Flyers Heroes of the Past: Gary Dornhoefer
Thursday, 11.9.2006 / 12:00 AM ET / News
An original Philadelphia Flyer in every sense of the term, Gary Dornhoefer embodied the work ethic, competitive drive and personal integrity the team has valued from the time of its foundation in 1967.
"Dorny" held nothing back on the ice, playing a gritty, fearless style that set a winning tone for the hockey team, both at home and on the road. Off the ice, he has always been a man of dignity, humor and compassion. He has endured tremendous pain in his life – both physical and emotional – and emerged with his spirit intact.
"Gary is somebody to look up to," said Bob Clarke in The Greatest Players and Moments of the Philadelphia Flyers. "He worked hard all the time, rarely drank or swore and was a good family man. He has all the qualities you look for in a person."
Dornhoefer carries with him the hard-earned wisdom of someone who has spent four decades in and around hockey. A true student of the game, he possesses a deep understanding of how the little things – a player's positioning, puck support from a teammate, a second effort to dig free the puck on the boards – add up to wins and losses. As much as his physical play, Dorny's hockey sense helped him overachieve.
A Late Start
Gerhardt Otto DornhÃ¶fer (spelled Dornhoefer in English) was born February 2, 1943, in Kitchener, Ontario. Unlike many future NHL players, who start skating shortly after they learn to walk and play their first organized hockey at age five or six, Gary hardly played hockey as a young boy. Instead, baseball was his passion.
"I really wasn't interested in hockey, but a lot of guys I chummed around with played hockey in the winter. I went out for hockey when I was about 11 or 12 years old in Kitchener," he recalled. "I could barely stand up, so I was the first cut on the team. I would stand up, skate, fall down, stand up, skate, fall down, and so on. The coach didn't waste any time in getting rid of me."
Never one to back down from a challenge, Dornhoefer turned the embarrassment of his first hockey tryout into motivation to improve. Back in those days, teams usually put the worst skater in the net to play goaltender. So young Gary became a goaltender and earned a spot on his first hockey team. He was happy to be playing, but didn't enjoy the position.
"There was no action as a goalie," Dornhoefer said. "I got two shutouts in a row. The first game, our opponents only had two shots against me and the second game they only had one shot. I thought to myself, "Boring! This is not a lot of fun.' And these games were only played in half a rink."
Gary knew that if he wanted to continue in hockey, he would have to improve his skating and puck skills. He worked on his game tirelessly and made the switch to forward. The hard work paid off, and he became a standout winger.
"My dad ended up putting a rink in the backyard. It just goes to show you that if you keep working and grinding away at something, be it sports or anything else, you never know what the future may bring," he said.
Gary was a tall, gangly teenager when he started playing major junior hockey for the Niagara Falls Flyers during the 1961-62 season. In this era, there was no NHL Entry Draft. Instead, National Hockey League clubs sponsored junior programs in Canada and laid claim to the top players on these teams. The Boston Bruins sponsored the teams in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Oshawa, Ontario and Estevan, Saskatchewan.
Although he was frightfully skinny, Dornhoefer loved the physical contact of games. Using his pointy elbows to create space, Dorny made his office down low in the offensive zone, battling on the boards and screening goaltenders. He had his share of fights, losing as many as he won, but never backing down from an opponent.
Offensively, he progressed quickly. Dornhoefer went from eight goals and 39 points his first season to 16 goals and 50 points (in just 38 games) his second year. In the 1963 OHA playoffs and Memorial Cup, he was a driving force, collecting a combined 13 goals, 29 points and 89 penalty minutes in 24 games.
The Bruins were impressed. Even though the 6-foot-2 Dornhoefer carried a mere 148 pounds on his frame, Boston signed him to his first professional contract.
"I should have been a golfer at that time instead of getting slugged by these guys that were 200 pounds. I got bigger. When I was near the end of my career, I was still the same height, but weighed about 210 pounds. I've gained a little more weight since that time, but not as much as Bob Kelly," joked Dornhoefer.
