Shero's wisdom, innovation made Flyers into winners
Fred Shero is best remembered for nine words he scrawled on a blackboard in a locker room of the Spectrum in Philadelphia on a May day in 1974.
"Win together today and we will walk together forever," was the message, and his Philadelphia Flyers went out that day and beat the Boston Bruins 1-0 in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final to become the first expansion team to claim hockey's greatest prize.
Those players did more than win a championship that day; they formed a bond that still holds strong nearly 40 years later. It was a lesson few recognized at the time, but now all realize was prescient.
"All of what Freddie did we recognized later," Bob Clarke, the captain of that Flyers team, told NHL.com.
Now, more than 30 years after he coached his last game and more than 20 years after his death, Shero is being recognized for his abilities behind the bench with a place in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Shero will be inducted Nov. 11 along with Chris Chelios, Scott Niedermayer, Brendan Shanahan and Geraldine Heaney.
|WATCH: Bernie Parent talks about the impact of head coach Fred Shero|
After a 13-year playing career spent mostly in the minor leagues -- he played parts of three seasons with the New York Rangers between 1947 and 1950 -- Shero started coaching with the Moose Jaw Canucks of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League in 1958. From there he bounced around the minor leagues, winning an International Hockey League title with the St. Paul Saints in 1959-60, a Calder Cup title with the Buffalo Bisons of the American Hockey League, a Rangers farm team, in 1969-70, and a Central Hockey League title with the Omaha Knights, another Rangers affiliate, in 1970-71.
That impressed Keith Allen, general manager of the Flyers, who was looking for a coach after firing Vic Stasiuk in 1971.
"I didn't know Freddie well, but I had followed his career and he had won everywhere," Allen said in the Flyers history book "Full Spectrum." "The only thing that made me wonder was why [Rangers general manager] Emile Francis had given other guys a chance [to coach the Rangers] and never given one to Freddie. But his record was so good and I'd never heard anyone say a bad word about him."
Shero brought with him to Philadelphia a different view of the game. He was one of the first coaches to embrace the emerging Soviet style of hockey, where teams attacked as five-man units. He also was the first to have an assistant coach, hiring Mike Nykoluk in 1972. He also was the first to use morning skates and the first to embrace video study.
"Freddie was the first coach to use team systems," Clarke said. "Everybody played the same way on the ice. Every player was taught the same way, even though different players had different roles. And that was way ahead of hockey's time. Nobody else ever did that. … He was by far the most progressive coach ever."
Shero was the master of getting the most out of his players, and in Philadelphia he had a tough, talented team and let those players do their thing. That meant high-end offensive play from Clarke, Bill Barber and Rick MacLeish, stone-wall goaltending from Bernie Parent, and blunt-force physicality from Dave Schultz, Andre "Moose" Dupont, Bob Kelly and Don Saleski. Shero's Flyers became the "Broad Street Bullies," beloved in Philadelphia and the scourge of the League everywhere else.
BOOK OF QUOTESWhen Terry Crisp retired from the NHL as a player in 1977, he immediately was hired by Fred Shero to serve as a Flyers assistant coach.
Crisp had seen all of Shero's different ways of motivating players during five seasons of playing for him, especially the famed notes he would leave for players. Some would be written on the locker room chalkboard, while others would be stuck in a player's glove or taped to his locker stall.
Now that he was on Shero's staff, Crisp said he was ready to see where Shero got all those interesting quotes from. There had to be some giant book of famous quotations Shero had at the ready in his desk, right?
"The first time we were together I said I want to see the book," Crisp, now a broadcaster for the Nashville Predators, told NHL.com. "He said what book. I said the quote book. He looks at me and says do you drink tea? I said yeah, sometimes. He says what kind of tea do you drink? He said Red Rose tea, those little tea bags, the string and that little cardboard tag on the end of it, they have them on there.
"I don't know if he made it up or he told me the truth, but they just came from a tea bag. That was Freddie."
Crisp went on to coach in the Ontario Hockey League and the American Hockey League before returning to the NHL as coach of the Calgary Flames in 1987. Two years later he had the Flames in the 1989 Stanley Cup Final against the Montreal Canadiens, and the night before Game 1, sitting in his office, he decided to get his former boss on the phone.
