking about Fred Shero because he's one of the most interesting guys I've ever worked with in hockey," Crisp said. "He was 20 years ahead of his time, he was so far advanced in his thinking."

Crisp ended up a Flyer after being acquired from the New York Islanders during the 1972-73 season.

"I was like, 'What the hell does Fred Shero and the Philadelphia Flyers want with Terry Crisp on that hockey club?'" Crisp said. "[Shero] said, 'Well, you're one of the best penalty killers in the NHL and we're going to need one.'"

The coach, as usual, was right.

[+] EnlargeFred Shero
Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty ImagesFred Shero led the Flyers to back-to-back Stanley Cup wins in 1974 and 1975 and a trip to the finals the following year.

Shero explained that not all players were created equal, that Crisp was not going to get the same ice time that captain Clarke or Reggie Leach or MacLeish did, but that Crisp was going to play an important role nonetheless.

"I said, 'OK, that's OK with me.' That was our beginning," Crisp said. "Every day with Freddie was an adventure. Everyone felt important."

Vairo, a longtime executive and coach with USA Hockey, knew Fred Shero by reputation when the two of them roomed together in Russia for a summer hockey symposium in the mid-1970s. But when they were done, the two men were close friends and would continue that friendship until the day Shero died in 1990.

Vairo recalled a night when he was unable to sleep and how Shero explained that he was of Russian heritage and that he could lead them to a local cafe. The two saw a long line of people on a nearby street and joined, Shero telling Vairo he was sure there would be some good coffee and pastries at the end of the line.

But when the line turned the corner, they were confronted by a horse-drawn cart selling cabbage.

"I said, 'Oh, you've got the Russian blood, all right,'" Vairo recalled.

Crisp remembered Shero returning from Russia with all kinds of new drills and insights into how he wanted to coach, including a drill in which the players would jump over a net lying on its face.

"We laughed at him and said, 'You can't do those drills,'" Crisp said.

The Flyers, a team chock-full of characters and strong personalities, might not have been the ideal group for such thinking, but the results speak for themselves -- their successes have left an indelible mark on the sporting landscape in Philadelphia, just as Shero left an indelible mark on the game of hockey.

Crisp recalled how, one day, Shero had the boys turn their sticks upside down to do their normal drills, including passing and shooting.

Finally, an exasperated Clarke went to Shero and suggested in a profanity-laced tirade that the drill made no sense.

Right, Shero said. And it took you 12 minutes to figure it out, the coach replied.

Sometimes Shero would send soccer balls or tennis balls onto the ice.

Often players would find notes in their gloves or in their dressing room stalls encouraging them to work harder or offering instruction on how to be better players.

One day, a famous note went home to the players' wives outlining ways for them to be the best mates they possibly could. Ray Shero still has a copy in his binder of memories. So does Crisp.

Let's just say it wouldn't pass muster today.

At the bottom of the note, Shero promised that shortly he would provide the players with a similar list of ways in which they could be the best husbands possible.

"That one never got sent out," Crisp said.

Always Seeking An Edge

The quirkiness that became part of Shero's personae belied a razor-sharp mind that constantly worked to make his team better, to seek out an edge, even though his squads might have been outmatched on paper.

The first year the Flyers won the Cup, in 1974, they faced the Big Bad Bruins from Boston and the game's greatest defenseman, Bobby Orr, in his prime. In the 19 games against Philadelphia before the start of the finals, the Bruins had gone 17-0-2.

Nykoluk recalled that the traditional game plan against Orr was to try to keep the puck away from him. Yet Shero had a different idea.

"Freddie said, 'I think we should shoot the puck in his corner and make him work for it,'" Nykoluk said.

By the end of Game 6, "he was just a whipped player," the assistant coach said. Late in the game, with Clarke on a breakaway, a fatigued Orr was forced to take a penalty on the play, sealing the Flyers' first Cup win.

On the chalkboard, in the Flyer dressing room Shero had written, "Win today and we walk together forever."

He was right.

