Flyers

Flyers

On the day Bill Barber retired, Bob Clarke was asked what it had been like to play with the best left wing of his time.

Easy, said Clarke.

Indeed, much harder is trying to explain why the LCB line that combined for 141 goals in 1975-76 only sporadically played together over the following six seasons that Clarke, Barber and Reggie Leach remained with the Flyers. Leach slumped, was reborn and slumped again, plus other needs arose. But ultimately much easier to explain than the history of the three was their chemistry.

Clarkie makes the bombs and I drop em, Leach said. As for Barber, it may sound absurd that a three-time end of season all-star selection who scored 50 goals for those 1975-76 Flyers an edition more loaded than the two champions that preceded it and arguably the best team ever to not win the Stanley Cup had the primary function of playing lookout while opponents looked over their shoulders for Clarke.

Barber, who could work a corner, make a play and shoot, too, didnt make the Hall of Fame just by playing third man high.

Nevertheless, Clarke, the most ferocious and effective forechecker in history, could pursue without conscience to an incredible plus-93 that season because he knew Barber, plus-81, had his back.

I was a puck chaser and he could play off me, said Clarke. He was such an intelligent player, was always in good defensive position.

It was Scotty Bowman who told me that we were on the ice that year for something like five even-strength goals against the entire year. He also told me it was the best line he ever saw.

 

It was the best line Bowman ever beat, too. Seven future Montreal Hall of Famers Guy Lafleur, Guy Lapointe, Steve Shutt, Serge Savard, Larry Robinson, Bob Gainey and Ken Dryden led a sweep of the watershed 1976 finals by a margin of just five total goals.

If we had some goaltending and Ricky (Bernie Parent missed the final two rounds and center Rick MacLeish had been lost to an ACL tear in February) we would have won another one, said Barber.

Well never know unlike Clarke knowing exactly where Barber was going to be in every situation, which always was exactly where he wanted to be, too, for 12 seasons, all with the Flyers.

I liked playing both ends, Barber said over lunch last week. When they asked me to play a little center, a little defense in a pinch, I enjoyed that.

I liked being relied upon, took pride in being in the right spot at the right time.

Thus it is hardly surprising, and entirely gratifying, to find Barber, at age 59, in a good place. The Flyers scouting consultant lost his wife to cancer and his job as the teams coach during a four-month stretch of 2001-02 that tested him far more than even the Canadiens dynasty ever could. He lost his playing career prematurely to a devastating knee injury and his time in Tampa Bays front office did not end happily.

But between summers on his beachfront cottage near his hometown of Callander, Ont., and a large portion of his winters spent at his place the shortest of walks from the sand of Siesta Key, Fla., Barbers life has become more than just a figurative day at the beach.

There is still stiffness in the knee that ended his career, but a hip replacement of three years ago worked like a dream. His daughter, Kerri, is a mother of two and lives in Kansas City. Son Brooks is an equipment sales rep to six NHL teams, including the Flyers, for Easton Hockey. And a companion of eight years, Lori Purdy, seems destined to become Mrs. Bill Barber.

We are not married and truthfully we should be, said Barber. Thats the direction I probably will end up going and I should.

Paul Holmgren seeks input from Barber, which the Flyers GM should of an adviser who never has been short of an opinion. When Barber didnt like the new ownership, or its direction, in Tampa Bay, he quit.

Pauls a wise man who asks questions and listens, said Barber.

And his relationship with Clarke, which had some distance in their playing days even before Clarke the GM fired Barber the coach in the face of a near-player revolt, seems better than ever.

Even then, I understood that if the roles had been reversed it might have been me doing the same thing, said Barber. Clarkie gave me a chance to coach at Hershey and with the Phantoms, then gave me a chance to coach in the NHL and it didnt work.

 

It certainly did at first, after Barber, who had won a Calder Cup with the Phantoms, replaced nice guy Craig Ramsey (who had replaced the cancer-stricken Roger Neilson before the 2000 run to Game 7 of the semifinals). Barbers Flyers went 31-13 the remainder of the 2000-01 season and though Buffalo upset them in the first round, he was voted the Jack Adams Trophy as Coach of the Year.

Early the next season, Eric Desjardins quit as captain for reasons still unknown to Clarke and Barber. It was the first sign of trouble in paradise. The Flyers won only nine of their final 26 games, prelude to a soulless postseason performance against Ottawa in which they scored only two goals in five games.

