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Monday, 24 Jul 2006

BOBBY CLARKE: "I WAS NO FIGHTER …"

In Russia he is remembered as a hockey ruffian who broke Kharlamov's leg in 1972; in Northern America – as one of the greatest players in the NHL's history.


By Slava MALAMUD
from Woorhees 

The Sport Express Dossier

Robert Earl (Bobby) Clarke

Born: August 13, 1949, in Flin Flon, province of Manitoba.

Centre forward. Played for the NHL's Philadelphia Flyers (1969-1984): 358 goals and 852 assists (1,210 points) in regular season; 42 goals and 77 assists (119 points) in play-offs.

Three-time winner of the Hart Memorial Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player (1973, 1975 and 1976); twice a member of the NHL First Team (1975, 1976); eight-time NHL All Star; two-time Stanley Cup winner (1974, 1975).

Played in the 1972 Summit Series against the Soviet Union;  member of Team Canada in the 1976 Canada Cup and 1982 World Championships. Played in the Challenge Cup against the Soviet Union for the NHL All-Stars. Inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1987. The recipient of the Order of Canada (the second grade - Officer of the Order). The President and the General Manager of the Philadelphia Flyers.

Who is he in reality, Bobby Clarke, the captain of the "Broad Street Bullies", the legend and symbol of the Philadelphia Flyers?

   The truth is, as usual, somewhere in the middle. Clarke was a tough, fierce player, entirely faithful to his team. He was equally competent both in giving a smack in the mouth and putting the puck in the net. He was a superstar at a club that played anti-star hockey, but he became the leader, the inspiration and the soul of this, in all respects, terrible group. He is not ashamed of his deeds and he does not apologize for anything. Well then, who is he, Bobby Clarke? Judge for yourself. The ex-Bully and at present the General Manager of the Flyers gave an exclusive interview to our "SE" correspondent.

FLIN FLON

   Undoubtedly, there is a better time for meeting with the NHL's club President than in the first post-lockout month. NHL club bosses simply do not have any days off nowadays. But the prospect of a lifetime first – a big interview for a Russian publication – was so attractive for Clarke that he immediately agreed to squeeze an hour from his working time, after one of the first Flyers practices of the new season.

  It happened in the Orange-and-Blacks’ training arena in the town of Woorhees, New Jersey, near Philadelphia. Peter Forsberg and his crew shared the ice with some farm team players. A couple of girls practised figure skating on the adjacent rink. And on the second floor, moments after the Flyers media representative escorted me into an empty office, a man of medium height, wearing a baseball cap and shorts, came in, sat down in a chair under the portrait of Lindros (who is as everpresent in the building as Lenin was in Russia some time ago) and broadly smiled.

   The details of his biography are widely known to North American fans. Everybody knows that he was born and raised in the far north, in the tiny Canadian town with a funny name of Flin Flon which is about ten hours by bus from the provincial centre, Winnipeg. But Bobby shrugs off the quaint and exotic in his biography.

- It’s just an ordinary mining town. Nothing special. I am sure, somewhere in the North of Russia there are towns exactly like this. There were a lot of lakes around and all the boys played hockey. In my time, several NHL players came out from there. I, however, didn’t even know much about the league. I was already playing junior hockey when the first TV’s arrived in our town. That's about all that could be said about Flin Flon.

   The NHL knew enough about young Bobby but was not in a hurry to see him among its players. From his childhood Clarke suffered from diabetes, and the scouts were sure that it would prevent him from playing professional hockey.

- At that time people knew very little about the disease, - explains Clarke. – As far as I know, none of the clubs except Philadelphia even asked the doctors for any explanations. Everybody just decided that if there was something wrong with your health, then you are not NHL material. During the first training camps I had some seizures, but the team doctor worked out a special diet for me and since then everything was okay.

- What was the diet he came up with?

