Monday, May 13, 2013

Promised Land reached in Bears' 1988 playoff sweep

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor

It's a part of sports folklore in the Delaware Valley and on the national stage, that Moses Malone memorably predicted the 1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers were so confident of their ability to win the NBA championship, they'd sweep their way through the postseason, Fo' Fo' Fo.

Of course, the Sixers were momentarily derailed by losing one game in the Eastern Conference Finals to the Milwaukee Bucks, going 12-1 to clinch the franchise's second and last title -- so that prediction is more famous for what didn't actually occur.

But one team with a close connection to Philadelphia sports history actually did it: the 1987-88 Hershey Bears, at the time the American Hockey League affiliate to the Flyers.

Four in a row over Binghamton. Four more against Adirondack. Another four against Fredericton. An unprecedented and still league-record 12-0 blast through the AHL postseason.

The Calder Cup was a total mismatch. Hershey outscored the Fredericton Express by an 18-5 count, not allowing more than two goals in any of those contests. Wendell Young, a failed NHL goaltender with the crumbling mid-80s Vancouver Canucks who didn't get much of a look in a substitute role earlier in the season while Ron Hextall served an eight-game suspension, was the hero backstop.

It was 25 years ago yesterday that the championship came to the true Chocolate City. It was the seventh overall for the seminal AHL franchise, but the first and only with Philadelphia manning the controls.

Young stopped 35-of-37 shots in the terminal contest, surrendering both goals early in the game, which coincidentally provided the combined Nordiques/Canucks farm club with their only lead in the entire series. He ended the playoffs with a perfect record, having played every minute, following a regular season in which he went 33-15-1 with a 2.77 goals-against average and one shutout. That made Young an obvious choice for the Butterfield Trophy as the playoffs' MVP.

“As that season went on you could tell things were starting to look good, and we were turning the corner. We had a solid team talent-wise, but I think more importantly we were a very tight team who hung out a lot together.  We had a great dressing room with a lot of good leaders in it. That’s when you start realizing that you might be on to something special, when you end up winning the big games, because in those types of games, character really plays out.”

And it was also sweet revenge that Young did it against the Canucks organization, which gave up on him the previous offseason and dealt him to the Flyers.

“Absolutely. When players say it doesn’t mean anything to them, I don’t think they are being totally honest. When you leave an organization, you feel that they don’t want you, but the organization that you go to does. In so many words, I think people defend their honor by coming back to haunt people (in the old organization),” Young said.

Here's Mark Lofthouse with the game's first score. Videos courtesy of Fundy Cable of New Brunswick:

"That was probably the most fun I had since juniors," recalled Lofthouse last March to the Lebanon Daily News. "I had gone 11 years without winning anything as a team. When you win as a group, that's a highlight because you have someone to celebrate with."

And Kevin Maxwell with the tally that gave the Bears the lead for good:

Stacked with a unique blend of minor-league veterans (Mitch Lamoureux, Lofthouse, Dave Fenyves, Don Nachbaur, Al Hill, Ross Fitzpatrick, Ray Allison, Maxwell) and soon-to-be NHL talents (Gord Murphy, Jeff Chychrun, Nick Kypreos, Craig Berube) and some players on their last legs (Kevin McCarthy, Greg Smyth, Magnus Roupe), the Bears were impervious to failure for five whole weeks.

While the Orange and Black were wiped out in the first round by the Washington Capitals in overtime of Game 7 on the road, the Bears steamrolled the competition en route to the club's only title while operating under the Flyers' control.

Hershey finished atop the Southern Division that year, winning the most games in one season during their 12-year stint as the club's primary minor-league affiliate. Head coach (and current Flyers assistant coach) John Paddock was in his third year at the helm, and guided the Bears to the Calder finals two years prior, but lost to the powerhouse Adirondack Red Wings.

This time it would be markedly different.

An 11-day break separated the Red Wings from the Bears after Hershey rolled through the B-Whale in the first round by scores of 3-2, 4-1, 4-3 and 8-5. Adirondack was coming off a seven-game decision against the Rochester Americans which included a 6-4 road win in Game 7, but its adrenaline from that win two days later evaporated into a 5-1 loss at Hersheypark Arena. What followed were Bears wins of 6-2, 6-4 and 6-5 to finish off their second four-game whitewash.

Fredericton finished second in the North, and dispatched both Sherbrooke and Maine to reach the Calder finals, but there was no contest. Though there is no correlation, it certainly looked suspicious that the club picked up stakes that Summer and moved further East, to Nova Scotia to become the Halifax Citadels and the sole affiliate of the Nords.

As Scoop Cooper wrote,"Some 2,000 ecstatic fans were on hand to greet the Bears when their Air Canada charter landed at Harrisburg International Airport at 1:45 a.m. the next morning after a raucous 850-mile flight from the Canadian Maritimes.  Two days later another 10,000 lined the sidewalks of Chocolate Avenue for a victory parade."

The 1964 Cleveland Barons had been the last AHL team to sweep through the playoffs, but at that time, only the Calder Cup round was a best-of-seven. Since passing to the Colorado Avalanche and now the Washington Capitals, the Bears have taken home four more titles (1997, 2006, 2009-10), but the first was a five-gamer and the rest were six-game affairs.

Only Albany (1995), Milwaukee (2004), Philadelphia (2005) and Norfolk (2012) have posted a four-game sweep in the final round against their opponent.

None of them have been as perfect as the Hershey Bears were.

During the post-game scrum Paddock exclaimed, "This will never happen again. Not 12 straight wins. Never ever again." He's been right for the last quarter century.


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