"Freddie answers the phone and I said hi Freddie, it's Crispy. I said we open the Final tomorrow in Montreal. I said, what do you think? He said that's good. He paused and said the coach who works the hardest is going to win the Cup. I hang up and I'm disappointed. But then I got to thinking. Freddie … he just told me, what are you congratulating yourself for? He said your job isn't over. Go back to the drawing board and get it done. He left it to me to figure it out."
Crisp's Flames went on to beat the Canadiens in six games, in the process making him the third man in the post-1967 expansion era to win the Cup as both a player and a coach.
They also became one of the most successful teams of their era.
"Those were the players that he had,” Shero's son, Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Ray Shero, told NHL.com. "It's not like he had a bunch of fighting teams in the minors. My father … he said I had guys that liked to fight so I let them fight. If he had the Montreal Canadiens it would have been different."
The Flyers missed the playoffs in Shero's first season, but in 1973 they beat the Minnesota North Stars in six games in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the franchise’s first-ever postseason series victory.
The following season saw skill (four 30-goal scorers and Parent's Vezina Trophy performance in goal) and strength (Schultz’s League-record 472 penalty minutes) emerge in equal parts to push the Flyers to second in the League with 50 wins and 112 points. They eliminated the Rangers to become the first expansion team to beat an Original Six franchise in a playoff series, and then defeated the Boston Bruins in six games in the Final.
It was that series that established Shero as a brilliant tactician, as his plan to give Bobby Orr the puck at all times allowed the Flyers to use the Bruins' brilliant defenseman as target practice for their forecheckers.
"When he first said it, we said do you know who Bobby Orr is? We said it was like giving a kid a stick of dynamite and telling him to go play in the street," Terry Crisp, who spent five seasons playing for Shero with the Flyers and went on to become his assistant, told NHL.com. "He said if we dump it into Dallas Smith's corner Dallas Smith gets the puck and Bobby Orr skates up the ice, gets a long pass and off he goes. … If you dumped it into Bobby Orr's corner he has to go back and get it and go the length of the ice. Bobby Orr was famous for leading the charge and then being the first back to defend it -- he was that good a skater. After six games that's a lot of mileage. It wore Bobby down, even as good as he was."
In 1974-75 the Flyers won a League-high 51 games and tied the Montreal Canadiens and Buffalo Sabres for most points in the League with 113. They ran through the playoffs and beat the Sabres in six games to win a second straight Stanley Cup.
The 1975-76 season saw the Flyers achieve another first. During the season two Soviet all-star teams played exhibition games against NHL teams. The Soviet clubs won six of the games and tied a seventh, but the eighth and final game saw the famed, feared Central Red Army team visit the Spectrum. On Jan. 11, 1976, the Flyers' physicality was more than the Soviets could handle and the Flyers won 4-1.
How significant was the victory? Shero called the win against the Soviets more meaningful to him than the 1974 Stanley Cup win.
"My dad always felt the Russians were the best," Ray Shero said. "If you can beat the Russians then you'd be the best. Even though you won the Stanley Cup and you're champs of the world, how do you know [you're the best]? You haven't played the Russians, so how do you know you're the best? The Red Army was recognized as the best team, best skill. They were dominating teams. … It was one of those games with the intensity and it was well-documented how they left the ice. It meant a lot."
Shero got the Flyers back to the Cup Final in 1976, but with Parent out with an injury they were swept in four games by the Canadiens. Shero's Flyers joined the Canadiens (1967-69, 1976-79), New York Islanders (1980-84) and Edmonton Oilers (1983-85) as the only franchises in the post-1967 expansion era to make it to the Stanley Cup Final in three straight seasons.
Shero resigned from the Flyers after the 1978 playoffs, capping a seven-season run that saw him go 308-151-95, and 48-35 in the playoffs. He's the winningest coach in Flyers history, and his seven seasons with the team is longer than any other coach the club has employed.
More than wins and losses was the way Shero changed the game, especially in his relationship with his players.
"What really stood out is that I never saw him raise his voice to players," Clarke said. "There were times you knew he was angry at us but never did he ever forget that his job was to coach us. So he never attacked any player personally."
