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HBO's "Broad Street Bullies": Behind Enemy Lines

 

 

                  At one point during HBO’s latest documentary, “Broad Street Bullies”, the mid-70s Flyers wear black armbands in honor of Rexy’s, the blue-collar bar on Black Horse Pike in South Jersey that became the brawling team’s home away from the ice.

 

                 Rexy’s had burned down, and in a way, mirrored the end of the club’s violent run to two Stanley Cup championships in 1974 and 1975.

 

                 “It was rebuilt and it’s still there, although about six months ago, the latest owner sold it,” Joe Watson, a member of both those teams, told me earlier today.  “Food was still good though.”

 

                 And just like the food, and probably the beer, those orange-and-black Flyers remain beloved in Philadelphia and despised throughout North America and Russia.

 

                 As Toronto journalist Frank Orr recalled: “To the purists, they represented everything evil about the game. They were a disgrace.”

 

                  Like a photo of Rexy’s and its denizens---beers raised high---or a impossibly-thin Bernie Parent mask, HBO’s hour-long documentary (which debuts May 4 at 10 p.m.) is an artifact from the bloodiest days of the sport and deserves a niche in hockey’s Hall of Fame in Toronto. So naturally, it warrants 60 minutes of your time.

 

                 Watson and Parent were among the viewers at today’s screening of “Bullies” in Manhattan, just about 10 blocks north of Madison Square Garden, home of the Rangers, who witnessed some of the carnage that took place 34, 35 years ago. Among the first blurry images are Dave Schultz’ hair-pulling hammering of Blueshirt Dale Rolfe in the 1974 playoffs.

                  

                 For Rangers and NHL fans of a certain age, “Bullies” covers some familiar and painful terrain. For Flyers fans, it glorifies an era in their sports history. For younger fans whose initial glimpses of sports violence were birthed in video games, it should be an eye-opener.

 

                Told chronologically, with enough humor and in the context of a downtrodden city yearning for heroes, “Bullies” starts with the assembling of the expansion Flyers (the '75  club is still the last all-Canadien team to win the Cup) from castoffs of the Original Six teams in 1967, dwells on the characters responsible for the back-to-back Cups, and ends with the team’s sweep at the hands of Larry Robinson and the Montreal Canadiens in the ‘76 playoffs, which I remember as halting a brief run in which hockey had lost control of its sanity.

 

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                In the early years, after being repeatedly pounded by the Blues’ Noel Picard and the Plager brothers, Flyers owner Ed Snider had “decided that no team would ever intimidate us, ever again”. The reckless rogues began arriving: Schultz, Don Saleski, Moose Dupont, Ed Van Impe, Bobby Clarke, and Bob Kelly, who offers this gem: “There’s nothing like driving somebody’s head through the boards to make you feel good.”  There is plenty on Schultz, who Bill Clement calls “the baddest animal in the hockey jungle.”

 

                The New York Post’s Jay Greenberg, who worked for the Evening Bulletin in those days, provides some telling quotes, including the observation that Clarke “obviously took liberties because he knew he was protected.”  Phil Esposito’s reaction to Kate Smith, the singer brought onto the Spectrum ice for “God Bless America” in the 1974 finals against the Bruins, shouldn’t be missed.

 

                What I found particularly engaging was the archival footage, especially the 1976 exhibition defeat of the visiting Red Army team, who, intimidated by the aggressive style, left the ice midway through the first period before returning….a fog-bound Memorial Auditorium in Buffalo in the 1975 finals and Jim Lorentz whacking down a small bat with his stick…Fred Shero’s cryptic quotes scrawled on blackboards…the crowds at the Broad Street victory parade…Clarence Campbell’s dour face before presenting the Flyers with the Cup. as well as the unapologetic remarks from the Flyers today and former NHL director of officiating Bryan Lewis holding up two rule books, the slender one back then and the heftier current one, its thickness credited in part to those controversial Flyers.     

                  "Bullies" also will air on May 8, 10, 12 20, 23 and 25 and on HBO2.

New York Sports