Philadelphia wore losing in the ‘60s and early ‘70s the way Cheese Whiz sticks to a steak sandwich: like cement.
The mindset wasn’t that the home team would lose, but by how much. The neighborhoods teams played in put up more fights than the hosts.
Until one man and one team changed everything. A city was no longer going to be pushed around. Thanks to Fred Shero and the Philadelphia Flyers.
Shero, the coach of the Broad Street Bullies, received a long overdue honor of being named to the Hockey Hall of Fame on Tuesday. Without the fight — and might — he brought to Philadelphia, there is no telling how the city’s image would have been remade.
"No one deserves it more than Fred Shero, in my opinion," Flyers chairman Ed Snider said. "He was the guy that put it all together. We gave him the parts and he made it work."
To comprehend the stigma that ran through professional sports in Philadelphia one has to simply absorb the collapse by the 1964 Phillies — blowing a 6 1/2-game lead with 12 to play by losing 10 straight, including seven at home — through the comedic horror provided by the 1972-73 76ers, a team that finished 9-73.
In the midst of all these losses, the Flyers hired Shero, a long-timer minor league coach, as their head man.
Change wasn’t immediate. However, Shero’s mystique was. He was introverted, reserved, and brilliant all at once. He was well-read, a deep thinker and baffled opponents and the media.
"Sometimes, I don’t think he knows Wednesday from Thursday," Hockey Hall of Famer Scotty Bowman once said, "And then sometimes I think he’s a genuis who’s got us all fooled."
The Flyers got tough and trips to Philadelphia became tougher. Shero turned players such as Dave Schultz and Bob Kelly into feared enforcers, blending a punishing style with a gutsy leader in Bobby Clarke and talented players such as Rick MacLeish.
Facing the New York Rangers in a Stanley Cup semifinal seventh game, the game was decided when Schultz hammered Ranger defenseman Dale Rolfe. None of the veteran defenseman’s teammates came to his aid.
Shero’s genius was often found through blackboard quotes. Before Game 6 of the Cup final against the Boston Bruins, he posted: “Win today and we walk together forever.”
The Flyers won, captured the Cup and the subsequent parade was an indescribable release of years of of frustration. To this day, the Broad Street Bullies are revered and celebrated in Philadelphia.
The hockey establishment was mortified by these goons. Led by Shero, the Flyers repeated as champs, the only two championships in franchise history.
Shero, who hired the first assistant coach (Mike Nykoluk) in NHL history, went on to coach the New York Rangers and led them to a Stanley Cup final in 1979, where they lost to the Montreal Canadiens.
“He was a breath of fresh air, a guy that had come from winning, and that meant a lot,” Dave Maloney, whom Shero named captain of the 1979 New York Rangers, told the Daily News Tuesday. “That being said, the name The Fog was pretty appropriate. … In his mystical ways, he motivated and kept it simple.”
He posted 390 victories as a head coach. The Hall of Fame seemed a sure bet, but the establishment resisted … until this year.
Shero passed away in 1990 due to complications of lung cancer. Perhaps no one summed him up better than his beloved wife, Mariette, a charming, bubbly French-Canadian.
"If you looked inside Freddie’s brain," Mariette Shero said in 1996, "I think you would find a miniature hockey rink."