Flyers Heroes of the Past: Bernie Parent (Part 1)
Friday, 02.16.2007 / 12:00 AM / News
The entire history of the Philadelphia Flyers would have been different without Bernie Parent. It is extremely unlikely that they would have won either of their two Stanley Cups without him. Parent was not only the greatest goaltender in franchise history; he was one of the best to ever grace a National Hockey League crease.
Beloved by fans and teammates alike, Parent's gentle spirit and good humor off the ice were only surpassed by his incandescent brilliance between the pipes. Parent gave the Broad Street Bullies the confidence to become the marauders of the NHL, knowing that the goalie would get them through whatever shorthanded situations their antics created.
Bernie Parent could steal a game against a more talented team and he could slam the door with the slimmest of leads. Parent was not only a crucial figure during his two stints as a player on the club, he was also an excellent goaltending coach in the 1980s.
Off the ice, Parent has been a valuable goodwill ambassador for the organization. He has always had a gift for making others smile, even in times of great personal pain. Bernie's career story is as human and compelling as the man himself.
Bernard Marcel Parent was born on April 3, 1945, at his family's home at 1443 Cutureau Street in the Rosemont Section of east Montreal. He was the seventh and youngest child of 42-year old Claude and 37-year old Emilie Parent. The other children were named Yvan, Raymonde, Marie-Claude, Therese, Jacques, and Louise.
Shortly before Bernie was born, his mother was very ill with pneumonia. For the first few months of his life, Bernie's sister, Raymonde, and cousin, Denise, took care of him until Emilie regained her strength. Claude, a machine operator for Canada Cement Company, did not make a lot of money but the children were well-provided for and the family unit was close-knit.
Bernie was a happy, if mischievous child. As a toddler, his mother took him to visit one of his older sisters, who had been enrolled in a boarding school program run by nuns. As they entered the school, one of the nuns came out to greet Mrs. Parent. When the nun bent down to speak to the boy, he assumed she wanted a hug and kiss, like the adults at home did. So he reached up, threw his arms around her, and kissed her. The nun was initially startled and Emilie Parent was mortified. However, the humor of the situation soon became apparent and Mrs. Parent was relieved when the nun began to laugh.
Later, Bernie became intrigued by a traffic policeman he had seen and took to playing in the middle of the street, holding up his hand to stop oncoming vehicles. Drivers would stop, get out, pick up the boy and place him on the sidewalk, and then get back in their car. A strong admonishment followed from his parents but it took a while for Bernie to lose interest in his "policeman" game.
Most of the Parent children were good students. Claude and Emilie stressed education and kept after their children to buckle down with their studies. Most of the children went on to college. Bernie's sister, Marie-Claude, in fact, was the teacher of Bernie's third grade class. Bernie's brother Yvon became a clinical psychologist (in later years, when reporters would ask Bernie if he ever consulted with his brother the shrink, Bernie would smile and reply, "Yes. He calls me for advice several times a week!").
Unlike his brothers and sisters, Bernie did not enjoy school at all. He enjoyed sports. Hockey became his first passion, followed by baseball.
Yvan and Jacques Parent were the ones who got Bernie started in hockey. From an early age, he played street hockey, wearing boots and using a tennis ball for a puck. At the age of seven, his parents gave him his first pair of ice skates for Christmas. Yvan and Jacques would work with their younger brother in the backyard. Initially, he wanted to be a forward.
Because Bernie had good balance but was a poor skater, Yvan suggested he try goaltending. Bernie was excited about the idea at first because his hockey idol was legendary goaltender Jacques Plante. He soon changed his mind about goaltending, though, because he hated wearing the goalie equipment. He felt clumsy and had a hard time moving around in it. Yvan told him he would do fine.
Yvan Parent coached a local bantam team. Bernie was recruited to play goal, using borrowed equipment (it was not until he was twelve that he finally got goalie gear of his own). Although it took a while for Bernie to fully embrace the idea of being a goalie, he eventually came to excel at the position. Often playing on outdoor rinks at sub-zero temperatures, all young goalies back then learned to play a standup style.