- I had to take a lot of glucose. Before a game I would drink a can of Coke or juice with five spoons of sugar. Did the same thing during the intermissions. I also always had some chocolate with me, just in case. The thing is, you inject insulin every morning, so you must eat enough to balance out its content in your blood. But when you play sports, you burn the calories and you need to improvise to bring the level back to normal. In general, we managed to work it out so that my disease did not affect the game at all.

   Besides, I was lucky to complete my career without any major injuries. I had a broken finger, a sprained leg, lots of cuts on my face, that's pretty much all. It came from being the kind of player I was. But nothing really bad. Thankfully, I kept my knees and shoulders whole.

- But still you quit hockey at 34. According to modern standards, it's still a young age.

- But not back then, it wasn’t. Twenty years ago when a player got over 30, he was an old man. We had not been whipped into shape as the modern players are. We had very little offseason training. At that time there was no such thing as off-the-ice conditioning: we were only taught hockey. You took care of your own body on your own time. And, of course, none of today’s medical and fitness staff. But the workload during the season was very much the same, if not heavier. So, by the age of 30, most players were spent.

"THEY SCARED THE S*** OUT OF US"

  Bobby Clarke is not only about that sixth game of the 1972 Series between Canada and the Soviet Union or Kharlamov's broken leg. The great Soviet forward himself many times referred to Clarke as a brilliant player. But still, that Series had made such an important impact on the career and reputation of Clarke that it naturally dominated our conversation. And is it not interesting to look at this mega-event through the eyes of one of its major personalities?

- "No doubt, the Soviet players were much better prepared physically than us," recalls Clarke. "Another thing that played against us was probably the arrogance. There was not a player in our team wou doubted we’d win easily. And, of course, we were quicky proven to be wrong, as our opponent turned out to be just as good as we were… This is probably the main lesson everyone learned in that series: there was no considerable difference between us. We were all just hockey players, similar to each other in many ways. This is why I think this series was the greatest event in the history of hockey. Canada won, but both teams became famous.

- Please, describe your attitude to your opponent before the Series began.

- I did not think about them at all. I had plenty other problems to occupy myself with. I happened to be the last player who was named to the team, so in order to get any playing time, I had go all out in practices during the camp. So I made the fourth line with Henderson and Ellis, who also were lucky to be on the team at all. But that team had some players who could do nothing and still make the lineup. The three of us had to die on the ice to prove that we were worthy. And in the end, those guys who didn’t try hard paid the price: they weren’t as ready as they should’ve been.

- You probably mean Phil Esposito, do you not?

- Yes, you're right. He was one of them. But yo be fair to Phil, as the series went on he just got better and better until he had reached his normal level. But many of them still played to half of their ability. Also, some did not have enough time to recover from the last season or from injuries and were not able to play at all. Like Bobby Orr, for instance.

- What did you know about the Soviets?

- Nothing. We started the game without knowing a thing about our opponent. I don’t know, maybe a couple of notes from someone, or maybe someone saw them a couple of times a long time ago – that was about all we had on the Russians. This sounds strange but nobody cared about the opponent. Until we saw them in action, we could not imagine how strong their team was.

- So you did not know a thing about your opponent, you did not even think about coming off second-best … Then how did you motivate yourself? Or was there not any motivation at all because you did not expect this event to become important?

- Well, for us it just was a series of exhibition games. Four games against the Russians in Canada, two games in Sweden, four more in Russia and one more in Czechoslovakia on the way back. Just preseason stuff, you know. I personally could not imagine that it was going to be such an important milestone in the history of hockey. Only after the first game when we had our asses kicked, we started thinking about how to pull ourselves together take it seriously. Luckily, we were able to do it, just in time.

- Could you describe your feelings during the first game?

- I thin, most of us had the s--- scared out of us. After the first period we realized that we could not keep up with the Russians. The players just know these things intuitively. We understood that they were a better team than us that day. By the middle of the second period it became clear that it could get real ugly. After the end of the Canadian part of the Series all the emotions we felt sort of transformed into pure anger. Anger at ourselves. We did not play the way we were able and that drove me nuts.