"The night we won the first Cup, in '74, the whole building was going crazy, but he had to be the calmest person in the building," Kadlec recalled of Shero.

Crisp played for Shero for five years and won two Cups. His first year after retiring, Kaldec and Pat Quinn joined Shero's coaching staff.

The first thing Crisp asked for when he walked into Shero's office was the book of quotes.

Shero looked baffled.

Crisp explained he wanted to see the book of quotes that were the source of Shero's famous sayings.

The coach explained that there was no book; he got the words of wisdom off the little cardboard tabs on the ends of tea bags.

[+] EnlargeFred Shero
Steve Babineau/NHLI/Getty ImagesFred Shero was "one of the most interesting guys I've ever worked with in hockey. He was 20 years ahead of his time he was so far advanced in his thinking," Terry Crisp said.

Shero taught Crisp there were two basic principles to coaching: P and R.

Ah, dealing with the media, that's important, thought Crisp.

No, Shero said. Patience and repetition.

The patience to repeat a drill 999 times and then more patience to do it the 1,000th time if that's what it took to get it right.

Although Shero's successes as a coach will always be tied to his time in Philadelphia -- he would earn a Jack Adams Award as coach of the year in 1974 -- Nykoluk recalls that occasionally out for a drink or dinner, Shero would wonder aloud about the possibilities of returning to the team for whom he'd played in the NHL, the New York Rangers. That was his team and Shero quietly coveted a chance to coach it.

That opportunity came about after the 1978 season.

Ray Shero recalled being mortified at the prospect of (A) moving to New York and (B) his father coaching the Rangers.

"I hated the Rangers. I was a Flyer fan," he recalled.

Ray ended up avoiding the ignominy of having to wear Ranger blue by attending prep school and then moving on to St. Lawrence University, where he played well enough to get drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in 1982.

He recalled his parents' watching one of his college games in which he took a penalty during a penalty-killing situation, putting his team down 5-on-3. St. Lawrence went on to win but afterward, when Ray's coach asked his dad what he thought of the game, Fred pushed his glasses up his nose and said that in his 46 years in hockey, that might have been single dumbest penalty ever taken in hockey.

It was the closest Fred Shero came to criticizing his son and, in this case, it was likely well-deserved.

"He never pushed me or my brother to play hockey," Ray said. "He never said to me in the car, 'You've got to do this better, you should have done this.' Never. It wasn't his dream for me to play pro hockey."

Instead, the Sheros insisted their two boys get a college education.

After being drafted, Ray attended the Kings' training camp, but the team had a plethora of centers, and young Shero was told he'd have to report to the farm team in Toledo.

Ray called his father, who told his son, "Well, Toledo. I didn't pay for four years of college so you could go to Toledo."

And so Ray charted a different course in the hockey world as his father's hockey career was entering its twilight.

After two seasons in New York -- one of which saw the Rangers advance to the 1979 finals -- Fred Shero was fired as head coach just 20 games into the 1980-81 season. He would go on to work with the Devils as a color commentator, where he was known as the "Professor of Hockey."

To help with the look the team wanted Shero to promote, he was asked to get a leather valise or kit that would help him look professorial. He brought it everywhere with him, although Vairo, an assistant coach with the team, recalled that Shero would often put the case through the security machine at airports and simply walk away without it.

One day, one of the Devils' staff caught up to Shero with his misplaced bag and asked him what was in it. Shero didn't know. He couldn't recall opening it.

With Vairo's help, they picked the lock and inside found a pencil and three-year-old sports page from the Los Angeles Times.

Another time, the Devils checked into a three-story hotel in Chicago during a vicious snowstorm. Vairo, who was in charge of hotel check-ins, explained to the players and team officials that the keys all had a number, a six or a seven, in front of the real room number so if the key read 7215 the room was actually on the second floor, No. 215.

Vairo and head coach Doug Carpenter met for lunch in the lobby restaurant and suddenly Carpenter spied a man in his overcoat standing with his bags covered in snow outside the hotel.

"Doug says, 'Isn't that Fred?'" Vairo said.