Said Bernie many years later, "There was no other alternative. We were too frozen to move!"
Bernie always had a love-hate relationship coping with the pressure that falls upon the goalie. He was known to fret and complain about the strain of being a goaltender, especially against strong opponents. Once the game started, though, Parent would go out and play as though he were impervious to any sort of stress.
Parent's mother and father were supportive of their son's interest in hockey, although they would have preferred he paid more attention to school. Emilie attended almost all of her son's midget and junior league games. Claude was not able to attend very often but he would make it up to his son by taking him on hunting and fishing trips near Mt. Laurier in northern Quebec. Bernie acquired his love of the outdoors from his father, a passion that has continued throughout his life and became one of his prime means of relaxation away from the game.
As he hit his teens, Parent emerged as a goaltending star. He moved up from St. Victor's to Rosemont, earning rave notices, while developing under the patient tutelage of Roger Picard, Herve Lalonde, and Jacques St. Jean. Parent has always given his early coaches a large share of the credit for his later success as a pro.
Bernie also continued to idolize Montreal Canadiens goalie Jacques Plante. For a time, Plante's sister, Therese, lived next door to the Parents (who had moved when Bernie was ten to 1885 Bruxelles Street, a short distance from the house where he had spent his early childhood). Bernie became obsessed with meeting his idol.
However, he didn't have the nerve to approach Plante directly. Whenever word spread in the neighborhood that Plante would be coming to visit his sister, Bernie and his friends would run across the street and hide behind the bushes, waiting until they could catch a glimpse of him stepping out of his car and going inside. Little did Parent suspect at the time that his fantasies of being tutored by Plante would someday come true.
Bernie the Bruin
Parent continued to excel for Rosemont and he was widely sought after by many prominent junior clubs. A major turning point in Parent's young life occurred after he was recruited by the Niagara Falls Flyers, a well-known junior program in Ontario.
For one, the move to Niagara Falls ended Bernie's school career, much to the dismay of his parents. Secondly, it was his first widespread exposure to the English language. Bernie struggled with the language for several years.
Although he'd respond with his typical good nature when his English grammar and pronunciation became the butt of jokes and imitation, he later admitted that he would privately become very frustrated when he had difficulty communicating his thoughts (especially years later when he met an English-speaking woman named Carol, whom he later married).
From an on-ice standpoint, the move to Niagara Falls provided the big game exposure that Parent needed to be recognized as a legitimate prospect for pro hockey. Finally, it removed Parent from the domain of the Montreal Canadiens.
In the pre-entry draft era of the National Hockey League, NHL clubs had the right to lay territorial claims to junior teams. The Canadiens had a virtual monopoly in the province of Quebec, thus assuring that most of the best francophone talent was funneled to the Habs.
Bernie, who dreamt as a child of playing for the Canadiens, certainly had no aversion to playing for Montreal. But the chance for accelerated development in Niagara Falls was more important at the time. After an understandably bumpy start, Parent settled in and became one of the top junior goalies in Canada. In his final junior season, he led Niagara Falls to the Memorial Cup. In the spring of 1965, Parent was signed by the Boston Bruins.
The Bruins were in a transitional phase when Parent joined the organization. There was a lot of promising young talent being brought on board at the time. A few years down the road, Boston would become a powerhouse. But at the time Parent was signed, the Bruins were still the weak sister of the six-team NHL. They had finished last in each of the previous five seasons. Parent was hurried into the Bruins net, immediately laying claim to the starting goalie job.
Parent struggled with his nerves and his confidence, although he gave a reasonable account of himself as a rookie. He ended splitting the games in half with veteran Eddie Johnston. Parent performed marginally better than Johnston. The Bruins finished fifth, with a still anemic 21-43-6 record. The Bruins continued ineptitude cost second year coach Milt Schmidt his job. Harry Sinden then stepped behind the bench.
Despite a communication barrier, Schmidt had taken a shine to Parent. Sinden did not. Sinden soon came to prefer another promising goalie in the system; a future Hall of Famer named Gerry Cheevers. Sinden thought that Parent enjoyed life in the NHL too much and was not nearly focused enough on playing goal.