"Freddie was way ahead of his time," Crisp said. "What I learned most was that you don't always have to give them [the players] the answers, you don't have to be the one in control, the one who's the master, the boss. … He let guys find out for themselves and lead guys. He let players like Clarkie and the veterans lead the way, but he was there."
Shero forced the players to think for themselves and solve problems on their own.
"Freddie would give you a scenario and let you figure it out," Crisp said. "One day we're practicing and Freddie says turn your sticks over, put your knobs on the ice. And then he says OK, let's do some drills. We're going through our usual drills with the knobs of the sticks. After 15 minutes Clarkie says to Freddie, this is ridiculous. Freddie looks at him and says yup; took one of you guys 15 minutes to come and tell me. We're doing it because he told us to do it. He'd put scenarios out there and see if you came up with the solution. He didn't have to tell you what it was about. He always had you wondering, what does this mean, what are we doing. He let guys find out for themselves."
When he wasn't testing players on the ice he was making them think off of it. Shero's words prior to Game 6 on that long-ago chalkboard at the Spectrum was just the most famous of his messages.
"When you have bacon and eggs for breakfast, the chicken makes a contribution but the pig makes a commitment."
"Success is not the result of spontaneous combustion. You must first set yourself on fire."
"There are no heroic tales without heroic tails."
Players would find the messages left in a glove or a skate, or taped in a locker stall.
"I remember one he gave me," Crisp said. "I hadn't played five games in a row. One day I come in for practice and inside my stall was a note. The note said, 'They also serve those who sit and wait.' I'm tired of waiting and he knew I was getting upset. So he just gave me a reminder. Your time will come and you'll be ready."
After leaving the Flyers, Shero was hired as coach and GM of the Rangers. In his first season he guided New York to a third-place finish in the Patrick Division, but a postseason hot streak saw them beat the Flyers in five games in the quarterfinals en route to a trip to the Stanley Cup Final against the Canadiens. The Rangers won Game 1 in Montreal but lost the next four.
That first season would be as good as it got for Shero in New York. They lost to the Flyers in the second round of the 1980 playoffs, and with the team 4-13-3 after 20 games in the 1980-81 season, he was fired.
In 10 seasons as a coach Shero went 390-225-119, and his teams went to the postseason eight times in nine full seasons. He won a pair of Stanley Cup championships in four trips to the Final, and in the post-1967 expansion era he's one of 10 coaches to lead two different organizations to the Stanley Cup Final. He also won the first Jack Adams Award as the League's best coach in 1974.
He's 32nd on the all-time regular-season wins list, but 22nd in points percentage at .612. His 63 playoff wins are 13th all-time.
Shero was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 1983, but beat it and went on to work on New Jersey Devils radio broadcasts and coach a team in the Netherlands in the 1987-88 season.
He returned to the Flyers in 1990 when he was inducted into the team's Hall of Fame. During a speech on the ice at the Spectrum he said, "I knew the day I left here that I had made a mistake." Not long after he was hired by the team as a senior advisor.
"It was something we'd never forget in terms of getting that phone call," Ray Shero said of his father's return to the Flyers. "They wanted him to come back. It was the right time. … I think he always looked at himself, and everyone always looked at him, as the coach of the Flyers, as the Flyers do."
The cancer returned later that year and Shero died Nov. 24, 1990.
Shero has been eligible for the Hall of Fame for decades, and while six other members of those championship Flyers teams already are Hall of Fame members -- Clarke, Barber, Parent, Allen, owner Ed Snider and broadcaster Gene Hart -- Shero had been left out. Until now.
Whatever the reason for his exclusion, however, there's no room for bitterness; just joy at Shero receiving this long-overdue honor.
"I think it's going to be a pretty special, emotional experience," Ray Shero said. "But I think it's more about my dad's relationships with his players … his being inducted validates some of his teams, because it was about the players and this is about people that gave him the opportunity, Ed Snider and Keith Allen, after 13 years in the minors. They were the only people to take a chance on him to coach in the National Hockey League."
Shero won with them, and now as fellow Hall of Famers they'll all walk together forever.
Follow Adam Kimelman on Twitter: @NHLAdamK