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.”

'You know that word that starts with B?' — Alain Vigneault makes his point after frustrating Flyers loss

'You know that word that starts with B?' — Alain Vigneault makes his point after frustrating Flyers loss

Every so often, ever since training camp in mid-September, Alain Vigneault will remind everyone he wasn't here last year or the years prior.

He'll do so amicably when questions arise about a past season or trend with the club he now coaches. Vigneault likes to focus on the present and what's ahead.

After all, he doesn't want to act as if he's openly criticizing what happened before him. 

"It's the start of a new era, a new group," he said Sept. 13, Day 1 of training camp.

If he didn't know, the type of loss the Flyers suffered Thursday night has become a recurring theme in recent years, the kind that drives the fan base up a wall. One night, the Flyers will look like world-beaters against the NHL's elite. Another night, they'll lose a game that had victory written all over it, leaving fans scratching their heads.

Except, Flyers fans are no longer dumbfounded by those types of losses because, quite frankly, their team has tended to suffer them predictably.

On Thursday night at the Wells Fargo Center, the Flyers lost, 4-1, to the Canadiens, who are on the outside looking in at the playoff picture and had lost nine of their previous 11 games. What made the defeat particularly maddening was that the Flyers had just made a significant statement by beating the league's three best teams — the Capitals, Bruins and Blues — in the past four games.

The win over defending champion St. Louis came Wednesday night on the road. So on Thursday night, the Flyers were facing the second game of a back-to-back set, coming off the high of beating the champs in their building, and playing without either of their regular two goalies (see observations).

When "emotional letdown" was brought up at his postgame press conference, Vigneault wouldn't even tiptoe the line.

“You know that word that starts with B?" Vigneault asked.

Begins with bull and ends in ... ?

"I mean, these are big games," Vigneault said. "There’s almost nothing separating teams. And tonight, it’s a couple plays. I understand emotionally, but points are the same. This game was worth two. Last game was worth two. You’ve got to get up for it, you’ve got to get yourself ready, it’s going to be a battle.

"You do know the word I’m talking about, right?”

Sure do.

And his Flyers know those losses can't become a theme.

Vigneault will call out that bulls--t if he sees it.

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Flyers upended by Canadiens for the type of loss that always seems to anger fans

Flyers upended by Canadiens for the type of loss that always seems to anger fans


These ones irritate Flyers fans the most.

After playing up to the competition for four straight games and generating bona-fide excitement, the Flyers played down to the competition in a 4-1 loss Thursday night to the Canadiens at the Wells Fargo Center.

Sure, Montreal boasts a big-named goalie, but it had lost nine of its last 11 games before upending the Flyers, who had just won three games over the top three teams in the NHL.

This was a letdown any way you slice it for the Flyers (25-17-6) following victories over the Capitals, Bruins and Blues.

The Canadiens (21-21-7) salvaged the final game of the three-game regular-season series with the Flyers after dropping the first two matchups in overtime.

• The Flyers were coming off an emotional high of beating the defending champs on the road and playing the second game of a back-to-back set, but everyone should expect more than losing by three goals on home ice to a team outside of the playoff picture (see story).

On Saturday night at the Wells Fargo Center, the Flyers should come out like gangbusters against the Kings, who are near the basement of the West.

• With Carter Hart (right lower abdominal strain) out two to three weeks and Brian Elliott playing an overtime game on the road Wednesday night, Alex Lyon made his first start of the season for the Flyers.

The 27-year-old has played well in his fourth season with AHL affiliate Lehigh Valley.

“Alex has put in a lot of time,” Flyers head coach Alain Vigneault said before the game. “He spent the summer here in Philly to work out. I thought he had a good camp and he's been playing well. This is his best start in Lehigh Valley. He is just coming off a shutout and he deserved a chance to play.”

Lyon became the third goalie to suit up for the Flyers. At this date last season, the Flyers had already played seven goalies.

He was strong until he allowed a goal with 55 seconds left in the first period. From the end of the opening stanza to the beginning of the second frame, Lyon allowed three goals in a span of three minutes, 14 seconds.

The tallies weren’t all on Lyon. The Flyers were a step behind on all three. The second was a power play goal in which the Flyers allowed Shea Weber all kinds of room to wind up a slap shot and create a rebound in front (see highlights).

Lyon made 35 saves.

Montreal goalie Carey Price, who won his previous two games with 72 saves on 73 shots, enjoyed the lead and finished with 40 stops to beat the Flyers for the 16th time in his career.

• In the wins over the Capitals, Bruins and Blues, the Flyers were forced to kill 14 of 15 power plays. That’s a lot of work for the PK and it felt like the rising number of trips to the box would eventually burn the Flyers.

They allowed Ilya Kovalchuk’s go-ahead power play goal early in the second period and then the Canadiens scored another marker 11 seconds later to seize a 3-1 lead.

It was a momentum-changing sequence all started by a penalty, albeit a cheap hooking call on Kevin Hayes.

The Flyers also hurt themselves by going 0 for 4 on the power play.

• Kovalchuk, who signed a one-year, $700,000 deal with the Canadiens two weeks ago, gave Montreal a 2-1 lead on the second-period power play goal. He tacked on the fourth and final goal.

The 36-year-old winger has seven points (three goals, four assists) in seven games with the Canadiens.

Should the Flyers have been interested?

• Recalled a day after being loaned to the Phantoms for the purpose of creating space for Lyon, Joel Farabee scored a big goal to open the game’s scoring.

The marker was Farabee’s first in 16 games. The 19-year-old has offense to add to the Flyers — and if he can show it on the fourth line, his role will grow as the games grow bigger.

“I'd like him to get a little bit more than nine or 10 minutes but we've seen that go up and down, and my expectation is that that’ll come back,” Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher said Tuesday.

With the addition of Connor Bunnaman, the Flyers’ fourth line has been a positive over the past three games.

• Before the game, Vigneault said he was very optimistic about defenseman Justin Braun’s return Saturday from a groin injury.

• The Flyers play two more games, both at home, before their NHL-mandated Jan. 22-30 bye week — Saturday vs. the Kings (7 p.m. ET/NBCSP) and Tuesday vs. the Penguins (7:30 p.m. ET/NBCSN).

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