It took the Hockey Hall of Fame Committee 33 years after Fred Shero coached his last NHL game in 1980 to elect someone who won two Stanley Cups, reached two more finals and three more semifinals in nine-plus seasons.
If that seems like far too long, it is appropriate to the Shero story. While he watched him win four championships in 13 years coaching in the Rangers’ minor league system, Flyers GM Keith Allen couldn’t figure out why Shero hadn’t received an opportunity in the NHL.
“It made me wonder why Emile Francis had given other guys a chance and never given one to Freddie,” recalled Allen in Full Spectrum, The Complete History of the Philadelphia Flyers. “But his record was so good and I’d never heard anyone say a bad word about him.”
So on June 1, 1971 Allen hired Shero to coach a four-year-old expansion team coming off a 28-33-7 season and a four-game sweep at the hands of the mighty Chicago Blackhawks. After Ed Snider’s decision to make Allen the GM 18 months earlier and the Flyers good judgment-- at first-year scout Jerry Melnyk’s desperate urging -- to draft a diabetic center named Bobby Clarke in the second round in 1969, Shero’s hiring might have been the best call the Flyers ever made.
The next best one may have not to fire him when the Flyers blew a playoff spot in his first season on an unscreened goal from the blue line with four seconds to go in the final game. Bill Barber and Rick MacLeish didn’t arrive until the following year, when the Flyers announced themselves as contenders, but a lot of the workers who backboned their Stanley Cup champions already were in place and because of Shero’s coaching, invariably being found in the right places on the ice, too.
He drilled Philadelphia’s big, strong, essentially plodding, team in straight lines, dumping the puck and not taking unnecessary chances. Although the coach sometimes used props like tennis balls and folding chairs at practices and almost always left time at the end of workouts for fun, Shero adhered to the fundamental philosophy of repetition.
He philosophized about life, discussed the game in theoretical terms and rattled on endlessly about his respect for Anatoli Tarasov, the Russian coaching master, even employing some of his training methods. Yet Shero succeeded with a pragmatic system that was the virtual antithesis of that used by the Soviets.
He was the first NHL coach to talk a management into employing a full-time assistant—Mike Nykoluk – popularized the morning skate, plus is believed to be the first coach to put a system into writing and devote obsessive hours studying film. But Shero’s greatest innovations probably were in his dealings with players.
At a time when coaches knew to motivate mostly by fear, he searched libraries for inspirational quotations, dropping them in his players’ lockers. Some of the messages were cryptic and occasionally ignored, but few were resented. Almost to a man, the Flyers liked their coach to a greater degree than they comprehended him. “We understand the fact that everything he does is aimed towards helping us win,” Bobby Clarke said. “But we just don’t understand some of the things he does.”
For example the Flyers sometimes were put through nonsensical drills until somebody, usually Clarke, would challenge their worth. “Now we’re getting somewhere,” Shero would say. “I wanted to see who was thinking.”
Non-confrontational by nature, Shero never argued against any player move Allen wanted to make. The coach’s sporadic public jabs at the Flyers’ front office often were calculated to convince team members that the coach was on their side.
“I found out a long time ago that players are the only thing that wins for you,” Shero said. “Maybe that’s why it took me so long to make the majors. I catered to no one but them.”
Essentially shy, Shero sat by himself in coffee shops and bars and often would not acknowledge players when they passed on streets and in hotel corridors. They nicknamed him “The Fog” because he would materialize in rooms or hallways and then just as quickly disappear. The first exhibition game he coached the Flyers, Shero went out for a post-game smoke and locked himself out of the Flint, Michigan arena.
“Sometimes I don’t think he knows Wednesday from Thursday,” said Scotty Bowman. “And sometimes I think he’s a genius who has got us all fooled.”
Shero learned to embellish the Fog persona because it gave him an excuse to avoid confrontations, questions and people. Yet, an essential part of the loner’s coaching philosophy was to bond his team together.
Shero would gather the Flyers in his hotel room at mid-evening for beers. The real purpose of these meetings was to disrupt the players’ barhopping and keep consumption at modest levels but the sessions were far less resented than any strict curfews.
The Flyers felt Shero treated them like adults. He never embarrassed them before their peers and would sometimes go to ridiculous lengths to publicly defend them. Once when defenseman Tom Bladon, under heavy Blackhawk forechecking, backed up, stumbled and put the puck into his own goal, the coach insisted the defenseman had been wise not to risk a pass.
Shero told his players and the media grossly embellished stories about events from his minor-league past, but kept the Flyers looking forward by assigning a monthly quota of points.
Inevitably, the team that would follow him anywhere aged. Whether Shero believed it or not, he blamed his inability to motivate players any longer for a second semifinal wipeout by the Bruins in two years, resigning from Flyers with an expressed intention of never coaching again. Within a week, he signed on as coach-GM of the Rangers.
The genuine sense of betrayal the Flyers’ players expressed, a reflection of their love for the only NHL coach most of them had ever had, was exacerbated the following spring when the Rangers took out Shero’s old team in five games on the way to the Stanley Cup finals. His system clearly traveled well. One year later, the Flyers had their revenge in five games and 20 games into the following season, Shero was fired, never to coach in the NHL again.
After four years in the Devils broadcast booth and a year coaching in Holland, in 1989, Shero wrote a letter to Allen asking to come back. Old emotional wounds were healed by then, just not Freddie’s stomach cancer. He was hired back as a consultant to help with his medical bills.
“Once a Flyer, always a Flyer,” Shero said when inducted into the Flyers Hall of Fame in 1990. And though he had said the same thing about his return to the Rangers in 1978, few chose to be cynical about Shero coming back where he belonged, never mind he had spent 29 years playing and coaching in the New York system. The seven best seasons the Flyers ever had, were credited largely to Freddie when he died on November 24, 1990, eight months after his Flyers Hall induction.
“He was a saint,” said Clarke, the day of Shero’s passing. “He understood the players and the game better than anyone.”
The signature quotation of the many Shero popularized was, of course the one he wrote on the dressing room blackboard with the Flyers two wins away from their first Stanley Cup: “Win and We Will Walk Together Forever.”
They did, many of them carrying their coach’s casket out of the Church of St. Mary’s in Cherry Hill, N.J. after Clarke had spoken in his eulogy of the “complex and simple man” who had taken them to nirvana.
“Forever didn’t stop on Saturday,” said Shero’s captain. “Freddie left a piece of himself with everyone of us.”
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