- Do you remember the famous speach by Phil Esposito when he was interviewed after the fourth game in which he ripped the Canadian fans for booing? Did you share his point of view?

- No, I did not. He is one of the most emotional and outspoken people to ever play in the NHL. I kept my anger inside and I was angry at myself and the team. The fans had every right to boo because we deserved it. The fact that we did not imagine the strength of the Soviet team and that we were poorly prepared – all of that was just an excuse. We had nobody to blame but ourselves.

- So what had happened to your team in Moscow? The break in the action hardly explains the change in fortunes, as you lost your fifth game too.

- During the Canadian series we were just in a terrible shape. After the terrible loss in Montreal, we won in Toronto, but we played on pure emotions. And in Winnipeg we managed to scrape up a tie that way. But you can’t play just on emotions alone forever: in the long run you just exhaust yourself. That was exactly what happened in Vancouver. But after we had had a little rest in Sweden we got into a much better shape. Our team work was better, our speed was better, our passing was better too. In Moscow we were a team, a team that was capable of playing the full 60 minutes. But the fact that the games were stuill close, well, that’s just a credit to the Russians.

"LIQUIDATION" OF KHARLAMOV

   - So we have reached the episode with Kharlamov in the sixth game of the Series. The first thing I would like to ask you: did you know his leg was sore before you hit him?

- No, I had no idea. You see, there’s been so much crap written about this. It was not something planned. My line played against Kharlamov during the whole series and we played well. He scored in the first games but then we managed to hold him back.  - Bobby, that is not exactly so. For instance, he assisted Vikulov who scored the winning goal in game five. Moreover, if I am not mistaken, Kharlamov had intercepted your pass when doing this.

- Is that right? Maybe. I don't remember it very well. But on the whole we controlled him well. As for the episode you've mentioned, we were going for the puck together, he pushed me with the stick, then turned around and skated away. I caught up with him and hit him on the leg, not thinking at all where and how I hit.

- You speak about it as if it were a perefectly normal thing.

- For us it was normal. The thing is that we, Canadians, are used to fighting as an integral part of hockey. When you have “misunderstandings” like this, they are often solved with the fists. Soviet hockey had no fights so the players used other methods to get the point accross. Like a little bit of “stick work” here and there, you know. And I personally don't mind this. I am a tough player and I respect toughness in others. But if I am poked with a stick I will do the same. We just had to adapt to the new ways of doing things, that’s all.

- But still, honestly, you were not seeking revenge on Kharlamov for the ending of the fifth game?

- Like I said, I do not remember what happened there in the fifth game (Smiling). I am sure I remembered then, but I can not say anything now.

- And how about the fact that assistant coach John Ferguson allegedly ordered you to take Kharlamov out?

- Well, John later said that he said something like this but to tell you the truth, I don't remember that. But, knowing Ferguson, I don’t doubt that it that he could have said it. And if he did, I would have listened to him, by the way. But I don’t think he ever said anything to me personally. Probably, he just said something like: "Someone’s gotta do something about this guy".

- Taking into account this episode and several others from the Moscow series would it be fair to say that you achieved such a turnaround in the Series just because you intimidated your opponent?

- No, there were other factors involved. In Moscow we played much better than in Canada. We were almost equal to the Soviet team physically by then, we passed much better, we shot the puck much better, we became faster and played better on defence. Besides, when you have nothing to loose, it is easier to play. And after the fifth game we had nothing to loose.

- A lot was said and written about refereeing in Moscow.

- Yes, there were plenty of strange calls. It seems to me that all the background political crap from both sides had a big effect on the Series. I think this stuff should never be allowed to influence sports, but somehow it always happens anyway.

- How would you comment on the episode in the eighth game when after a questionable penalty, Parise had threatened the referee with the fragment of his stick?

