What if ... the Penguins had drafted Bobby Clarke? (NHL Alternate History)

(Ed. Note: It’s the NHL Alternate History project! We’ve asked fans and bloggers from 31 teams to pick one turning point in their franchise’s history and ask ‘what if things had gone differently?’ Trades, hirings, firings, wins, losses, injuries … all of it. How would one different outcome change the course of history for an NHL team? Today it’s Michael Traeger on the Pittsburgh Penguins! Enjoy!) 

By Michael Traeger

There are plenty of reasons to hate the Philadelphia Flyers and their obnoxious, delusional fan base.

The Flyers haven’t raised the Stanley Cup since 1975– which, if you’re counting at home, and my God, you should be!– was five Popes, eight Presidents, eight Star Wars films (nine if you count “The Ewok Adventure,” but to be fair, who does?), nine Doctors, and no less than twenty-seven different Spider-Man reboots (citation needed) ago.

The Flyers’ last championship is such ancient history that “rap music” wasn’t a thing, and most American homes still rocked the rotary phone, but Flyers’ fans continue to act as though they’re perennial hockey royalty.

…which (SPOILER ALERT!) they are not.

Such is Philadelphia’s continued mass delusion with the 1975 Cup-winning team that everything which embodied that championship squad of forty-two years ago– primarily playing a dirty, ugly brand of hockey– continues to define the Flyers’ franchise to this day.

In more recent times, Philadelphia fans genuinely believed that their Flyers’ captains, Mike Richards and Claude Giroux, were better hockey players than Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby.  The Flyers’ faithful continued to think this even after Giroux suffered the worst (BEST!) ironic/metaphorical injury for a hockey player ever: hurting himself while golfing.

To that end, and despite what Sam “#NotAHomer” Carchidi told a national Twitter audience, Claude Giroux, has never held the “NHL’s best player baton.”

In fact, the only baton Claude Giroux has ever tried to grab was an Ottawa police officer’s, leading to Giroux being arrested for “repeatedly” grabbing the officer’s buttocks.

And yet, Philadelphia’s gleeful example of hockey cognitive dissonance toward their favorite team isn’t why the collective NHL fan base hates the Flyers.

We even give Philly a partial pass for touting their unwavering team loyalty, even though the Flyers’ days of constantly selling out home games is but a distant, distant memory and the Orange & Black have seen a jaw-dropping 36% decline in TV viewership.

Everyone hates the Flyers (and their fans) because despite all of the above, Philly loyalists continue to act as though everyone else wants to be THEM and root for THEIR team, and, well, as Archer’s Lana Kane would say, “Nupe” and “Nuuuuuupe!”

This is especially true in Pittsburgh, home of the defending (and maybe you’ve heard, BACK-TO-BACK) Stanley Cup Champion Penguins and the actual best player in the world, Sidney Crosby.

….but what if the Flyers’ and Penguins’ franchise destinies, and thus their personalities, were switched?

What if … the Penguins had drafted THE Flyers Captain, Bobby Clarke?

Before delving into the particulars of this hockey multiverse, let’s rehash just how transcendent a player and personality Bobby Clarke was for both Philadelphia and the game of hockey.

This alternative timeline could have– and in painfully obvious retrospect should have– happened back during the 1969 NHL Amateur Draft, when no fewer than ten teams passed on the definitive talent in Philadelphia Flyers history.

The Flyers themselves skipped on selecting Clarke with pick #6, and the Penguins chose a guy named Kessell (he of two L’s, no Cups) with pick #15; or, just two selections before Philly got wise and claimed the 5-10 176-pound center out of Flin Flon, Manitoba.

Scouts didn’t question Clarke’s ability, size, or heart: his scoring prowess in the Western Hockey League (Juniors) was such that the WHL renamed their damn “Top Scorer” trophy after him.

The league-wide concern with Clarke was that he would prove unable to manage his Type 1 Diabetes, and that his health would hinder his ability to succeed during the NHL’s long and grueling season.

The league’s collective doubt initially seemed justified when Clarke collapsed due to low blood-sugar during his first NHL training camp, but Clarke quickly developed the medical discipline necessary to stay healthy and play.

