In March of 1965, then National Hockey League President Clarence Campbell announced plans for a change to the league’s structure that would forever alter the sport from therein going forward.
Of course, that event would be the league’s expansion, bringing NHL hockey to new cities and markets, creating hundreds of thousands of new fans in the process. The league’s first expansion also brought about changes to the game of hockey itself, both tactically upon how the game is coached and played, and changes to the rules which govern the game, either born from auxiliary reasoning, or facilitated out of necessity, depending on who you ask.
For many hockey fans, this story and period of NHL history is not unfamiliar. However, for those who do not know, here is a brief overview:
In 1965, as it had been since 1942, there were six teams in the National Hockey League (Montreal, Toronto, Chicago, New York Rangers, Detroit, Boston). In previous years, the league had expanded and narrowed as new teams joined, and subsequently folded, primarily due to financial pressures. While talks had been held regarding expansion prior to the league actively doing so, these discussions, which mainly were centered around applications to join the league from various interested parties, were unproductive at best and bordered on malignant at worst. Parties who submitted applications for expansion were all given different requirements that, seemingly, were designed to be rejected.
One could argue that the league was simply being overprotective of itself after the years of uncertainty following the Second World War. However, regardless, the “Original Six” clubs, as they would come to be referred to, assured that any change in the NHL would be minimal at best.
Though the NHL would stabilize and eventually put themselves in a position to expand successfully, this was accomplished at the cost of player rights, monopolistic practices on the part of owners, and blackballing players who did not conform (for a better look into the practices of this time, check out Robert H. Boyle’s piece in Sports Illustrated called “Black Hawks On the Wing”. It was written in 1959 and gives interesting accounts from the era).
Eventually, however, despite pushback from the older, more conservative team owners who were still in power (and threats from television networks that the NHL wouldn’t receive a new American contract if they refused to expand), expansion was eventually green-lit, with an entire new six-team division being created with the aim to start play for the 1967-68 season.
By 1966, the NHL was reviewing applications from a number of interested parties, and in the end, the six selected teams were awarded franchises: California Seals, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota North Stars, St. Louis Blues, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Philadelphia Flyers. All six of these teams were placed in the same division (until the NHL drastically changed the divisions with a re-alignment before the 1974-75 season) and as such, all of the expansion teams struggled in their first seasons.
The Flyers would end up winning the “West Division” with a 31-32-11 record, though they would end up losing their first round playoff matchup to the St. Louis Blues (their early encounters with St. Louis in the playoffs actually led to the draft picks that would turn the club into the powerhouse “Broad Street Bullies” they would become in the early-mid 1970’s). The entire structure of the league at this point was unbalanced, as by the virtue of all the expansion teams being in one division, an expansion team would be automatically given a birth to the Stanley Cup Finals, where they would be consequently battered by the stronger Original Six teams (the playoff format would be changed before the 1970-71 season to avoid this).
So, you may be asking, what was the purpose of that history lesson?
Well, while the early history of the Flyers’ franchise was delved in to, and rightfully so, considering they won their division in their first year of existence (even with a losing record), the title of this article gives away that this isn’t just about the Flyers. There is another franchise that factors into today’s foray into history. That would, of course, be the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Interestingly, when Clarence Campbell announced the NHL’s expansion plans all the way back in 1965, there were actually two ownership groups vying to bring an NHL team to the city of Pittsburgh. Ultimately, a group led by a Pennsylvania State Senator, Jack McGregor (which also included the heir to the Heinz Company, and Steelers owner Art Rooney), won the bid.
They had a two-pronged goal. The first was returning NHL hockey to Pittsburgh, as the city’s former organization, the Pittsburgh Pirates (confusing, yes, but even more confusing is that they would move to Philadelphia for the 1930-31 season, rename themselves to the Quakers, and then dissolve) played in the league for a short five years from 1925-1930. The group also hoped that bringing an NHL team to the city would help serve as a pseudo urban renewal project.
The Penguins, a name chosen by fan contest, would be officially minted into the NHL alongside their similarly struggling expansion franchises, though the Penguins would struggle more than others, finishing 5th in the division in their inaugural season with a 27-34-13 record.