- I don't think that Parise could have hit him. Jean-Paul has always been a good, honest, straight-shooting guy. He could have never injured anybody on purpose. But the refereeing in the beginning of the eighth game was just horrible, and I am sure that the referee drove Jean insane in the end. I am glad that he just raised the stick but did not hit him, and I remember I was very much surprised. Someone like me, you could expect to do it but not Jean.

IT WAS VERY CLEAN

- What was your impression of Moscow in the 1972?

- I liked it very much. I remember it was very clean and quiet, people were very friendly.

- Weren't you afraid that you would be followed?

- I know what some of our players said (no doubt, Clarke means Phil Esposito – S.M.) but even if there was something like this, it did not worry me. I came to Moscow to play hockey, and I never cared about politics and s--- like that.

- But at that time both America and the USSR considered the Series as an important political event, as the war of the worlds. Did it not touch on you at all?

- I remember how the Series was presented. It was at the height of the cold war, after all, so I heard stories about the battle between communism and democracy and all that stuff. But for me it was a matchup of hockey players. I don’t know what motivated others, but for me hockey and the will to win were always enough.

- What, in your opinion, was the main advantage of the Canadian team?

- I believe that the strength of the Soviet team lay in good teamwork. The Russians could play very well with each other within their five-men units. As soon as we managed to break their lines up a little, they couldn’t do as well any longer. They could not re-adjust and play differently.

- How did you do it?

- How? Just by playing the Canadian way: we ran the s--- out of them and plastered them all over the boards. During the first games we weren't as fast as they were, but as we got into a better shape we were blocking passes and taking them from their favourite spots. This is the Canadian style which is comfortable for us.

   Of course, after this series we learned a lot from the Russians, but it seems to me that European hockey got more from us than vice versa.

- And how did it show?

- Just look at the modern international tournaments. It used to be that when two national teams would get out on the ice, you could see the difference in styles immediately. Now everybody plays the same type hockey. And it’s the North American type. In our time Soviet players never dumped the puck into the zone. They would rather turn around at the blue line and pass backwards to start a play all over again. Now they do it our way more often. I think that after 1972 the Russians learned that it’s more effective to get the puck into the opposite end and play physical hockey there. And we learned to pass better and improved our conditioning.

- Does that mean that Canadian hockey of the time was strictly the simple “dump and chase”?

- No, it’s not about simplicity. The Canadians always played "North to South" that is vertically, from one goal to the other. We’d get the puck and we’d always try to find the shortest way to the opponent's goal. Our hockey was much more direct and aggressive. In Europe they played "East to West", horizontally, between the boards. Soviet players would try to hold the puck longer, pass it to each other, move it between the blue lines. That's not for us. We would take the blue line by storm, if it was possible to stickhandle or pass across it, we’d do it, but if it wasn’t – dump and run. The difference here is not in the complexity but in the direction and speed.

THE GRACEFUL YAKUSHEV

- Don't you think it was a symbolic thing that the final result of the Series was determined by your line which consisted of relatively non-star players? As by that time you were not a star yet.

- I wouldn’t single us out. Of course, Paul Henderson scored the winning goals in the last three games, but it was not my line that won the Series, it was the team. Someone had to stop the Russians from scoring, someone had to score other goals. Without them, Henderson's goals would have meant nothing. Paul has deserved his hero status, but in hockey it’s teams that win.

- Were Soviet players more skilled one-on-ne?

- I would not say so, although there were plenty of great players. Kharlamov was an incredible player and he could play physically too. What he was doing with the puck was just unbelievably beautiful. But when I played against Maltsev, I thought to myself that he was the best forward I had ever met on the ice. And I still think so now. He was great in everything – from controlling the puck to face-offs to physical play. And Yakushev! I would say he was the best player of the Series in both teams. Towards the end I looked at him and thought about the great Jean Beliveau, Alexander resembled him so much. He had that special grace, that Jean had. He is one those you could envy in a good way. Everyone would like to play like him: clean, beautiful, presise, strong and always with this one-of-a-kind grace.