Parent admitted years later than Sinden may have had some justification to feel as he did, although it was also true that Bernie's inexperience and lack of confidence were being exploited by the other NHL teams.
Parent played much of his sophomore season out of shape. He loved a good meal, he loved his beer and he had even begun to develop a taste for cigars. None of that played well with Sinden, especially when Parent's play in net did not grow in equal proportion to his waistline.
Johnston got the bulk of the playing time in 1966-67, Cheevers became the second goalie and Parent only got into 18 games, winning just 3 times and hearing boos from the Boston Garden crowd. Eventually, Parent was farmed out to Oklahoma City. Meanwhile, the Bruins were still awful, no matter who was in goal. They settled right back in their customary last place home.
An Original Flyer
The National Hockey League changed permanently in 1967-68. The league doubled in size, accepting bids for 6 new franchises. The original six clubs were placed together in the "Eastern" Division and the expansion clubs were called the "Western" Division, although geography had nothing to do with the placement of the teams.
In the expansion draft, Bud Poile, the general manager of the new Philadelphia Flyers, chose a pair of unprotected Bruins goalies as his first two selections. One was Parent, who was left exposed in favor of Cheevers. The other was minor league goaltender Doug Favell, who had been unable to crack the Bruins roster.
Parent and Favell proved to be the expansion team's best players. The best of friends away from the game, the two goaltenders could not have been more dissimilar on the ice. Parent played the classic standup style, always in control of his body. Favell was a guesser. He would flop, roll, and dive to make his stops.
During the Flyers inaugural season, both players enjoyed success. Coach Keith Allen, knowing that his goalies were his best asset and that his team sorely lacked both scoring punch and speed, crafted a disciplined, if dull, defense-first system for his hockey team. The Flyers pulled off numerous stunning upsets in their inaugural campaign. In fact, they beat each of the original six teams at least once.
Perhaps the two greatest thrills for Parent were going into the Montreal Forum and the Boston Gardens and downing the Canadiens and the Bruins. In Montreal, the local boy earned an ovation at game's end. The Flyers finished one game below .500 in their first season, good enough for first place in the weak Western Division. In the playoffs, the Flyers lost to the St. Louis Blues, who became Philly's most hated rival during the early years of their existence.
Blues coach Scotty Bowman, however, was very much impressed by Parent. "Parent is the best young goaltender in the league," said Bowman in 1968. "When [St. Louis goalie] Glenn Hall and Jacques Plante retire, he''ll be the best in the game."
Parent showed himself to be the superior goalie to Favell, who had a tendency to allow soft goals at the worst possible times. In 1968-69, Bernie was the Flyers undisputed number one goalie. But his journey to being the best in the NHL took some additional time.
Part of Parent's problem was that he sometimes still got down on himself after making a mistake. The second, more pressing problem, was that the cast around him still was not very good offensively. After their successful first season, the Flyers struggled until the 1972-73 campaign. The Flyers posted losing seasons in every season from 1968-69 to 1971-72 and missed the playoffs several times. The club chronically lacked scoring and until around 1970, also was lacking in team toughness.
Parent usually helped keep the games close, but wins were scarce. However, Bernie did manage to steal numerous low-scoring ties each season (the Flyers, in fact, set an NHL record for ties with 24 in 1969-70).
Despite the strain of playing for a losing team, Parent loved playing in Philadelphia. The feeling was mutual. Parent and Favell were the team's two most popular players with the fans. Bernie was also very well-liked by his teammates and both Keith Allen and Ed Snider viewed him as almost a second son.
Bernie never had a cross word to say to anyone and he could take, or deliver, a joke with the best of them. Bernie's use of English was a never ending source of locker room and bus trip humor. Parent had a tendency to speak too fast when he'd get excited, and the words that tumbled out often produced laughter. In his early years speaking English, the teasing stung and Parent kept quiet, but as he grew more comfortable, he let his warm personality shine through.
