A decade ago when the Philadelphia Flyers won two straight Stanley Cups, Bobby Clarke was their boyish leader on the ice. Today, with the Flyers unexpectedly flying high again, Clarke is their boyish leader in the front office. The rookie general manager, having exchanged his orange and black game colors for gray business suits, can explain why Philadelphia enjoyed the best record in the league during the regular season and dominated the once mighty New York Islanders to reach the playoff semifinals against Quebec. (Defending champion Edmonton is facing Chicago in the other semifinal.)
``Several kids made our club last fall, and we knew we had to play and develop them,'' he says. ``We're the youngest team in the NHL, and we turned our young legs loose. Speed is our biggest asset, but we're also tight in our defensive end. Our goal was to keep our goals-against average under 3.00 and we realized it. Our defense is solid and we got great goaltending by Pelle Lindbergh from Day One.''
The most pleasant surprise to Clarke has been Murray Craven, a youthful forward who was Detroit's No. 1 draft choice in 1982 and came in a trade for veteran Darryl Sittler. Craven scored 61 points on 26 goals and 35 assists during the regular schedule and solved a Philadelphia problem at left wing.
``Our depth has been crucial,'' says Clarke. ``We had 14 players score at least 37 points. Three were rookies: Peter Zezel, Derrick Smith, and Rick Tocchet. Nobody has to carry us on a given night.''
Tim Kerr and Brian Propp are the Flyers' main offensive weapons, with 98 and 96 points respectively.
In addition to a new general manager and a half a dozen new players, the ``rebuilding'' Flyers sport a new coach in Mike Keenan, who moved up from the Canadian college ranks. Keenan and Clarke, working under Executive vice-president Keith Allen, quickly developed into an effective combination. `Mike disciplined the team and prepared it well each night,'' Clarke says.
Says Keenan, who relies on modern resources like videotapes more than most coaches, ``Bob is very open to new thinking. There's no high sticking in the office. He lets the coach run the team the way he needs to with the personnel on hand. I did a great deal of lineup juggling at first. I was fortunate to be a young coach coming in with a young team that also had an open mind about change.''
Keenan's most controversial approach is to play basically only four defensemen, when most NHL clubs rotate six. The four -- Mark Howe, Doug Crossman, Brad Marsh, and Brad McCrimmon -- have been like the Great Wall of China in front of Lindbergh, the 25-year-old Swede who shut out the Islanders twice in the playoffs and was the league's winningest goalie for 1984-85.
``Those four are our best back there,'' says Keenan. ``With the new playoff format, which affords you more rest, it's easier to go with just four. They all like a lot of ice time and they're young and strong. We started it the last month of the season, and I see no reason to change now.''
Says Crossman, ``We're aware of the fatigue danger, but Mike is smart about it. He gave us days off from practice. We're in good condition and we can handle that workload. We've lost only three of our last 26 games, so it's hard to knock it.''
The last month has seen Howe, the son of all-time scoring leader Gordie Howe, bloom into a full-blown star. The most mobile of a mobile Flyer defensive cast, he has always been an outstanding defensive defenseman. Now, when conditions permit, he will unwind rink-long rushes reminiscent of the great Bobby Orr.
``I'm as surprised as everyone else that we won the toughest division in the league and have a good chance to go all the way,'' says Howe, ``but maybe I shouldn't be. This team has a strong work ethic and a lot of youthful energy. Some of us have extra incentive, too. We had lost nine straight playoff games before this year, and that makes those of us who were around then more determined. We want to restore the Flyer tradition to where it was 10 years ago.''
Those championship teams were known for punishing opponents physically and spending excessive time in the penalty box. This team hits hard and consistently, but stood ninth in penalty minutes. Keenan discourages thoughtless penalties, Howe stresses.
Philadelphia's penalty-killing has been better than its power play. ``It's our one weakness,'' says Clarke, ``but Kerr and Howe have got it going better.'' The rangy Kerr led the league in power play goals, but missed the opening game of the Quebec series as Philadelphia lost 2-1 in overtime at Quebec.
At the moment, the Flyers exhibit no conspicuous weakness. If they can eventually wear down the Nordiques, who may be weary following a taxing series against Montreal, and if Edmonton gets past Chicago as expected, the Oilers could be in for a tough battle in defense of their Stanley Cup title.
``Nobody's going to stop the Flyers,'' says Washington Coach Bryan Murray. ``They're going to win it.''
In which case Bobby Clarke, who has gone from leader on the ice to leader in the front office, will be wearing another championship ring after 10 years.