- The Series was supposed to prove something. Either that the Canadians were still stronger than the rest of the world or that the Soviet team had overtaken them. As a result, what, in your opinion, did it prove?

- That the best Soviet hockey players are as good as the best NHL players. A one-goal victory in the last game of the series does not really prove a lot. Since then, I think, we’ve stopped considering ourselves to be head and shoulders abouve the rest. However, we are still number one in the world. See for yourself: Canada has a very small population compared to Russia, so Russia should produce more first-rate players, but this just doesn’t happen. Canada has been winning everything in international competition lately. As a general manager, am surprised we can’t find more great players in Russia, Finland, Sweden. Yes, sometimes you come across a Malkin or an Ovechkin but beyond them there is nothing. I don't get it.

- Can it be said that your status of a superstar first became firmly established during the Summit Series?

- Sure. I'd played in the League for only three years then, and being a part of the series really gave me a big push in my development. Probably, as a player in 1972 I skipped ahead about 2 years.

THERE WERE NO COWARDS IN CSKA…

   At present Bobby Clarke's smile looks like an excellent advertisement of American dentistry. His pristinely white smile features not so much as a single natural upper tooth. In times gone by, Bobby's toothless grin was his trademark. And not only his, but in fact it was the trademark of his whole team, the great and terrible Philadelphia Flyers, the "Broad Street Bullies". This semi-mythical embodiment of the worst NHL stereotypes, as described by Vladimir Vysotsky in his song Professionals, can be thought of in many ways. But there is no doubt that the Bullies were an outstanding and a unique phenomenon, and the businesslike hockey administrator who was sitting right in front of me was the leader of that crew.

- We just caught a glimpse of the Broad Street Bullies in 1976 during the scandalously famous game with CSKA, but it was quite enough. Soviet fans who were unaccustomed to such competitive behaviour expressed their indignation at your playing style, but I know that in North America the opinion about that Philadelphia team was a long cry from unanimous.

- I believe that this was a team that anyone would want to be a part of. Yes, there were fans from other cities who hated us, but this was more out of envy than anything else. Maybe we fought more often than some would’ve liked, but that was just a good team-oriented mindset we had. Is there a fan who wouldn't want a team like this to root for? We went to fight together, and we were ready to fight for each other. Unfortunately, there aren’t any teams like that in today’s hockey.

- Does that mean that you would not mind seeing "The Hammer" Schultz and "The Hound Dog" Kelly play in today's NHL?

- I think that such players are also needed. And they are still around. There are lots of them grown in Canada but thye have a much tougher time breaking into the league now.

- You, in spite of your impressive statistics and three Hart Memorial Trophies, are mainly remembered as a tough player, a fighter.

- I played the way I thought was right. My motto was: "Give everything to the team". To some extent, my individual trophies are a result of playing for a very good team. For me it was very important to realize that I was a team player, one of the guys; on the ice, in a fight, and after the game when we went out for a beer with the rest of the guys.

- By the way, everybody knows how tough you were while playing. Were you as good in fights?

- No, I couldn’t fight worth a damn. I tried especially when I was young but I quit it pretty soon. Now, playing good tough hockey is a different matter.

- Including stickwork?..

- Including that. That’s the game. Once I told a reporter, who asked about my episode with Kharlamov, that I would have still been in Flin Flon hadn't I learned how to lay a two-hander once in a while. I could hit them on the leg, but don't forget that they did the same things to me. I am all for fairness, so the players who play tough hockey have to be prepared to get the same thing back. And I was ready for that.

- Do you remember the game against CSKA in 1976 when the Soviet team left the ice?