Whether it was celebrating a rare Flyers win or relaying a deliberately exaggerated story about the latest fish he caught, Bernie would have even his fellow francophones in stitches.
"Don't ask me. He make no sense in French, either!" was affable teammate Andre Lacroix's standard replay when someone would ask him what Bernie had just said.
Midway through the 1970-71 season, Parent received a jolt of bad news that left him devastated. The Flyers, in desperate need of scoring, decided that it was necessary to shop their two goalies on the trade market. There was must greater interest in Parent than Favell.
On January 31, 1971, a three-way deal was worked out with the Flyers, Maple Leafs, and Bruins. Parent went to Toronto. In return, the Flyers received journeyman goalie Bruce Gamble, a pair of first round picks in 1971, and, most importantly, a Bruins scoring prospect by the name of Rick MacLeish. They also received two first round picks in the 1971 draft.
Parent took the news very hard. He started to sob and shake uncontrollably. Trying to console Bernie, Ed Snider broke out crying as well. Snider embraced Parent and walked him to his car. Still crying, Parent looked back over his shoulder as he drove away.
The trade initially received a less-than-enthusiast response from the Flyers fans. "We want Bernie" and "Allen is a traitor" signs appeared around the Spectrum for the next several games. Soon, however, life went on for the Flyers fans. The emotional wounds were slower to heal for Parent.
Plante-ing the Seeds of Greatness
Parent soon realized that there was a bright side to the trade. Going to Toronto afforded him the chance to finally play alongside his idol, Plante, who, at 41, was at the end of his storied career. Plante was not always the easiest of people to get along with. His personality was diametrically opposite to Bernie's.
Suspicious, egotistical, and sullen, Plante had long been a loner in the hockey world. But he took a strong liking to Parent. Perhaps it was the fact that Bernie played such a similar style in net. Perhaps it was the realization that despite the fact he was one of the better goalies in the NHL, Parent's true potential was still untapped. Or perhaps Plante remembered Bernie as his sister's next door neighbors' kid, shyly hiding in the bushes when Plante would come to visit.
Whatever the reason, Plante took Parent under his wing. Under Plante's tutelage, Bernie steadily transformed from a very good goalie into a great one. Plante helped Parent make subtle adjustments to his game and to overhaul his mental approach to the game. Parent became a more focused, more confident, goalie.
After Bernie played a very strong season in 1971-72, the Philadelphia Blazers, of the fledgling World Hockey Association, lured him away from Toronto with a five year, $750,000 contract offer. It was more than double what the Leafs were offering.
Moreover, it gave Bernie a chance to come back to Philadelphia. Bernie, still hurt by the trade from the Flyers, took a public swipe at the organization upon signing with the Blazers.
He told the Philadelphia Bulletin, "To have a championship team, you need an organization with class, and that's where the Flyers are definitely lacking."
Bernie soon discovered that he had made a mistake by signing with the Blazers. The team's one and only season of existence in Philadelphia was a comedy of errors.
Their opening night game had to be canceled minutes before the opening faceoff because the ice surface had cracked and was unsuitable for play. Another time, the team's loose cannon feature player, ex-Bruin Derek Sanderson, went on the radio and encouraged the fans to come out "even though the parking ain't so good."
At first seen as a threat to the established Flyers, the Blazers soon emerged the loser in their battle for the hearts of Philadelphia hockey fans. They played before mostly empty houses and the team was losing money rapidly.
Eventually, the players paychecks started to come late – or not at all. Parent's agent, Howard Casper, advised his client to refuse to play until the matter was resolved.
In the meantime, Toronto's crusty owner Harold Ballard informed Parent that the Leafs would be happy to have him back–at less money than they had initially offered. Casper insisted that his client would never return to Toronto.
Parent finished out the 1972-73 campaign with the Blazers, but refused to play in the playoffs. The Blazers were sold and moved at season's end. Insisting that Parent was now a free agent, Casper once again rebuffed the Maple Leafs. Eventually, the Leafs asked Parent if he would honor a trade. He agreed.
For Part 2 of Flyers Heroes of the Past: Bernie Parent, click here.