Clarke would then solidify both his and the Flyers’ legacy a mere two years later when he was selected as part of the historic 1972 “Summit Series” that pitted the purported superior Canadian NHLers against the respected Soviet Union, a squad that had won nine of the previous ten world ice hockey championships (the Canadians had not been participants due to a dispute with the International Ice Hockey Federation).

Despite heavy media speculation that “Team Canada” (the first time the now-ubiquitous moniker had been used) would roll over their Soviet counterparts, the NHL super squad found themselves down in the Best-of-Eight format 1-3-1 after five games, with Games Six, Seven, and Eight scheduled in hostile Moscow territory.

What happened next in Game 6 of the Summit Series changed the tournament’s trajectory, and within our hypothetical “What if…” universe, would have swapped the identity of the Penguins and Flyers, perhaps forever.

The Russians were led by Valeri Kharlamov, a player that arguably possessed as much talent as Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux.  During Game 6, Clarke antagonized the Soviet superstar with repeated facewashes, and during a Kharlamov rush up ice, took a now-infamous slash to Kharlamov’s ankle, reportedly fracturing it.

Team Canada would win Game Six by the final score of 3-2, and the victory, coupled with Kharlamov’s injury, would set the stage for Dave Henderson’s heroics in the waning moments of Game Eight.

The brutal, blatant, and unapologetic nature of Clarke’s attack on Kharlamov became emblematic of Canadian desperation and the “Broad Street Bully” mentality that would come to define the Flyers’ organization during their run of success during the 1970’s, which culminated in Philadelphia winning their only two championships in 1974 and 1975.

Clarke and his Flyers teammates would revisit his Soviet shenanigans in 1976 during a veritable clown car of an hockey exhibition against the Russian Red Army.  Philadelphia eschewed skating and play-making for the opportunity to hunt down and attack the Russian skaters to such an extent that the Red Army players initially refused to return to the ice for the third period.  Such antics endeared Clarke and the Flyers to the city, further emboldening the legacy and lure of the “Bullies.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of Pennsylvania, the city of Pittsburgh was also enjoying its own period of success, albeit through the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers and not the generally moribund Penguins.

The dominance and composition of the 1970’s Steelers– specifically their “Steel Curtain Defense”– generated such a visceral display of talent and toughness that Time featured the Steelers’ defensive line on the cover of its magazine.

Is it much of a stretch to believe that a “Steel Curtain”-crazy Pittsburgh would have WILDLY embraced the antics and play-style of a maniacal Bobby Clarke during that same time period?

Add the talent-rich Clarke to the Penguins’ rosters of 1974 and 1975 (and correspondingly remove #16 from Philadelphia) and it’s not at all impossible to fathom Pittsburgh hoisting the Cup, and Pittsburgh finding the type of fan following and thus financial stability that otherwise plagued the team during the 1980’s and 1990’s.

A Pittsburgh selection of Clarke during the 1969 draft would have left the Flyers in a bad spot given the general lack of talent available that year.  While owner Ed Snider and the Flyers’ forty years of financial stability seem inherently a given now, a new hockey franchise with no success and no generational talent such as Clarke would have created a much different dynamic, and Philadelphia could have easily been the team with shuffling ownership and bankruptcies…

…which neatly leads into the final tenet of this “What if…” exercise: If the Penguins had indeed drafted Bobby Clarke and enjoyed even a fraction of the success and stability that their cross-stated rivals had during the “Broad Street Bullies” run in the 1970’s, then it’s nigh improbable that Pittsburgh would have been in the position to tank away the 1983-1984 season in order to draft Mario Lemieux.

The prospect of the modern day Pittsburgh Penguins representing the rough-and-tough style of play that Philadelphia fans have glorified since the days of Bobby Clarke while the Flyers, long mired in dire and embarrassing financial straits before tanking for “Le Magnifique,” is quite the hypothetical reversal of fortunes for two teams and two fan bases that hate everything about the other…

…and let’s be real: While everyone hates the Flyers and their fans for being delusional, they also hate the Penguins and THEIR fans for, you know, actually winning and stuff.

Michael Traeger is a newly-minted contributor to the PensBlog, former writer for Pens Initiative, and you can follow his uninhibited hockey insanity on Twitter at @DXTraeger.  Questions, comments, gripes, complaints, and risotto recipes can be sent to him at MDTraeger@gmail.com.  

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