- That was very bad for Soviet hockey. It made it look as if the Russians were afraid of us. But I know it was not like that at all. The Russian guys were not cowards. I played against them before, they were real men, real tough sons of bitches. It was some other people that decided to take them off the ice. I am sure that was done against their will. If someone were to do this to me, I’d rip their throat out. Nobody ever has a right to make me out a coward. Besides, that game wasn’t all that dirty. Philadelphia played tough but it’s allowed in the game of hockey.

- The incident happened after a Philadelphia player punched a CSKA player in the head.

- I don’t think it’s what happened. I looked to me like Van Impe checked Kharlamov, nothing more. Even if he had punched him – so what? Kharlamov was not afraid of punches, so why take him from the ice by his hand like he was a child?

- Don't you agree that you would try to intimidate your opponents?

- You can intimidate only those who allow themselves to be intimidated. We just played our game, the way we usually played. The other teams tried to follow the CSKA style and got there asses kicked. We weren’t about to do that.

- Before the game with CSKA you said: "They'll try to play brain games, but this does not work with us. There are 20 guys in our team and none of them have any brains."

- To tell the truth, I don't remember that. Although I could have definitely said out something like that.

I AM NOT A RUSSOPHOBE

- Who out of the Soviet players you met impressed you the most and what could they, in your opinion, achieve in the NHL?

- Of course, Tretiak was one of the best goalies. Kharlamov and Yakushev could have won a Hart trophy each – that goes without saying. Petrov and Maltsev would have become NHL stars. The rest of the players of the 1972 team would have at least made the league. Naturally, the NHL hockey was a little bit different from the one the guys were used to, but I am certain, they would have adapted. Like I said, these guys feared nothing.

- Then may I remind you of another sentence? "I hate these sons of bitches. They don't like anything, they always complain of something and whine all the time".

- Yes, I said this before the game against CSKA. Of course, that was silly and I am ashamed of this now. After all, we had no problems with CSKA players outside the ice, we even became friends as far as it was possible in those times. I invited Tretiak to my place, had him meet my family. Why have I said that? Well, I was always good at playing mad. It was very difficult for me to be on the ice against somebody I liked. It was necessary to develop hatred against an opponent. So these words had no personal feelings for the Soviet players.

- It was said by some that you, as a general manager, didn’t much approve of Russian players and Europeans in general. The Flyers for a while were one of the most “North American” teams in the league.

- Really? We were the first NHL club to draft a Russian player. And who has drafted the Stastny brothers? As far as I am personally concerned you can ask any Russian player who played in Philadelphia if Bobby Clarke cares about his nationality.

- What is your opinion about the fact that Russia has not signed the agreement with the IIHF and the NHL?

- For the players, especially for those who want to play in the NHL, it's bad. But at the same time I can understand the Russians. I would not like to have my players taken away because of an agreement that was written by someone other than me.

   At the same time I don't think that the NHL will seriously suffer from the Russian decision. In fact, there aren’t that many great players coming in from Russia. There are several real stars and plenty of third and fourth liners. If we are lucky to attract the best over here then everything is going to be all right. As for the average players, there are many more of them in Canada, and they are better anyway. So I'll think twice before I draft a Russian. Of course if he is a Malkin or an Ovechkin, you’ve got to take those guys.

- What do you think about the change if the rules? The red-line rule, for instance?    

- I think it’s bulls... I like hockey the way it is. It's quite funny because the red line rule was introduced to increase the scoring. Now it's being removed for the same reason. So what’s gonna be the result? Nothing. Maybe there will be more teams using the trap. I do like the return of the old offside rule, and the decreasing of the goalie equipment, though.

- How about the clutching and grabbing crackdown?

- Nonsense. I am in full agreement with Scott Niedermayer. He has said that there is no clutching and grabbing at all. NHL defensemen today see the ice so well and position themselves so well that  forwards have no place to go. I don’t see why we need to crack down on anything. The guys a playing a good, contact sport. Let them hit each other, let them use the boards. Who said that a 5-3 game is better than a 3-1 game? Scoring is just a part of hockey. If there is no physical play, it is not hockey.



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