Of the hundreds of players who have suited up for the Flyers over the years, likely none is as grateful for team founder Ed Snider as Bobby Clarke.
Without Snider, who died early Monday morning at the age of 83, Clarke would never have pulled a Flyers sweater over his head. And without Clarke, the Flyers might not ever have paraded down Broad Street.
“From the stories I hear, I might not have had a career [without him],” Clarke said recently. “He was the only one of the 12 teams who called a doctor and found out that I would be able to play, even though I had diabetes. At that time, he took the big gamble of drafting me.”
As the story goes, there was a scout named Gerry Melnyk who had desperately wanted the Flyers to draft him. But the general manager at the time, Bud Poile, didn't want to — and wouldn't have — if not for Snider.
Snider, still rather new to hockey at the time, generally never got involved in personnel decisions to that degree. He did that day, though, and the Flyers selected Clarke in the second round, 17th overall. In 1969, Clarke was too much of a risk for anyone else to draft. And back then, if a player wasn't drafted, he would never play professional hockey.
But that tale is one of the better-known of Flyers lore. What's less acknowledged, Clarke said, is the almost paternal role Snider filled for the hockey community in Philadelphia, especially early on. Clarke has said a number of times in the past that Flyers hockey has long been reflective of the kind of man Snider was. Players wanted to be here, he said, and they wanted to win and they wanted to be tough, but also be a part of the community. That's not a coincidence.
“He was a tough man, but also soft and caring,” Clarke said. “You don't get as successful as him without being tough. But at no time was he ever, for lack of a better word, an ass----. He was always a really good man, and really good for the city.”
In the 1960s and 70s, Clarke said, Snider stood up for his players in a way that was unprecedented. He visited the Flyers' locker room after every game, win or lose. He spoke individually with every player. He fought with referees when he believed the team wasn't treated fairly. Once, when he found out about a particularly sketchy plane ride the team had endured that ended with an emergency landing in Baltimore, he was furious. Snider made sure everyone understood that his players would never go through an experience like that again; if a plane wasn't good enough for Snider himself, there was no way his players would be getting on it, either.
“Lots of owners wouldn't have even noticed,” Clarke said. “But he knew, and he cared about his players.”
It wasn't until Clarke joined the Flyers' front office as general manager, though, that the relationship between the two men solidified. It became something “that was somewhere between close friends and father and son,” he said. “Somewhere halfway in between.”
And it was during that era that Clarke realized just how smart Snider was. He could make a suggestion without anyone realizing that he was until much later. His memory was dangerously sharp — like an elephant's, Clarke joked. But he would never tell his employees what to do. He was easy to work for and fun to work for, but also tough to work for.
It's easy to forget that Snider had no hockey experience prior to bringing the Flyers to Philadelphia in 1966. Somehow, though, he had an aptitude for it. And that's despite an old story that's been passed around and around – that once, in Boston, Snider saw a Bruins lineup card and wondered what it was.
In creating the Flyers from scratch, Snider grew to love and understand the game in a way few do. Clarke believes that without Snider, there's a good chance hockey never would have caught on in Philadelphia; there were plenty of other cities where, despite good intentions, the game never clicked with its fans.
“He totally understood 'team,' ” Clarke said, “what it took to have a team, build a team.”
And that idea, Clarke said, is key to understanding who Snider was, and why there is a love and a respect for him that few pro sports executives ever evoke – and it's a big part of why so many former Flyers stick around the area long after their hockey careers have ended.
“In a position like his, you got to see the emotion that winning and losing brings to an individual,” Clarke said. “Being strong and tough comes out pretty quickly. But [those who didn't know him] never saw — because he never brought it out — the kindness behind it, him paying for players' kids to go to school, all those kinds of things that he did quietly, that nobody ever knew. And that went on for years.
“With his charity (the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation), it's out there and you can see it now, but that went on for years – he did lots of things for ex-Flyers and their families that were important to people like me and other players who were still working. He was still taking care of our ex-teammates and helping them, quietly.”
Snider's influence on the game of hockey and the city of Philadelphia is immense, almost too much to put into words: The team he created. The stadiums he built. The charity work he's done. The players he's lured here. Bobby Clarke himself.
But it would be even more difficult to explain, Clarke said, what Snider meant to those who knew him.
“I can't,” Clarke said. “I don't have the vocabulary. I don't know what words, or how you'd put them together to describe him. He was not only a friend, but he was a great man. And I know that's been said about lots of people, but those of us who played hockey in Philadelphia know that 'great' does describe him.”