Clarke had told Keith Primeau and Desjardins, who came to ask for Barbers firing late that season, that no coaching change would be made. With the season over, Primeau, who had become captain, decided to put on more heat publicly.

We had the worst power play in the league, why are we not practicing it? he said. The tirades on the bench; all season long if someone makes a mistake, they're getting yelled at.

I felt like I was having to make the adjustments on the bench. I don't feel that's part of my job description."

Clarke was ready to make the change regardless. The star-laden Flyers had egos nothing like those of the minor leaguers and prospects with which Barber had won with the Phantoms.

Primeau ultimately put his game where his mouth had been with a dominant performance during the Flyers' run to the 2004 semifinals. And Barber never coached again.

Billy brought the emotion that Craig, a good technical coach, had lacked, but technically we were falling behind, said Clarke. Players got bleeped off at Billy, he got bleeped off at the players, and it was just a mess at the end. We were so bad in the playoffs there wasnt any choice.

Barber had the choice of firing back at his critics. He never did.

I wanted another year, but I understood, didnt go out badmouthing anybody he said.

We had an internal problem. If I had it to do over again I would probably, from a communications standpoint, try to get the players to understand why the coaches were the way we were.

I told the players, I will go with my gut behind the bench. If things are not going well, Im not going to wait to digest it after the game. It still comes down to do you want to win or dont you? Simple as that.

Communication was exhausted. And so was Barber from coaching through Jenny Barbers illness and death. A longtime smoker, she had gone to the doctor in the spring of 2001 to check out a slight but persistent cough. An MRI found a tumor in her lung.

 

Lindy Snider (Eds daughter) got her the best doctor and sat with me in the waiting room when they tried to go in and get the tumor, Barber said. To remove it would be a 5-6 hour operation. If they opened her up and found out they couldnt do anything, I would know sooner.

An hour later, they paged me. I looked at Lindy and said Bleep. It was in Jennys lymph nodes, then went to her brain, like one mouse becoming five and five becoming 25. Wildfire.

I hope I have a quarter of the courage that this woman had. Deep down inside I felt she knew she was in trouble and was going to die, but you would never know it. She never expressed hate or Why did this happen to me? Other than being scared, not one time did she throw any negatives out.

Kerri wanted to move her wedding back while Jenny was going through chemotherapy and radiation. I never lie to my kids. I told Kerri were talking months, not years, and dont think your mother is going to be in any condition to attend.

She took heavy chemo and radiation. She went through hell. When we were playing in Dallas (on Nov. 23), Clarkie came down from the press box and said Kerri was on the phone. Jenny had had a stroke. The kids didnt leave her side too much, but when they went back upstairs she was on the floor.

All that chemo had weakened her around the heart and she took a stroke. One side of her was paralyzed. She never got out of the hospital after that until almost the end, when she just kept begging me, I want to go home, want to go home. The doctors convinced me that was the best thing for her, to get hospice involved. We got her home. It made her happy.

She couldnt respond near the end, but my understanding was that she could still hear. The morning of Dec. 8, a game day, the hospice nurse came upstairs when I was just getting up. She said, I think were almost there Billy. So I got the kids up. This was 6:30-7 in the morning. When they talked to her, her vital signs jumped again. She lasted until like 12:30.

I had called my coaches to tell them I wasnt up for coming in. But Brooks and Kerri told me, You cannot show weakness to your team no matter what the cost, it might be a help if you went. Theres nothing we can do now.

It wasnt a shock, like a car accident or a massive heart attack. I had been prepared for months. The eulogy was done; the kids had done everything. So I coached the game. We won (5-1 over Minnesota) fine, then announced it after the game was over. I was fatigued, but I did not let anything get by me that was going on the ice that day or after that.

 

Then, the season ended and more reality set in.

Tampa Bay GM Jay Feaster, who had been GM in Hershey when it was a Flyer affiliate and Barber had finished out two separate years behind the bench there, offered the fired Barber a job as director of player personnel. Jay wanted me to come in before the draft, he said. I needed time.

Kerris wedding took place in June. Best wedding ever, said Barber. In August, he called back Feaster and said he was ready to go back to work in Tampa, an hour from the place on Siesta Key he had bought in 1977 for a monthly payment of two bar nights, and is so glad he did.

Best beach in the U.S. and the people are really nice, he said. I like it there.