The following season, the Penguins would finish in a tie for last place, and by 1975, they would be forced into bankruptcy. The club would have either folded or been forced to re-locate, had it not been for the purchase of the club by a Pittsburgh shopping mall magnate by the name of Edward DeBartolo Sr.
Meanwhile, the 1974-75 season would see the club at the opposite end of their home state, the Philadelphia Flyers, win their second consecutive Stanley Cup.
The Flyers and Penguins would first face each other on the 13th of September, 1967, in a pre-season exhibition game, with their first official meeting occurring on the 19th of October in the same year, a 1-0 Flyers win in the first ever game at the old Spectrum.
Yes, with the institution of expansion in the NHL, a great rivalry would be born between teams of close geographical proximity and divisional alignment, so close as to fester hatred between the two now historic franchises.
Or, that’s what one would be led to believe.
The anecdote shared in the previous section of this piece highlights fairly clearly the dynamic that the Flyers and Penguins shared early on in their existence. From 1967-68 to 1974-75, the Flyers would win their division three times, make the playoffs six times, and win two Stanley Cups, becoming the first expansion team to win hockey’s ultimate prize. Meanwhile, the Penguins would make the playoffs three times, but failed to win a division and finished as one of the bottom two teams in their division three times, alongside running into financial difficulties.
These early days of the Flyers and Penguins’ mutual presence in each others’ division can be classified as such: a mutual presence. Though the Flyers and Penguins played each other fairly often, being placed in the same division, any rivalry that existed at this point in time was light, at best. The Flyers, at this point, likely wouldn’t have even considered the Penguins a rival in the competitive sense, as their main enemies existed within the old Original Six teams: the New York Rangers, and the Boston Bruins.
The Flyers and Penguins relationship was also near wholly one sided during this early era of the teams’ history. It was during this early phase, in 1977, when the largest victory for either side was recorded: a 11-0 win for the Flyers. In fact, from February of 1974 all the way to February of 1989, the Penguins failed to win a single game away from home against the Flyers. Though this statistic is slightly misleading since the Flyers and Penguins played in separate divisions from 1974-75 until 1981-82, it still serves as a benchmark for how dominant the Flyers were over the Penguins for a majority of their early-mid history. From the franchises’ inception until 1989, the Flyers held an 86–36–19 record against Pittsburgh.
Even the arrival of Mario Lemieux in Pittsburgh, at first, didn’t help the franchise’s favor when compared against their orange and black neighbors. After drafting Lemieux in 1984 with the first overall pick, the Penguins would make the playoffs just once in six seasons from 1984-85 to 1989-90. Meanwhile, in that time frame, the Flyers would make the playoffs five out of six times, appearing in two Stanley Cup Finals against the dynastic Edmonton Oilers.
It was at this point, around the late 1980’s, that our story begins to develop.
Up until the 1989 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Flyers and Penguins had never faced each other in post-season play. However, a second round matchup was set to change that fact, and change the dynamic of the Flyers and Penguins franchises.
The Flyers were set to be a franchise undergoing a large change, and the 1988-89 season would be their last with their core from the 1980’s in tact, and in fact, the team would not make the playoffs for the next five seasons afterward. They had a strong team, still led by Tim Kerr, Rick Tocchet, Brian Propp, and Mark Howe, with Ron Hextall in goal.
However, when compared to the Pittsburgh Penguins, they were considered the weaker team. The Penguins finished second in the Patrick Division, five points behind the winners, the Washington Capitals. Mario Lemieux had scored 199 points that regular season. They were a scary bunch.
However, they lacked depth.
Behind the likes of Lemieux and Paul Coffey, and a young Zarley Zalapski, nobody on the Penguins roster stood out. Though they took a three games to two lead, the Penguins ultimately lost to the Flyers in seven games, and the Flyers would lose to Montreal in the Wales Conference Finals.
Though there was certainly physicality in the series, including a fight between Craig Berube and Phil Bourque that nearly earned the latter player a Gordie Howe Hat Trick, it wasn’t quite the Flyers-Penguins series that we would come to know. However, this series begins the era of what we can consider the true Flyers-Penguins rivalry, as from here on out, the teams would see a lot more of each other as the years went by.