Vairo watched as the man circled the hotel, occasionally glancing up.

Sure enough, it was Fred Shero.

After Vairo ushered Shero back into the warmth, the chilled former coach told Vairo he'd gone outside to count the number of floors and was flummoxed to see there weren't seven, as his key suggested.

Another night as the team was headed home to New Jersey from a long road trip, they were delayed in Minnesota. Vairo finally called the team to the flight, but when they landed, Shero's wife was distraught to find that her husband did not get off the plane.

Shero arrived later that night and explained to Vairo that he was watching Devils forward Aaron Broten and was going to board the plane when Broten did. Only the man he was watching wasn't Aaron Broten.

"He could only see the back of his head," Vairo said.

But that was Shero, his mind often elsewhere, no doubt thinking about the game or a practice drill.

A Pioneer

Who knows exactly why Shero hasn't been called on to join the game's greatest players and builders?

In general, coaches have a hard time cracking the Hall's exterior.

Herb Brooks was the last full-time coach to be inducted in the Hall, in 2006, and that was long overdue. Roger Neilson was inducted in 2002, and Glen Sather, back in 1997, rounds out the past three coaches honored by the Hall of Fame. (Jim Gregory did some coaching but not at the NHL level, and he was inducted in 2007.)

Perhaps Shero is paying for the thuggishness of his Broad Street Bullies, although from the same era, Flyers owner Ed Snider, GM Keith Allen, Clarke, Bernie Parent and Bill Barber are honored members, while announcer Gene Hart is in the broadcasters' arm of the Hall.

Maybe it's that Shero simply marched to the beat of a different drummer.

"In my opinion, he is absolutely a Hall of Famer," said Vairo. "I had a million questions for him and I always got a wonderful, sensible, logical answer. He had a wonderful sense of humor, but let me tell you, he knew everything there was to know about coaching."

Crisp served as an assistant with the Flyers for two seasons, one with Shero before his departure to New York.

Crisp would go on to a successful career coaching at the major junior and minor pro levels before getting a job with the Calgary Flames.

As the Flames prepared to meet the Montreal Canadiens in the 1989 Stanley Cup finals, Crisp found himself in his office late one night. He knew Shero would be awake, so he called, hoping perhaps that Shero would offer words of praise for his protégé.

"So, what do you think?" Crisp asked. "This is my guru, my mentor, remember. And he says, 'The coach who works the hardest will win the Cup.'"

Crisp was disappointed, but after chewing on the conversation for a while, he understood that Shero was telling him in his own unique way that getting to the finals wasn't the accomplishment.

"What he was telling me was that you haven't worked hard enough yet," Crisp said.

The Flames beat the Canadiens and yet Crisp never got to thank Shero for his help.

"I wish I could have talked to him about what it meant to me," Crisp said.

Shero, who had been diagnosed with stomach cancer in 1983 but had remained well enough to continue his career, died on Nov. 24, 1990. He was 65 and earlier that year had been inducted into the Flyers' hall of fame.

"I used to go over there every day [when Shero was sick]. It was very, very hard seeing that every day, but you wanted to be there to help," Kadlec said. "He was the coach. He was still the coach."

At the time of his father's death, Ray was a player agent living in Boston.

"It was tough. It was your dad. He really suffered at the end," said Shero, whose mother passed away two years ago, also from cancer.

In the end, it won't really change anything for those who knew Fred Shero -- those who grew up with him or played for him or coached alongside him or called him friend -- if he doesn't end up in the Hall of Fame.

"He gave the players the question and let them figure out the answer," Crisp said. "He was the leader of the band, and when he raised his baton, we went to work."

"I do know the contributions he made and the people who he made an impact on," Ray Shero said. "He made the game better and was ahead of his time, for sure."

If the call one day comes from the Hall of Fame, of course Shero will be proud.

"If it doesn't, it's not going to diminish what he did for the game or how proud I am of him," he said.

Plaque or no plaque, it's hard to argue that Fred Shero isn't already a Hall of Famer in spirit and in deed, if not in fact.