Keith Allen, the Flyers' first-ever coach, used to say that Serge Bernier could have been a great Flyer had he shown consistent effort.
Allen always felt that Bernier’s best times on the ice were during practice when he had some legendary battles with a very young center named Bobby Clarke in 1970.
The name "Bernier" may have been lost among this generation of Flyers fans, but it's not forgotten among those who’ve been around a while.
Bernier was the Flyers’ very first amateur draft pick -- chosen fifth overall in 1967 -- months before their inaugural season. The NHL draft is coming to Philadelphia for the first time ever Friday and Saturday at the Wells Fargo Center.
That draft was held at Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel in a small ballroom where only the 12 NHL club general managers -- and no one else -- were in attendance.
There were just three rounds of selections on June 7, mainly because the expansion draft had already seen a whopping 20 rounds of selections on the previous two days, intended to give the NHL's six new franchises a chance to begin building their organizations.
Most of the better, older players were already consigned to play with the Original Six, getting locked up under sponsorship rights agreements before their 15th birthday in some cases.
If a junior player was sponsored by Montreal, for instance, he belonged to the Canadiens. Though this practice ended in 1963, the trickle-down effect lasted through the 1968 NHL amateur draft.
Or as Flyers chairman Ed Snider would say, “The first real draft, as far we’re concerned, was 1969 when we had access to everyone, and got Bob Clarke” (see story).
Nonetheless, the Flyers' first amateur draft pick was Bernier two years earlier.
“I wasn’t even there and didn’t even know I had been drafted,” recalled the 67-year-old former right wing, who played on three NHL clubs and lasted less than two full seasons in Philadelphia.
“At the time, I was working for Molson brewery in Quebec. Some of the workers came up to me and said, ‘Serge, you’ve been drafted by Philadelphia.’ What? I didn’t think I would ever play in the NHL.”
Bernier was 20 years old at the time. He had played for the Sorel Eperviers in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. What intrigued the Flyers was his size. He was 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds. Allen felt he had too many smaller players at his AHL affiliate, the Quebec Aces, and needed more size.
“I was playing amateur hockey, having fun, working at a brewery, and absolutely never thought of doing this [turning pro],” Bernier said. “I didn’t realize I would be anything, but my career took off from there.”
Allen phoned Bernier when he returned home from work that day to tell him he had been drafted and the Flyers wanted him in Quebec to play for the Aces.
“Did anyone ever scout me? Not that I know of,” Bernier said. “No one ever talked to me until the day it happened. I got a call that day from Keith Allen telling me. I was quite happy.
“I guess, being their first draft pick, I didn’t know much about them. I didn’t realize how much bigger things would get because of [expansion].”
Allen offered Bernier a $500 signing bonus. His AHL deal was worth $6,500 and his NHL contract, which would begin in 1969-70, was for $14,000 -– a thousand less than Bobby Clarke earned that same season as a rookie.
Of course, Clarke’s NHL signing bonus had another zero attached to it -- $5,000.
“It would be different today if I were being drafted,” Bernier said with a laugh. “If I had the kind of money today they get [in the first round], I don’t think I would still be working.”
Bernier has been working in the roofing business two hours outside of Quebec City for many years now.
During the 1967-68 NHL expansion season, Bernier’s Quebec Aces teammates included Simon Nolet, Andre Lacroix and Jean-Guy Gendron.
All those players, plus Clarke, were there in 1969 when he played just one game.
“That was an impressive bunch,” Bernier recalled.
Bernier’s first full season was 1970-71. He scored 23 goals playing mostly on Jim Johnson’s line with Bill Lesuk.
Ironically, that entire line would be traded the following season to the Los Angeles Kings in a package return deal that included, among others, “Cowboy” Bill Flett and Ross Lonsberry (both deceased). Flett and Lonsberry would go on to become part of the Flyers’ Stanley Cup squads.
Bernier had only played two games for the Flyers during two previous seasons before finally making Vic Stasiuk’s roster in the 1970 training camp.
“I still remember my first NHL goal,” he said of the ’70-71 campaign. “It was against Eddie Giacomin and the Rangers. I remember my second goal even better because I scored on an empty net.
“But I shot from way outside. The next day, Stasiuk fined me for shooting the puck at an empty net. ‘What if it had been an icing?’ he said. He was not too happy about it.”
Imagine that. Back in the 1970s, it was taboo to score on an empty net because of icing concerns.
After being traded to the Kings, Bernier played two seasons on the West Coast before jumping to the WHA with the Quebec Nordiques.
“We had a great time in L.A.,” he said. “It was a losing team, but a great bunch of guys. We had fun. Then I moved to the WHA, and my NHL salary tripled. I had some regrets about moving, but at the end of the day, I was happy to do it. I had a lot of good years. It was OK.”
Bernier never scored less than 26 goals in any of his six seasons in the WHA and tallied 54 in 1974-75. His final two seasons, where he played sparingly, saw the Nordiques absorbed into the NHL. He retired after the 1980-81 season.
In 2010, Bernier was elected into the WHA Hockey Hall of Fame.
Strangely, Bernier claims he’s never been invited to a Flyers alumni event, although since he never played on their first NHL club (1967-68), he might have fallen through the cracks as the Flyers honored that team with a 40th anniversary reunion in 2007-08, and only a few others since.
“I was never invited back,” Bernier said. “I went to the 30th anniversary of the Kings. But with the Flyers, don’t know. Probably forgot me.”