Saturday, June 29, 2013

30 years ago, McCammon guided the Flyers draft which led to a Renaissance

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor 

What does the most lucrative draft in the recent history of the Flyers organization have in common?

Neither Bob Clarke nor Paul Holmgren were involved.

Thirty years ago, coming off a Patrick Division title and a shocking first-round exit in a three-game sweep to the fourth-place New York Rangers, the Philadelphia braintrust managed to pluck four cornerstones which aided the progression of the second great era of Flyers hockey.

Organizational upheaval created uncertainty at the highest levels of operation in the wake of that playoff setback. Long-time General Manager Allen was essentially pushed upstairs after a wildly-successful 14-year stint at the helm, and, for lack of a better candidate, head coach Bob McCammon was given extra duties as a way to head off potential interest from the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Add to that, the fact that the club had a new team president, who was just under one month into his new job: Jay Snider, son of owner Ed Snider, and all of 25 years old.

Because of their franchise-altering deal with the Hartford Whalers the previous Summer which netted them future Hall of Fame defenseman Mark Howe, the Orange and Black did not have a first-round choice, instead having to sit around and wait until the end of the second round to make their initial selection.

Another reason chaos might have reigned was that the scouting department underwent an overhaul under McCammon immediately preceding the draft, to eliminate what the younger Snider said was the dynamic of "whoever shouts loudest makes the decisions" which result from no distinct hierarchy.

 "Jay always called it the 'mass-confusion' draft," McCammon later related in Full Spectrum.

McCammon installed Jerry Melnyk as head scout, a position which had been left vacant for five years prior; and hired Dennis Patterson to replace Eric Coville -- whose greatest contribution to Flyers hockey was to lure Tim Kerr away from the Detroit Red Wings in 1980.

Whatever the goal in the long term, in the short term things worked out pretty well.

After such future stars as Claude Lemieux, John Tucker and Wayne Presley were off the board, at #41, the Flyers selected forward Peter Zezel from the Toronto Marlboros of the Ontario Hockey League. The 18-year-old Toronto native with Croatian ancestry was coming off a rookie season where he tallied 35 goals and 74 points in 66 games, and went on in his second and final year in juniors to explode for 47 goals and 133 points.

Zezel made his NHL debut in October of 1984, scoring his first NHL goal in the club's fourth game that season, a 13-2 rout of Vancouver at the Spectrum. He went on to set a franchise rookie record for assists with 46, then in his third year with Philly, established personal records of 33 goals and 72 points in 1986-87. Upon his trade to St. Louis in November of 1988 after a disappointing slide in effort and production, he departed with 91 goals and 261 points over 310 regular-season games, along with 10 goals and 31 points in 56 playoff appearances.

Zezel was a capable postseason performer, snagging a share of history by assisting on two of Kerr's NHL-record four goals in a span of 8:26 in the clinching Game 3 of the Patrick Division Semifinals against the Rangers in 1985, potting his first career hat trick in a 7-1 rout of New York at Madison Square Garden in Game 4 of the 1986 Patrick Semis, then was the player who carried the puck up ice immediately preceding J.J. Daigneault's electrifying go-ahead goal late in Game 6 of the '87 Stanley Cup Finals against Edmonton.

Only three slots later, early in the third round, Derrick Smith was plucked at #44, an undersized winger from the Peterborough Petes in the OHL. Smith, a left-handed shooter and native of the Toronto region, put together 35-and-66-point seasons in his two years at the junior level. Another of "Keenan's Kids" who never quite played the same when Holmgren took over as head coach, Smith posted career bests of 17 goals and 39 points in his rookie season of 1984-85, then endured a bizarre stretch of 50 games his sophomore season without an assist.

Always an energetic presence, Smith was paired up with the Sutter brothers and another player to be listed later in this column to provide spark and turnovers for the Flyers' transition game. Beset by injury and Holmgren's indifference, Smith was shipped to Minnesota in 1991 after going for 80 goals and 167 points in 494 games here over seven seasons.

It wasn't until the sixth round that Rick Tocchet was snagged with the 121st overall pick. Tocchet, a rugged winger from Sault Ste. Marie of the OHL, was on the Flyers' radar thanks to head coach and former Flyer Terry Crisp, who grew quite enamored with the elder Tocchet's wine selection. The 19-year-old was coming off a 66-point campaign in the Soo which would turn into a 108-point, 209-penalty minute season the next year before he made his NHL debut under Keenan.

His blossoming a combined result of Keenan's prodding, circumstances and his own drive and development, Tocchet's point totals increased every year from 1985-90 while his goal totals moved up four years running. He ended his first stint with a pair of 40-goal seasons and, depending on who does the stats, the last player in league history to score at least 30 goals and rack up at least 300 penalty minutes in one season (1987-88).

In spite of a sudden and acrimonious departure for Pittsburgh and a Stanley Cup title in February of 1992, Clarke came to his senses and re-acquired Tocchet for the 2000 stretch run and he stayed here until a knee injury ended his career early in the 2001-02 season. He left his mark on this city after 232 goals, 508 points and a franchise-high 1,817 penalty minutes.

The Flyers finally took a leap of faith and dipped into the European pool and, at #161, selected forward Pelle Eklund, then a 20-year-old who put together 14 goals and 30 points during his second season with AIK Solna in 1982-83. Eklund didn't make it over to North America until the Fall of 1985, and was confronted right away with the loss of mentor and countryman Pelle Lindbergh only a month into his rookie season.

Nonetheless, the swift Swede earned more playing time as the year progressed, and managed to set a new franchise record for assists by a rookie thanks to feeding Kerr on the power play. He established himself in the '87 playoffs with 27 points in 26 games as a dangerous puck-moving winger who could skate effectively in all three zones -- something the Flyers have been trying to recapture for the last 20 years.

Though the era in which he was tabbed as a top player and team leader coincided with the club's rebuilding phase, Eklund nonetheless provided the franchise with its first long-term non-North American star player. Upon his acquisition by the Dallas Stars in March of 1994, he racked up 334 assists and 452 points over 589 games along with 43 points in 57 postseason matchups.

In spite of leaving his mark over one single day in Montreal, McCammon was dumped as both coach and GM only 10 months later, after another first-round sweep, this time to the Washington Capitals.

The fruits of his labor were evident in the team's rise under Keenan and Holmgren for the next half-decade, but McCammon remains a footnote in team history when measured against those who have made a life out of working within the organization. Those drafts are well-documented and the players selected all hold a special place in the hearts of thousands.

While other drafts have yielded better talent to a man since then, no single one possessed the punch and had as immediate an impact as 1983.
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