Flyers at 50: The story behind the tradition of Kate Smith's 'God Bless America'

Flyers at 50: The story behind the tradition of Kate Smith's 'God Bless America'

The mood across America was anything but cheerful during the winter of 1969.

The draft lottery was reinstated for the first time since World War II while President Nixon ordered 50,000 additional troops to be dispatched to Vietnam.

The Tet Offensive in Vietnam, that had pushed the Americans backwards, was 11 months into its execution with no end in sight.

At home, racial tensions ran high after the U.S. Supreme Court had ordered Mississippi to desegregate its schools, while massive student protests and violence on U.S. college campuses demanding an end to the war became a daily routine.

In Philadelphia, Flyers vice president of business operations Lou Scheinfeld saw firsthand the uneasiness at the Spectrum during games.

The crowd’s indifference to the playing of the national anthem before games seemed an obvious backlash to Vietnam and what was happening on home soil, as well.

“It was a pretty tough, troubled time and there was a lot of unhappiness in the United States,” Scheinfeld said. “People were angry and kind of unpatriotic at the time.”

Perhaps a different song could evoke a new response, Scheinfeld wondered. While rummaging through some LPs at a record store on South Street, he stumbled across Kate Smith’s rendition of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” from the late 1930s.

In the days that followed, Scheinfeld arranged for a sound engineer to come to the Spectrum on a night when no event was taking place. Lights off, Smith’s voice bellowed out in total darkness as Scheinfeld and the sound engineer listened.

“When she hit that last note, ‘Home sweet home,’ I got chills,” Scheinfeld recalled.

Though he had previously informed Flyers chairman Ed Snider what he had in mind in substituting “God Bless America” for the Star Spangled Banner, Snider dismissed it as a lark.

“God Bless America” made its debut on Dec. 11, 1969. Snider wasn’t amused even though the Flyers won, 6-3, over Toronto.

“Snider whipped his head around as it started to play, came over and cursed me out,” Scheinfeld recalled.

“I didn’t think you were nuts enough to do it!” Snider yelled.

Between periods, however, fans came up the aisle to Snider’s suite, which was accessible to anyone at the Spectrum, and praised the idea of a Flyers anthem.

Snider sheepishly approached Scheinfeld after the game.

“You son of a b----, I don’t know how you did this, but it worked,” Snider said.

The Flyers had won just one of their previous nine games before Smith made her debut that night.

“We won some after that, got into a dry spell and we had a big game to win and they played her and we won again,” Bob Kelly said. “We didn’t want to burn her out. It became iconic.”

The Flyers would post a 19-1-1 record whenever “God Bless America” played over the next three seasons versus 31-38-28 following the Star Spangled Banner.

Smith’s first live appearance would not happen until the home opener in 1973 against Toronto. Promotion director Jay Seidman had tried for over a year to get Smith to appear, but her agent balked. Then some luck.

“Kate Smith had an elderly uncle living in West Philly and he sent her clips from the Inquirer and Daily News about her being a good-luck charm for the Flyers,” Scheinfeld said.

Smith told her agent she wanted to sing here. This time, he didn’t balk, but wanted a $25,000 appearance fee for her. It was reduced to $5,000.

That October, Smith, who lived in New York City, took a train to Philadelphia and was picked up by limo at 30th Street, then taken to the arena without fanfare.

She almost didn’t appear that first night. The reason? The dress she had packed was wrinkled. The Spectrum had no irons, so Scheinfeld dispatched his secretary, who lived in South Philly, to find one.

“Her aunt lived four blocks away,” Scheinfeld said. “We had everything you could imagine at the Spectrum but no irons.”

Smith would appear live at the Spectrum four times, including the Stanley Cup-clinching Game 6 against Boston in 1974.

Her appearance that afternoon drew an obscenity-laced tirade after the game from Bruins coach Bep Guidolin, even though several Bruins, among them Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito, lauded Smith’s elegance as a performer.

“We got to know her history and what she stood for and it was a domino effect,” Kelly recalled. “There was a bond there.”

Going into this, the 50th Anniversary season, Smith’s record with the Flyers is 100-29-5, as compiled by

“God Bless America signified invincibility,” Bill Clement said. “In the sports world, that trumps every other meaning.”

Rod Brind’Amour, who came to symbolize what it meant to be a Flyer in the 1990s, found it to be a moving experience for anyone present.

“It’s about the fans and how much they get into it,” Brind’Amour said. “The song naturally evokes a sense of pride for your country.

“When you combine it on top of the passion Flyer fans have, it takes the song to a whole new level for everyone in the building.”

In the years that followed, the club would add Lauren Hart via videotape as a duet.

“That set the arena on fire,” Brind’Amour said. “It’s one of the great traditions of hockey.”

When Smith died at age 79 in 1986 from diabetes, Snider, who was a pallbearer at her funeral, remarked, “She was a wonderful person and an important part of the Flyers' history. We will always have a special place in our hearts for her. She will be deeply missed by the Flyers and our fans.”