Working an off-season job in the produce department of a Kitchener supermarket, he started dating a co-worker named Cheryl. The couple later married and had two children, Stephanie and Stephen.
Carving a Niche
The Bruins of the early 1960s were the weakest of the six teams in the pre-expansion National Hockey League. They finished last on nearly an annual basis. Even so, the club was stockpiling young talent during these years and would later go on to be an NHL powerhouse.
Dornhoefer split the 1963-64 season between Boston and the club's minor league affiliate in Minneapolis. He had a promising rookie season, scoring a very respectable 12 goals and 22 points in 32 games with the big club after posting 21 goals and 50 points in 39 games for Minneapolis.
"My linemates when I scored my first goal were John Bucyk and Murray Oliver. It was in Toronto and I had just missed an easy shot in the first 10 seconds of the game. But a few seconds later, I scored. Guess what? We won 11-0," recalled Dornhoefer.
Unfortunately, Dorny's first year in Boston was his best. A fractured cheekbone set him back the next season and he quickly fell out of general manager Hap Emms' plans. Dornhoefer played in only 20 games for Boston in 1964-65, registering just one point (an assist). He was dispatched to the San Francisco Seals, where he continued to scuffle for points, but eventually recovered to score 10 goals and 35 points in 37 games.
Over the next two seasons, Dornhoefer became a fringe player for the Bruins, spending most of his time in the American Hockey League with the Hershey Bears. Dornhoefer played in just 10 games for Boston in 1965-66 (failing to score and posting one assist in limited ice time) and did not earn a single recall the next season.
"It was frustrating, but I was just a plumber. I don't think I was the first guy on [the Bruins'] mind," said Dornhoefer to Jack Chevalier of the Philadelphia Bulletin.
The Bruins left Dornhoefer exposed to the NHL Expansion Draft in 1967. The Flyers selected him 44th overall. Unlike fellow Boston selection Joe Watson and now-former Chicago Blackhawk Ed Van Impe – both of whom were initially dismayed to go to an expansion team – Dornhoefer immediately recognized the move as an opportunity.
"Every player's goal is to play in the National Hockey League," said Dornhoefer. "For me, it was a chance for a clean slate."
Dornhoefer understood there were no guarantees of a starting spot in Flyers' coach Keith Allen's lineup. He'd have to earn it. Dornhoefer's work ethic and competitiveness quickly made a believer of Allen.
"Right from our first training camp, Gary Dornhoefer was one of our hardest working players. He played the game the right way every night. It all came from the inside; the kind of things you can't teach," said Allen.
In an omen of things to come, Dornhoefer became the first Flyers player to be lost to an injury. In the club's first-ever regular season game, a 5-1 road defeat at the hands of the California Golden Seals, Dorny got hit with a shot on his left instep. He was lucky to suffer only a deep bruise, but missed the next four games.
Upon his return, Dornhoefer scored the lone Philadelphia goal in a 3-1 loss to the Detroit Red Wings. Shortly thereafter, the club got on a roll, becoming the only expansion club to defeat each of the original six teams at least once in their first season.
Even when part of the Spectrum's roof blew off and the Flyers were forced to play their "home" games in rented rinks – including a game at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto – the club stood firm. The Flyers went on to win the Western Division in their first season.
"We didn't score a lot of goals, but we had a solid defense and great goaltending from Bernie Parent and Doug Favell," said Dornhoefer.
Dornhoefer's physical play and willingness to do the dirty work in front of the corners and net paid dividends for the hockey team. His 43 points were good for second on the team, despite missing nine games with injuries, and his four game-winning goals paced the team. He also posted a then career-high 134 penalty minutes.
Unfortunately, in the next-to-last game of the regular season, Dornhoefer got hurt again. He missed the season finale and the first four games of the Flyers' seven-game playoff defeat to the St. Louis Blues.
On April 10, 1968, with the Flyers trailing 1-0, Dornhoefer responded to an elbow by St. Louis' Noel Picard and ended up fighting the notorious Barclay Plager in the resulting melee. The Flyers gained a powerplay and went on to tie the game. Unfortunately, St. Louis prevailed 3-2 in double overtime.
