Old Flyers know what makes a streak
Imagine all of the hundreds of moments, thousands of interconnected elements that have allowed the Chicago Blackhawks to go 19 games without losing in regulation.
For 19 games, 16 wins and three shootout losses, the Blackhawks have dodged the 'L' in regulation to establish an NHL record from the start of a season.
Then you pan back, back, back and you marvel at the granddaddy of these kinds of streaks, the Philadelphia Flyers' 35-game unbeaten streak in 1979-80.
How many moments go into a streak like that, a streak that is unequaled in professional sport?
No one articulates the game better than Pat Quinn. He was the coach of Canada's Olympic gold medal-winning team in Salt Lake City in 2002 and is one of the keenest coaching minds of his generation. And yet, Quinn, then the 36-year-old coach of that improbable Flyers squad of youngsters and aging veterans, finds himself at a loss trying to explain that 35-game stretch.
Suffice it to say, it remains a cherished time, even 33 years later.
"I'll never work with a group of athletes like that again. I know those players probably feel the same way," Quinn said in an interview this week.
"I still think of them as a very special group of people. There were no expectations and I think that made it that much sweeter."
There are more than a few parallels between those Flyers and these Blackhawks.
"That team was in transition," Quinn said. "We had a lot of first-year guys on that hockey team. They were trying to establish themselves as NHLers."
More than the rookies, there were role players looking for bigger roles, players like John Paddock, who has occupied a host of coaching and management roles in pro hockey and is currently the assistant coach of the Flyers, working alongside Paul Holmgren, who was also a member of the 1979-80 team.
In 1974, the Flyers had become the first expansion team to win a Stanley Cup, and repeated the feat in 1975 under coach Fred Shero. But Shero moved on to coach the New York Rangers, and some of the older members of that Broad Street Bullies crew likewise had moved on. In their place were players like Brian Propp, Ken Linesman, Pete Peeters.
There were a handful of defensemen who came up from the minors, "a lot of guys no one had a clue ever played the game but who fit in admirably," recalled Quinn, who replaced Bob McCammon as coach in January 1979.
Essentially a rookie head coach, Quinn relied on not one workhorse goaltender, but a tandem that included Peeters and steady veteran Phil Myre.
And there remained a solid leadership corps from the Cup-winning teams, including captain Bob Clarke, another future Hall of Famer in Bill Barber, Rick MacLeish and Reggie Leach.
Clarke was the consummate leader, Quinn recalled. "He wouldn't let you slough off at practice. And the young guys, they idolized him, of course," Quinn said. "And they liked him."
The Blackhawks are two-plus years removed from their seminal Cup win in 2010 and have been dispatched in the first round of the playoffs in each of the past two seasons. And while there remains a distinct leadership core that includes captain Jonathan Toews, former Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and a rejuvenated Kane, there also is a slew of youngsters who have shouldered their way into the lineup and are making timely contributions to keep intact their streak of games without a regulation loss.
Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville has used goalie Corey Crawford and when Crawford was injured, veteran Ray Emery stepped in without missing a beat.
Like the Blackhawks, the Flyers were coming off a disappointing season in which they were bounced in the quarterfinals of the 1978-79 playoffs. They beat the emerging powerhouse New York Islanders in the season-opener that October, but then were flattened 9-2 in Atlanta by the Flames.
Quinn acknowledged there was more than a little discomfort after that loss. But they rebounded and edged Toronto 4-3 the next day at home, on Oct. 14, then beat Atlanta 6-2 later that week to avenge the earlier beatdown. Although they did not know it then, they would not lose again until the end of the first week of 1980.
It would build slowly, both the streak and the attention around the Flyers. But by the time the team's unbeaten streak reached 15, 16 games, the hockey world and indeed, the greater sporting world, began to take notice.
The NHL record for games without a loss, 28 games, was set by the Montreal Canadiens. As the Flyers approached the record, the attention from the media and from opponents had built to a fever pitch.
Paddock said the team embraced the idea of the record, rather than get nervous because of it.
"I don't think we could ignore it," Paddock said, even though the technology and communication in the sporting world was far less prevalent and sophisticated than it is today.
"We were very aware of it," Paddock said of the Flyers' assault on the Canadiens' record. "Every team wanted to beat us so badly."
The Saskatchewan native made the jump directly from the Western Hockey League, where he'd learned to play a complete game. It put him in good stead with Quinn and the rest of his teammates.
"I just had the confidence and I played the style of the Flyers. I was a bit of a chippy player and I loved to win," said Propp, who works in the financial industry and also hosts a hockey show on television in the Philadelphia area, called "Propper Hockey."
The team rolled four competent lines, with Propp lining up most nights with fellow youngster Linesman and tough guy Holmgren, who was given added responsibility under Quinn.
"Everyone knew their roles," Propp recalled.
Each night, the team would avoid losses thanks to the work of a different set of hands, a different pair of legs.
"I saw Rick MacLeish turn pucks sideways to gets pucks into holes that nobody but him could see," Quinn said.
As the team went from a team on a roll to a team chasing history, the motivation within the locker room didn't waver.
"We really had this crazy work ethic," said rugged forward Bob Kelly, who is now an ambassador for the Flyers. "We just hated to lose."
The Flyers tied the Canadiens' unbeaten streak with a 1-1 saw-off with Pittsburgh. They trailed 1-0 into the third and it was a night, Quinn recalled, where they simply couldn't buy a goal. The coach remembered thinking, "Well, this is where it ends." But it didn't.
Behn Wilson tied it on a controversial goal at 15:52 of the third.
"It might have been kicked in," Propp said.
"By today's standards, the goal would likely have been waved off," he said.
But the 1-1 tie stood.
The next afternoon, the Flyers traveled to Boston, where they rarely won except when it came to fighting, Kelly noted.
"I don't think the Flyers had beaten Boston in Boston for years," Propp said. "They were all geared up for us."
Paddock had been in and out of the lineup, but on that day, with Leach injured, Paddock played an even more important role as the Flyers dominated the Bruins 5-2 to set a record for games without a loss.
"I just remember Mel Bridgman having a fantastic game for us," Propp recalled. "And Ken Linesman scoring a key goal for us."
The streak would end on Jan. 7, 1980, in Minnesota, when the North Stars crushed the Flyers 7-1.
Later that spring, the Flyers were denied a third Stanley Cup when the Islanders defeated them in six games, with Bob Nystrom scoring in overtime to bring home the Isles' first of four straight Cups.
Although that loss still stings, the memory of the streak burns bright for those players and coaches, as it remains firmly entrenched in the history books. At least for now.
Many of those who played a role in the Flyers' streak are watching the Blackhawks' current run with great interest. Propp, for one, has been amazed at what they've accomplished, given the parity in the league and the demands of the lockout-shortened season.
In the late 1970s and into the 1980s, he said, there were perhaps a dozen strong teams, "but after that, the talent level dropped off."
Although Propp believes the Blackhawks' schedule will eventual catch up with them, he applauds their streak, especially as it focuses more attention on the game and allows fans to more easily forget the fact they lost almost half a season to a labor dispute.
"We're watching them," noted Kelly, who was once traded in junior hockey for former Blackhawks general manager Dale Tallon. "If they go by us, they go by us. More power to them."