Smith’s statue, originally installed in 1987 outside the Spectrum, now stands outside XFINITY Live! facing the Wells Fargo Center.

Despite protests from succeeding generations of Flyers fans who feel the club should move on from Smith, the Flyers still present the Smith-Hart duet version of  “God Bless America” on the scoreboard for special occasions and the playoffs.

“You see the excitement from fans — it brought so much energy into the building and the players fed off that,” Rick Tocchet said.

Smith’s 100th career victory song came last April 20 against Washington in the playoffs.

“It still gets a tremendous reaction, but there are a lot of young people who are our fans and never heard of Kate Smith,” Scheinfeld said.

Many Flyers from the Cup years have said in recent times it’s time for the team to move on from past traditions. The long drought between winning Cups doesn’t sit well with today’s fan base.

In that respect, the Flyers have been careful in how and when they resurrect Smith's song.

“I still get chills when they do the duet with Lauren, but I think it’s time to let it rest,” said Kelly, who reflects the opinion of many.

“It’s all new hockey and it’s been that way for 40 years. Find something new.”

If Alain Vigneault can't work his magic with Flyers' roster, pressure mounts for Chuck Fletcher

If Alain Vigneault can't work his magic with Flyers' roster, pressure mounts for Chuck Fletcher

Chuck Fletcher was brought in because things weren't going well enough and quickly enough for the Flyers.

The predicament he inherited required eventual change.

After all, sitting alongside team president Paul Holmgren back in November, Comcast Spectacor chairman and CEO Dave Scott said the Flyers were eyeing a general manager with a "bias for action," among other qualities.

With time and evaluation, Fletcher has begun providing the desired action.

A new head coach is on board, bringing extensive experience and outside perspective, while two new assistants with strong pedigrees have been hired.

But perhaps the most influential part in shifting the Flyers' course has remained mostly intact: the roster. That could drastically change this upcoming offseason with free agency and potential trades. However, Fletcher, facing his first offseason as the Flyers' GM, doesn't see an exodus needed with the current roster — or at least not yet.

"The Flyers are a great opportunity. You guys are in this market, for me coming in from the outside, I know when Paul Holmgren approached me about being the general manager of the Flyers, I'm like, 'Wow.' This is a premium job in the National Hockey League and we're set up where we should have an opportunity to get better quickly," Fletcher said April 18. "I know we need more good players, but we have a lot of good players. It's not like you have to gut this thing — we have cap space, we have picks. We have really good staff, really good staff. On the scouting and management side, I've added one person, I haven't subtracted anything. There's a good group here and we have the ability to get better quickly if we all do our job."

Therein lies a poignant and undeniable pressure on Fletcher in Year 1 with the Flyers under Alain Vigneault's watch.

Aside from Wayne Simmonds, who became an inevitable piece to move given the circumstances, the Flyers' core has survived. So, too, has the overall makeup of the roster.

Fletcher, Vigneault and the Flyers believe this team can win with a refined system and different guidance. They don't exactly see a team that has missed the playoffs every other season since 2012-13, a stretch consisting of three first-round exits.

Will Fletcher add this summer? Of course — the ability to do so is one of the reasons why Vigneault found the Flyers as an attractive destination. When Fletcher was hiring Vigneault, the two established a list of areas in which the Flyers can improve.

"We're looking at some options and if we can put the right things in place," Vigneault said at his introduction, "it's going to be a lot of fun."

Significant subtraction was not featured on the list.

"There's some solid youth with a lot of upside here that is coming into its own," Vigneault said. "There's great goaltending, being one of those youth pieces. There's a solid core group that, in my mind, needs the right direction. And you've got the combination, also, of some solid veteran players that have been in the league a few years, that can still contribute at a high level in this league. … After discussing it with a lot of people that I respect their opinion in the NHL, I feel that the Flyers are a very good team that with the proper direction, proper mindset, proper culture and people working together, will be a very good team in the near future."

That's why Year 1 will be so telling.

Vigneault is a coach with a tremendous track record of winning during his first season on the job. He did so at three separate stops (see story). Michel Therrien has 38 postseason victories under his belt as a head coach and took a team to the Stanley Cup Final. Mike Yeo owns three playoff series victories as a head coach and has a ring as an assistant.

If this group can't produce the results with the Flyers' roster, Fletcher will have to take a longer, much more serious look at the players in place and make his hardest decisions yet.

At that point, it may be the only action left.

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There has been a ton of drama only three games into the Western Conference Final between the Sharks and Blues.

Game 3 was won by the Sharks, 5-4, in overtime, but not without controversy. San Jose may have gotten away with a hand pass on the game-winning goal.

The series will shift one way or the other Friday night with Game 4.

Below is the schedule for Day 37 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. You can watch the entire playoffs on the networks of NBC. 

San Jose Sharks at St. Louis Blues (SJS 2-1)
Game 4, Western Conference Final
8 p.m. ET | TV: NBCSN | Live stream here