My name is Alex and I'm a lifelong Flyers fan. I grew up in Montreal and now live in New York with my wife and 18 month old son who can't wait for his first pair of skates. I spent 6 years working at the NHL in media strategy and distribution. I try to play hockey every week. This column, In Too Deep: 25 Years of Flyers Fandom, is a chronicle of my trials and tribulations growing up and living as a Flyers fan in hostile territory.
Part I – No One Ever Told Me to Root for the Home Team
By all calculations, I should root for the Habs. After all, I was born in Montreal, on April 16, 1977, days away from the second of four straight Stanley Cup championships for the Montreal Canadiens, the oldest and greatest team in the history of hockey, smack in the middle of their greatest dynasty. They were coached by Scotty Bowman, a man who still holds NHL coaching records for career wins, single-season wins, Stanley Cup wins, and Stanley Cup Final and Conference Final appearances. They had a lineup that was unparalleled in the modern era, with Lafleur, Mahovlich, Cournoyer, Lemaire, Savard, Robinson, Shutt, Larouche, Lapointe, Gainey, Dryden… the list goes on. That season, the Habs only lost eight games, also a modern record. Please, take a minute if you need to.
My dad grew up loving hockey. He had seen Dryden play for Cornell. After college he moved to Montreal and eventually landed a job at a company that had great seats at the old Forum, and so on November 16, 1985, he took me to my first game. That dynasty from the 70’s was over, but the Habs were still the jewel of the NHL and that season they won their twenty-third Stanley Cup, nearly twice as many as the next highest club. I remember that first game, Habs versus Rangers, not so much for what happened on the ice, but for what happened around it – total unmitigated pandemonium. I was eight years old and I had never experienced noise, energy and excitement like that in my life. I was arriving into the world of hockey, living in the home of hockey’s greatest team, a city with a hockey history more glorious than any other and a future that seemed full of Stanley Cup parades. It was a good time to be a Habs fan.
But that’s when things went a little funny. Both my folks were American, so neither of them had any allegiance to the Habs. My dad was one of the few people at the Forum who wouldn’t jump up and scream when the Habs scored, so it never occurred to me to do it either. What did occur to me was how no one seemed to root for the visiting team, and how sad their players looked whenever the goal siren went off and the place erupted with joy. No one ever told me to root for the home team, so whenever my dad would take me to the Forum, I would cheer for the visitors, whoever they were. I was the voice of the oppressed! Defender of the minority! Champion of the underdog! But I needed a squad to call my own so one fateful evening in the spring of 1987, when the Habs were playing Philly on Hockey Night in Canada, I decided that those guys in orange and black would be my team.
My bedroom with my first Ron Hextall poster.
The 1986-87 season would turn out to be a special one for the Flyers, in that thrilling-yet-devastating way that has become the hallmark of the best Flyers years. Top team in the Wales Conference, Hextall and Howe start in the All-Star Game, 58 goals by Tim Kerr, a Conn Smyth and Vezina for Hexy, a Selke for Dave Poulin, and a trip to the Stanley Cup Final, all somewhat marred by untimely injuries, a devastating loss in Game 7, and a promising young goalie who never quite got back to his rookie year form. But that spring, at age 10, all I really knew was that the Flyers looked bigger and badder than the Habs, and this Hextall guy was way more awesome than Patrick Roy. That was all I needed.
Even with the eventual loss to Edmonton in the Final that spring, I felt pretty good heading into the 1987-88 season. During the summer, I had equipped myself with a Flyers cap, Flyers jogging pants, and a Tim Kerr jersey, all of which I wore to school almost daily. I built a statue of Ron Hextall in art class that was put on display for the whole school to see, and everyone knew who had built it. With Philly having just defeated Montreal in the Conference Finals, I could walk the Hab-infested halls of my high school proudly, and there was really nothing anyone could say.
My Ron Hextall statue... the leg pads were destroyed in a tragic basement flood.
While the Flyers struggled that year, Hextall did become the first goalie to shoot the puck into the net for a goal, and after their first four playoff games Philly was ahead three games to one against the Capitals and seemed primed for another run. With apologies for tearing open any old wounds here, most of you know how this typical Flyers tale ends, so I’ll confine myself to pointing out that Dale Hunter, my most hated player in the entire NHL, capped off his club’s comeback by scoring a gut-wrenching OT goal in Game 7, on April 16, 1988 – my 11th birthday.
After a painfully long summer, things continued to decline for our boys. In their last game of the 1988-89 regular season, Philly came to Montreal and I got to see the Flyers play live for the first time. My dad miraculously scored us tickets right up against the glass next to the goal judge. We spent the 1st and 3rd periods behind Patrick Roy, who went undefeated at home that season. Undefeated at home! You can imagine the vitriol directed at me at the Forum in my Flyers cap and Tim Kerr jersey, as I plastered my Flyers pennant against the glass and heckled Saint Patrick all night long.
Yes, that's me in my Flyers cap behind Roy on the front page of the sports section!
The game went to overtime, and because it was the last game of the season and the Habs were still two points out of first place overall, they did something I’ve never seen since and pulled Roy for the extra skater. In the dying moments of OT, the Flyers put the puck in the empty net, and I was euphoric – but wait, no goal. A whistle is blown before the puck crosses the line.
I’m devastated. But it gets worse. Why the whistle? Because Mark Howe is down with a knee injury that would keep him out for the first two games of the playoffs and hamper him the rest of the way. Still, after barely squeaking into the playoffs with a .500 record, the Flyers upset the Caps in the Conference Quarters, take Pittsburgh in 7 in the Conference Semis (highlighted by another goal by Hextall), and then face the Habs again in the Conference Final. This time however, the matchup doesn’t look so good for our heroes. The Habs are the top team in the Wales, they are healthy, Roy is playing out of his mind, and they all still remember their bitter defeat to the Flyers two years prior. You know where it goes from here – Chelios fractures Brian Propp’s skull, Hextall goes all Hextall on Chelios, Flyers lose in 6.
I’m inconsolable. But it gets worse. I emerge from the subway on my way to school the next morning and am "greeted" by a swarm of classmates. They proceed to tear my Flyers lapel pin out of my jeans jacket, and escort me to school with loud jeers of "Heeeeex-tall!" "Heeeeex-tall!" They follow me to my locker, which has been completely vandalized with such witty remarks as "Flyers suck!" "Habs rule!" "Hextall sucks!" and "Roy rules!" I stand there, frozen, staring at my defaced locker amidst this inflamed mob of delirious pre-teens viciously delighting in my post-elimination agony. The bell rings and I escape to class, taking a seat at the back of the room. The teacher sees me, obviously still distraught, and stops class to ask me what’s wrong. I’m 12 years old, devastated about the Flyers, and traumatized by the welcome I just received, so I do what any kid in that situation would do – I start balling, in front of all of my classmates.
Me and my "friends" in Montreal... yeah, not much support for a Flyers fan there.
Stop. Wait for it. It gets worse. My teacher is outraged – how could anyone do such a thing to this poor child! So she storms out of the room, and starts going from class to class throughout the school, demanding to know who made Alex Simon cry! So let’s recap: my Flyers are done, Propp has a fractured skull, Hextall is suspended for the start of next season, my locker is vandalized, my lapel pin is still gone, the goddamn Habs are in the Final, and after the whole crying episode there’s no way I’m getting laid until college.
I’m 12 years old, three years into this Flyers thing, and I’m starting to ask myself whether I’ve made a terrible mistake. Maybe this is why you root for the home team, especially when the home team happens to win all the time. But who was I kidding? I was already in too deep.
Next up… Part II – The Lean Years