Editor’s note: We are down to the Final Four in Billy Penn’s quest to name the Ultimate Philly Athlete, via your vote. Our last candidates: Bobby Clarke, Wilt Chamberlain, Mike Schmidt and Julius Erving.
Before the Stanley Cups, the 100-point seasons and those iconic toothless grins, there was a kid with a lot of skill who carried a lot of risk.
These days, Bobby Clarke is remembered as the tough, talented leader of the Broad Street Bullies, the captain who brought Philadelphia its first and only NHL championships.
But back in the ’60s, he was a prospect whom organizations didn’t want to take a gamble on. Many feared he would never be able to play professionally, even though he was among the best amateur players of his generation.
Clarke, so many forget, has Type 1 diabetes.
Teams didn’t want him. Despite his track record of success in junior hockey, Clarke slipped to the second round of the 1969 draft. He was eventually chosen behind player after player who went on to have unremarkable careers – and the Flyers only picked him up, the story goes, after getting signed assurances from doctors that he’d be healthy enough to play in the NHL. The player the Flyers selected with their first pick, Bob Currier, never made it into a single NHL game.
And play Clarke did. Again and again throughout his career and after, he told reporters he never really thought much about the daily injections he had to take or the possible risks to his health he undertook simply by suiting up. He just wanted to play hockey. That’s it.
Clarke spent his entire playing career in a Flyers uniform. He amassed an extremely impressive 1,210 points in 1,144 games, 11th-most in history at the time of his retirement. He was a three-time league MVP and an eight-time NHL All-Star. He’s in the Hockey Hall of Fame, the Flyers’ Hall of Fame and his No. 16 is retired by the organization.
He still owns eight Flyers team records, 32 years after his retirement. To this day, no Flyer has appeared in more regular-season games for the team, no Flyer has registered more points and no Flyer has played in as many playoff games as Bobby Clarke.
And of course, no other Flyer has worn the “C” on his jersey while hoisting hockey’s most valuable prize above his head.
That he accomplished all of that with a serious health condition makes everything he’s done that much more impressive and, to his teammates and fans, inspirational.
To put it in perspective, only a handful of other professional athletes throughout history have had diabetes. Very few have gone on to have successful careers. Not a single hockey player with the disease has achieved even a fraction of what Clarke did in his 15 NHL seasons.
In 1971-72, he was awarded the Bill Masterton Trophy, which is given to the player who best exemplifies perseverance and dedication to hockey, most often in the face of adversity. The league had taken notice almost right away of what his success meant to the sport.
The Flyers were contenders every year in which Clarke suited up for them. His leadership on the ice was unparalleled, so much so that he was a player and an assistant coach during the final three years of his tenure with the Flyers. That experience set him up for the second chapter of his hockey career in Philadelphia: The team’s front office.
Indeed, Clarke’s Flyers career – and huge impact on the organization – did not end when he hung up his skates in 1983. Clarke became general manager the very next year, a post he held twice (1984-90; 1994-2006), totaling 19 seasons, more than any other GM in team history.
Clarke built three of the six Flyers teams that made it to the Stanley Cup Final. He never won a Cup as GM and certainly incurred criticism for a handful of the moves he made while at the helm of the team … but then, what GM in Philadelphia history hasn’t? And what GM in the history of our city is still admired and celebrated in the way Clarke continues to be?
Forty-five years after the organization took a chance on him, Clarke remains on the Flyers’ payroll as senior vice president. He is still a regular at Flyers games and team events. He lives at the Jersey Shore like a number of his Broad Street Bullies teammates. He’s a legend to Flyers fans that were around in the 70s, and even to those who were not. Bobby Clarke is Flyers hockey.
And yeah, he’s had the requisite post-career dental work done. But even today, that grin is still just as contagious.
Sarah Baicker covers the Flyers for CSNPhilly.com. Photo of Bobby Clarke from the Philadelphia Bulletin via the Temple University Archives.