The highlight of Dorny's second season with the Flyers came on November 14, 1968. Not only did he register his first two-goal game in the NHL at the expense of his former team, the Bruins, he also took Bobby Orr off the ice for two fights and a ten-minute misconduct. Like many defenseman, Orr was driven to distraction by Dornhoefer's constant jostling in front of his goaltender. The Flyers won 4-2.
"They try not to let it bother them, but some guys get so occupied trying to move me out of their way, they forget about the game," Dornhoefer said of his effect on opposing goaltenders and defensemen in the book Full Spectrum.
Unfortunately, the game against Boston was just about Dornhoefer's only highlight in 1968-69. A cracked ankle forced him out of the lineup for 11 of 12 games. He also endured the frustration of a horrific 36-game goal-scoring drought after the two-goal performance against Boston. After the season, the Flyers left him unprotected in the waiver draft, but no team selected him.
"My confidence was pretty low. You start squeezing your stick into sawdust and it feels like the puck will never go in for you again. You just have to keep plugging away, and contribute in other ways to the hockey team. Later, when things are going good, you can look back at those [bad] times," said Dornhoefer four years later, when he was in the midst of an All-Star season for the Flyers.
Dornhoefer continued having problems staying healthy. In particular, he had trouble with torn cartilage in his right knee, although he tried to play through the pain. When he was in the lineup, Dornhoefer was one of the Flyers' most effective players.
In 1969-70, he scored 26 goals (leading the team) and 55 points in 65 games and followed that up with 20 goals and 40 points in 57 games the next season. Finally, he succumbed to knee surgery (the first of many knee operations) in January of 1971.
"I'd never miss a game if I went out on the ice and didn't go near anybody. But that's no accomplishment. Hockey is a game of hit-and-be-hit. I'm not going to tippy-toe around just so I can say I played 78 games. You get hit in front of the net, sure, but you get rewarded, too. You take a lot of sticks in the ribs, but it's all worth it when your team scores a goal," said Dornhoefer in the book The Broad Street Bullies.
In 1971-72, under first-year Head Coach Fred Shero, Dornhoefer led the Flyers in penalty minutes with a career-high 183. Although his goal production dropped, Dornhoefer immediately won the coach's trust.
"Give me fifteen Gary Dornhoefers on my team and I don't have a care in the world," Shero once said.
In 1972-73, Dornhoefer faced a new challenge – help motivate his ultra-talented but underachieving linemate Rick MacLeish. Dornhoefer's frequent needling ("We know Ricky's falling asleep when his head tilts too far to one side," he said) kept MacLeish in line. The Flyers developed a potent second line of MacLeish, Dornhoefer and left wing Ross Lonsberry to complement Bobby Clarke's line with Bill Barber and Bill Flett.
MacLeish exploded for 50 goals and 100 points, while Dorny posted a career-high 30 goals and 79 points while dressing in 77 games. Lonsberry had 21 goals and 50 points. Dornhoefer, the recognized sparkplug of the line, earned his first of two trips to the NHL All-Star Game.
In the playoffs, Dornhoefer went on to score one of the most memorable and important goals in Flyers history. On April 10, 1973, the Flyers were locked in a 2-2 overtime battle in Game 5 of the quarterfinals against Minnesota. Dornhoefer rushed down the left slot, eluding Barry Gibbs' pokecheck attempt, pulled the puck from his forehand to his backhand as he cut in front and deposited the puck past goaltender Cesare Maniago just before Tom Reid could upend him. The spectacular goal clinched the series for the Flyers–the first time the team had won a playoff series.
"I don't even know how I scored. I just remember getting the puck at center ice, and fortunately it stayed right with me. You could try that play again a hundred times and it wouldn't work," Dornhoefer told the Philadelphia Bulletin in the victorious locker room.
The goal was later immortalized in a statue outside the Spectrum. Dornhoefer has always played down the significance of having his likeness replicated in bronze.