The Lightnings 2003-04 Stanley Cup championship, and Barbers third ring, came at the expense of the team that had fired him. But he says that Eastern Conference Finals series, won in Game 7 2-1 by Tampa Bay, provided him no additional satisfaction.

My heart was still with the Flyers because of Mr. Snider and his family and everything they did for our family, he said. He helped finance my first house.

Business is business. You get fired, you learn from it. The last thing I would ever do is sit there and say, How do you like those apples? when we beat the Flyers. I was just happy Tampa Bay won.

Thats the way I am. I dont remember much about the bad times, I remember the good times, and I had more good than bad. Hadnt thought about my jaw being busted for a long time, thanks for bringing it up."

Barber, accidentally kicked by the Blackhawks Peter Marsh while diving to prevent a breakaway, tried to play on during the 1982-83 season after his mouth was wired shut. He ran out of gas and so did the division champion Flyers in a crushing three-game sweep by the fourth-place Rangers.

To try to keep his veterans fresher the following year, Coach Bob McCammon ordered March four- and five-game vacations. Barber was on his in the Poconos, doing Pat Croce-ordered modified squat thrusts, when he heard a crack.

I played 12 years, but the last two were bandage years for me, wasnt at the top of my game, he said. But I remember having just told Jenny, this was the best the knee felt in two years. And then I broke off a quarter inch of bone.

The strength of his muscles surrounding the joint had kept him going to that point, but after a three-week wait, it remained obvious knee surgery was necessary. Barber underwent it the day the Flyers were swept by Washington, bringing their postseason losing streak to nine games. And though he tried to rehabilitate the next season, he never played again.

The Flyers, without Clarke, too, as he had retired to become GM, startled the hockey world with a Presidents Cup and Final berth with the suddenly youngest team in the league.

 

It would have been fun, but maybe I wouldnt have been used much, said Barber. Since Mike Keenan tried to talk Clarke into becoming the NHLs first playing GM late in that season, there was not much chance Barber would not have been valued by the new coach.

Despite 420 career goals, 17th on the all-time list upon retirement, the how to Barbers game was always more important than the how many.

Not that one of the best triggermen, pointmen and devastating shorthanded threats of his era didnt have huge moments, though. Barbers fourth goal in Game 3 of the 1980 semifinals ended a Minnesota comeback and put the Flyers well on their way to the Final.

He also scored the most overlooked critical goal in Flyers history. The favored Bruins, buried in Game 3 of the 1974 Final, fell behind 2-0 early in Game 4 before finally appearing to understand what they were up against. They had fought back to a 2-2 tie when Barber, who had been goalless in his last nine games going back three series, nailed what Bobby Orr called maybe the best wrist shot ever from the boards over Bruins goalie Gilles Gilberts far shoulder with six minutes to go in the third period.

Andre Dupont, fed by Clarke at the blueline, weaved through the stunned Bruins to put the 4-2 win, and a 3-1 series lead, away.

How many times out of 10 could Barber make that shot? Never, he said, but that wasnt true, of course. There wasnt anything he couldnt do and he always picked the right time to do it.

It was like a dream come true in those days, a very special time, he said. I remember before the (1972) draft getting a call from (Flyers head scout) Alex Davidson, saying the Flyers were thinking about drafting me and he wanted to know if I thinking about the WHA. I said Mr. Davidson, I want to play in the NHL. And I wanted to be drafted by Philadelphia.

The Canadiens picked fourth (Shutt), sixth (Bunny Larocque) and eighth (Dave Gardner). Claude Ruel (Canadiens long time coach and guru) always told me he was mad they didnt take me. But I wanted to go seventh to the expansion team. I didnt think the Canadiens were a style fit for me.

The six-year-old expansion team turned the corner almost as soon as he joined it after just nine games in Richmond. As for the fit, there has never been a more seamless one on a hockey rink, reflected again when Barber was asked how many more career goals flew away when Fred Shero didnt keep the LCB line together.

I played with MacLeish and Dorny (Gary Dornhoefer) during the (1975) Finals against the French connection, he said. Pretty well shut em down. Loved it.

Next year Clarkie, Reggie and I had that big year, but we didnt win the Cup. You cant win with just one line. And winning is all that I wanted to do.
Jay Greenberg covered the Flyers for 14 years for the Daily News and Evening Bulletin. His history of the Flyers, Full Spectrum, was published in 1996. He can be reached at jayg616@aol.com.