After the arrival of a certain Czech forward called Jaromir Jagr to the Penguins, they would win two Stanley Cups in the early 1990’s as the Flyers dismantled their team from the previous decade. Without a for-sure certain star player, the Flyers faltered as the Penguins took advantage of Lemieux’s dominance to take a clear stranglehold on their division,
Then, the Flyers had a gift drop into their laps, and while in the end his trade to Philadelphia may have directly led to the success of a different franchise, his arrival transformed the Flyers-Penguins rivalry severely. Of course, it’s #88 himself, Eric Lindros.
Lindros was that key superstar player that the Flyers needed to both rejuvenate the franchise, and counterbalance the Penguins’ Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr. Success didn’t come right away for Philadelphia, as they missed the playoffs in Lindros’ first two seasons. Though, the Flyers were handed a gift when after 1992-93 season, the Flyers and Penguins were split up yet again.
For the next five seasons, the Penguins would play in the Northeast Division while the Flyers would play in the Atlantic Division. This led to a period where the Flyers and Penguins didn’t play each other as much in the regular season, and as a result, much of the teams’ rivalry came down to award voting. The likes of Lindros, Lemieux, and Jagr competed for the Art Ross and Hart trophies, with Lindros winning the Hart in 1994-95, Jagr winning the Art Ross trophy that same year (along with the Hart eventually in 1998-99), and Lemieux, who else, winning the Hart twice and the Art Ross four times in the decade.
The late 1990’s and early 2000’s, however, saw more direct competition between the Flyers and Penguins as the divisions were realigned. Fierce battles began to develop, with the Flyers using defenceman Chris Therien as a specialist against Jaromir Jagr, and the Penguins hoping their offence could propel them in a shootout against the mighty Legion of Doom.
Three key events defined this era of the Penguins rivalry: two playoff series, and a devastating injury.
In what many thought could be Mario Lemieux’s final playoff series (he did in fact retire for three seasons afterward), the Penguins and Flyers faced off against each other in the 1997 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. This series was typical of what we would expect to see from Flyers and Penguins playoff matchups in the future. It was chippy, physical, yet skill was on full display (the Jagr goal that begins around the 5:00 minute mark is truly a remarkable example of this).
This amazing Lindros shift was from the first game of the series, and is peak physical 1990’s hockey. It is still incredible how dominant Eric Lindros was in such a brutal era of hockey.
The Flyers would ultimately win the first three games of the series before eventually dispatching the Penguins in five games, with the Flyers’ faithful at the newly build Core States Center giving Mario Lemieux a standing ovation for a send off:
The following season, in what would develop into an ongoing saga until his departure from the team, Eric Lindros would suffer a concussion, his first in a series of concussions within a two year period. The culprit of this particular blow was the Penguins’ defenseman Darius Kasparaitis, who cut across the ice from his own blue line to deliver a hit to Lindros’ head while the Flyer forward was skating unaware of his presence. This wasn’t the first time the pair had been involved with each other either, as they had fought at the 1996 World Cup of Hockey. There are clips of the concussion inducing hit available online, but out of respect to Lindros and to readers’ sensibilities, we won’t include the clip here.
Needless to say, this moment heightened the tension between the Flyers and Penguins. Fans have never forgotten the Kasparaitis hit, as even years later, during the 2012 Winter Classic alumni game, when Kasparaitis was introduced for the visiting Rangers’ alumni, he was booed by the Flyer crowd at Citizens’ Bank Park.
Unfortunately, the Flyers’ personal situation with Lindros deteriorated with time, and more concussions and personal grievances with the Flyers organization led to Lindros missing a fair amount of the 1999-00 NHL season and playoffs.
Therefore, when the Flyers faced off once again against the Penguins in the 2000 Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, Lindros would not take the ice. The 2000 portion of the 1999-2000 season was a strange one for the Flyers, and it all felt a bit disorganized for the club, who had aired live footage of them removing the captain’s “C” from Lindros’ jersey, and stitching it on to the jersey of defenseman Eric Desjardins.
Regardless, the Flyers finished with the top seed in the Eastern Conference, but lost the first two games of the series at home. Now captain of the Penguins, Jaromir Jagr scored three goals in those first two games as the Penguins made Brian Boucher look foolish in net.
However, thanks to an Andy Delmore overtime game winning goal, the Flyers managed to find their feet in the series....
You can watch the Flyers and Penguins this season on ESPN+!
(Part 2 coming later)....