"I think it was more the significance of the goal in finally winning a playoff series more than any personal honor," he said in Jim Jackson's Walking Together Forever. "Besides, I've always said you know what pigeons do to those statues! You can't get too caught up in that."
Gary Dornhoefer was 30 years old at the start of the 1973-74 season. In what proved to be the start of the most glorious era in team history, Dorny experienced his most bittersweet season.
Once again the injury bug bit him hard and limited him to 57 regular season games due to elbow surgery and a wrist fracture. The gritty winger still managed 50 points. In the playoff quarterfinals, Dornhoefer was the first star in the 4-1 opening game triumph over the Atlanta Flames. In Game 4, a crucial Dornhoefer powerplay goal keyed a three goal rally from a 3-0 deficit before Dave Schultz clinched the game and series in overtime.
In the conference semifinals against the New York Rangers, Dornhoefer drove Hall of Fame goaltender Ed Giacomin to distraction with screens and deflections. Dornhoefer registered seven points in a brutal seven-game war, including three assists in the opener and two goals, including the game winner, in the series finale.
Dornhoefer was on the ice, scrapping away as usual, as the Flyers split the first two Stanley Cup Finals games in the Boston Garden. In Game 3 back at the Spectrum (a 4-1 Flyers victory), Dornhoefer was awkwardly upended by a legal hipcheck from the Bruins' Don Marcotte. He suffered a badly separated shoulder, and was done for the series and the season.
With his arm in a sling and his body pumped full of painkillers, a groggy Gary Dornhoefer watched from the pressbox as the team went on to win the Stanley Cup in Game 6 at the Spectrum. Dornhoefer was elated for his teammates, but it hurt not to be out on the ice.
"You don't really feel like you're part of it if you don't play. The whole win and the celebration afterwards seemed like a blur," he said in Greatest Players and Moments.
The next year, Dornhoefer again missed considerable time due to injuries but was able to suit up throughout the playoffs. In 17 games, he scored five goals and five assists. Perhaps the most meaningful goal came in Game 7 of the semifinals against the New York Islanders.
The Flyers had blown a 3-0 series lead and the Islanders (who had won in the first round after trailing 3-0) came in optimistic of a victory. Dorny quickly squelched the Islanders' confidence, scoring just 19 seconds into the game. The Flyers went on to cruise to a 4-1 victory, outshooting the Islanders 35 to 15 in the process.
In the Finals against the Buffalo Sabres, Dornhoefer's line was often matched up against the Sabres' feared French Connection line of Gilbert Perreault, Rene Robert and Richard Martin. Not only did the trio of MacLeish, Dornhoefer and Lonsberry contain the line for much of the series, they also outscored them in several games. For his part, Dornhoefer tallied a pair of goals in the series. There may not have a happier man in the orange and black than Gary Dornhoefer as the players hoisted the Flyers second Stanley Cup.
"Words can't even describe the joy. I'd been through so much with the hockey team right from the beginning. Winning the Stanley Cup is something no one can ever take away from you. It's the most special thing you can accomplish in your career," he said.
On a fun-loving team full of extroverts and night owls, Dornhoefer had no interest in trying to keep up with his younger teammates. A dedicated family man, he preferred to go home to his wife and kids in West Berlin, New Jersey, after home games, rather than heading to Rexy's (the team's favorite hangout). On the road, he usually ate a modest meal on his own and returned to his hotel room to watch television or read before turning out the lights at 10:30.
Nevertheless, Dornhoefer was usually right in the thick of the team's locker room and airplane banter. He was also by far the club's best golfer, routinely shooting in the 70s, and almost unbeatable in racquetball. Dorny was also in high demand for television advertisements during the Broad Street Bullies' golden years, doing several local spots.
Dornhoefer's astounding litany of injuries continued during the remaining three seasons of his career. Still a productive performer, he notched 28 goals and 63 points in 1975-76 and followed that up with his second NHL All-Star Game selection in 1976-77 on his way to a 25 goal, 59 point season in which he shrugged off chronic back and knee pain to dress in 79 games.
