How Philadelphia Spectrum became a formidable obstacle for Oilers in ’87

Edmonton Oilers' Wayne Gretzky consoles Philadelphia Flyers' goaltender Ron Hextall after the Oilers beat the Flyers 3-1 to win the Stanley Cup in seven games in Edmonton in this May 31, 1987 file photo. (Rusty Kennedy/CP/AP)

“This used to be a very angry place.”

The veteran sports writer — Hall of Fame New York scribe Frank Brown — was imparting some wisdom to the young cub from Edmonton (me), one day at the Philadelphia Spectrum.

“A veeery angry place..”

By then, about 1992, or ’93, watching hockey at The Spectrum was like visiting Drumheller, Alb., or the Citadel above Halifax Harbour. The edifice was the same — same seats, same banners, same penalty boxes — but just as dinosaurs no longer roam Southern Alberta and cannons no longer shoot leaden balls into the Nova Scotia waters, by then what made the Spectrum the Spectrum were mere memories.

Memories of the ’76 Philadelphia Flyers running the Soviet Red Army out of the building, and Bob Cole so famously stating, “They’re goin’ home. They’re goin’ home! Ya, THEY’RE GOIN’ HOME!!”

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When the 1987 Stanley Cup Final moved to Philly for Game 3, the series moved from the well-lit, underused and Western Canadian-polite Northlands Coliseum, to the Spectrum: a dimly lit, Eastern seaboard American rink that housed an NBA team and, seemingly, was in use six days out of every seven.

It was the former home to the Broad Street Bullies, Stanley Cup winners in 1974 and ’75, the latter the last team ever to win a Cup and lead the league in penalty minutes — which it did by nearly 700 minutes — or to be 100 per cent comprised of Canadian players.

“For me, the Spectrum held a lot of reverence because of the age I was when they were winning Stanley Cups,” began Mark Messier. “I was 13, 14 years old, very impressionable at that age. It was tough, tough hockey, and we were watching the Russian come in to the Spectrum, when they were going to go home. I watched all of the Broad Street Bullies games…

“The rink itself carried an undertone, just because of the history of the team. The fans were passionate. You knew when you went into a game in Philadelphia, you had to buckle up the helmet strap a little tighter. You knew you were in for a game.”

The Spectrum was built for the Flyers’ 1967 arrival into the NHL as part of the league’s first expansion. In their first five seasons, the team failed to win a single playoff round, and would remedy that by adopting a style that would best be described as Slapshot-esque.

They had some fine, skilled players, certainly, like Bobby Clark, Rick MacLeish, Reggie Leach and the great gardien de but Bernie Parent.

But those Flyers are primarily recalled as by far the toughest, meanest hockey team ever to roam the earth. By extension, the Spectrum became the most formidable place to play as a visiting player.

“It still had that aura of the great ‘70s Broad Street Bullies teams. It had that image, that feel,” said Mark Howe, a Flyers defenceman from 1982-92. “Guys who would take one-minute shifts? They’d get into Philly and their shifts would be 15, 20 seconds. There were plenty of those guys.

“It wasn’t the 70’s anymore, but they always had team toughness. Between the Behn Wilsons, the Glen Cochranes, the Dave Browns… That was part of how their teams were built.”

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Demolished in 2010, the Spectrum was a classic, big city American rink in its day.

It was Smokin’ Joe Frazier’s home boxing arena, and hosted shows by Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Elvis Presley, Queen, Pink Floyd, Frank Zappa, Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie and Bob Marley. It hosted 10 NHL or NBA Finals, with the only visitors to win a championship at the Spectrum being the Montreal Canadiens (1976) and the L.A. Lakers (1980). That’s called home-ice (court) advantage.

Julius Erving became Dr. J there. Dave Schultz set the single-season record for penalty minutes (472) there. Darryl Dawkins smashed backboards there.

Long after bench-clearing brawls had ceased, the Spectrum still intimidated, the fans there carrying around the edifice that were the Broad Street Bullies, like hockey’s version of A Weekend With Bernie.

“I’ll say one thing for Philly fans,” said Oilers goalie Grant Fuhr, “there is nothing that’s off limits. They had no issues throwing stuff at you when you were going off the ice. No issues screamin’ and yellin’ at you. They were a tough crowd, but a fun crowd to play in front of.”

Near the end of all the old classic rinks, a trip to Philadelphia was like walking back into the Original 12 for a game.

“It just reeked of hockey history, and memories of (anthem singer) Kate Smith,” said Edmonton defenceman Kevin Lowe. “Of all those expansion-era buildings, it was the most intimate. It’s the one building where the fans were really on top of you. A tough building to play in for sure.”

“Philly was one of the hardest rinks to win in,” added Gretzky, who had a 2-12 regular-season record there in his nine NHL seasons with Edmonton. “It was the Boston Garden, or Chicago Stadium. There were just some rinks that were different.

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“Even though it was ’87, our group could still remember 1974, ’75 with those great Flyer teams. We knew we were in tough.”

In the ’87 series, the Flyers needed every advantage they could find — tangible or intangible. If bringing out a video of Kate Smith singing God Bless America prior to Game 3 provided an edge, great. If summoning the ghosts of Dave “The Hammer” Schultz and Bob “Mad Dog” Kelly took a few knots out of the Oilers sails, sure.

“We were just really carrying it on,” said Flyers winger Dave Brown today. “It’s was Schultzy and Clarkie and all those guys who were the real Broad Street Bullies. We benefited a lot from them. They set the tone. They weren’t going to get bullied anymore, and Keith Allen built that team. We just benefited from that. It seemed like there was an aura when you went into the Spectrum, that you were going to get it that night.

“The Spectrum was a huge advantage for us, I thought.”

It was in Game 3, that’s for sure.

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