The pain became unbearable the next year, and Dornhoefer was slow to recover from cracked ribs. He had trouble keeping up with play and was only able to suit up in 47 games, scoring seven goals.
Gary Dornhoefer retired at the end of the 1977-78 season, after 725 games played as a Flyer. In his decade as a Flyer, he scored 202 goals, 518 points and accumulated 1,256 penalty minutes. He also had countless stitches, numerous surgical scars and a treasure trove of special memories.
A Second Career
Shortly after his playing career ended, Dornhoefer moved from the ice to the broadcast booth. After a short stint with Philadelphia-based Prism, he accepted an opportunity to be a commentator for Hockey Night in Canada. The Dornhoefer family relocated to Ontario.
Gary worked five years on HNIC telecasts, spending three to four weeks a month during hockey season on the road. It took a heavy toll on his home life, so he quit broadcasting in 1985 and took a job in the insurance industry. By then, however, it was too late to save his marriage. Cheryl asked for a divorce.
"Sometimes people just grow apart, and that's probably what happened with Cheryl and me. Going through the divorce was the most difficult thing that ever happened to me," he told longtime broadcasting partner Jim Jackson in Walking Together Forever.
After an appropriate grieving period for the end of his first marriage, Dornhoefer agreed to be fixed up with Jackie Snow on a blind date. They married in 1995 and now live in Port Republic, New Jersey. Devoted animal lovers, the Dornhoefers own five greyhounds, two mixed-breed rescue dogs, numerous parrots, a couple guinea hens and "several stray cats that have adopted us."
"Our lifestyle now is chasing dogs and saying 'no!'" Dornhoefer joked.
Deeply depressed, Dornhoefer stayed close to his children Stephanie and Stephen and pondered his future. In 1992, Dorny moved back to Philadelphia and back up into the broadcast booth as a Flyers television analyst.
Dornhoefer stayed in the booth until the end of the 2005-2006 season. His greatest asset as an analyst was his ability to communicate how teams win or lose based on how they execute seemingly simple plays with consistency. Dorny was at his best in the between-period telestrator segments, bellowing "Stop it right there!" when he wanted the game tape stopped at certain key junctures.
Dorny still loves golf but after three post-career knee replacement surgeries and back surgery, he needs a day or two to recuperate after playing. He can no longer play racquetball.
In 1999, his daughter Stephanie was diagnosed with cancer. The mother of a two-year-old daughter, she battled gamely for two years. In January, 2002, her cancer entered the terminal stage. Gary took a leave of absence to stay by Stephanie's side during the last two weeks of her life. She died at age 35.
"I learned a lot from her faith. In spending two weeks with her, there were times my emotions got the best of me and tears would start rolling down my cheeks. I didn't want to show that weakness, but I couldn't help it," he said in Walking Together Forever. "I can remember her putting her hand on my shoulder and saying, 'Don't worry, Dad. I'm going to be in heaven and there's nothing for you to worry about.' That had such a calming effect on me. I was able to get through it because of her faith."
The Flyers family – including many fans who never met him in person – reached out to Gary Dornhoefer to help him cope with the pain, just as the organization always has in times of tragedy. Dorny returned to the booth and turned in his usual professional job, although there was a hole in his heart.
As a way of giving back to the community, Dornhoefer quietly volunteers free time at a convalescent center, wheeling patients to and from a morning prayer led by the minister of the Dornhoefers' church. He and Jackie are also actively involved in greyhound rescue and adoption causes. Today, Dornhoefer works as a community hockey ambassador for the Flyers' organization and can often be seen around the Wachovia Center during games.
Any hockey player - amateur or professional - can learn a lesson from Dorny about being a winner. Dornhoefer knows what it's like to be part of a struggling young team trying to establish an identity. He knows what it takes to play on a championship squad. He is familiar with the frustrations of lengthy goal droughts and the adulation of All-Star seasons and crucial playoff goals.
Most of all, he knows the value and virtue of sacrifice, humilty and perseverance. That's a lesson we can all learn from Gary Dornhoefer.