Wednesday, February 05, 2014

"The Thief" steals away into the Great Beyond

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor

He wasn't the first, and will certainly not be the last.

But there's little argument he was the best.

The first head coach in Philadelphia Flyers history was kicked upstairs after two seasons, and in 1969, began a memorable and franchise-defining run as GM which didn't end until the 1980s were well underway.

Keith Allen passed away last night at the age of 90, a victim of Alzheimer's. And while the ruthless and progressive breakdown of plaque in the brain robbed him of his own rough-hewn essence forged in the winters of Saskatchewan and tempered in the Delaware Valley, there are hundreds of thousands of players, coaches, NHL personnel and fans who will never forget.

"Keith was the first coach in the history of the Philadelphia Flyers and a man for whom I have tremendous respect," said Philadelphia Flyers Chairman Ed Snider in a Tuesday statement. "In my mind, he was and always will be one of the greatest General Managers in the history of hockey. He was known as 'Keith the Thief,' I never knew of a bad deal he made. This team would never have reached the level of success we have had over the past 48 years if it were not for Keith."

He made his bones during the go-go-1970s, when the National Hockey League was fighting within itself and from without against the upstart World Hockey Association, forces which were trying to drag it into the modern era. Caught in the crush of rapid expansion, lesser teams looking for a boost either on the ice or in the stands mortgaged their futures for a sweet taste in the present, and "The Thief" took full advantage. Sometimes it was the clubs at the top of the heap.

The Bruins were the first victim, taking underperforming Mike Walton off Philly's hands in return for Rick MacLeish in January of 1971. One year later, the Kings gave up Bill Flett and Jean (brother of Denis) Potvin for three forgettable players. Potvin was then recycled to the Islanders for renowned grinder Terry Crisp. In an odd transaction, Allen actually parted with a first-round draft choice in May of 1973 to send original Flyer and Doug Favell and future considerations to Toronto. He received the rights best goaltender in franchise history and a second-round pick that turned into defenseman Larry Goodenough. Insanity seemed to strike Allen the following Summer, as he parted ways with another first-round selection...but this one turned up Reggie Leach as the California Golden Seals and owner Charlie O. Finley gladly accepted Larry Wright and Al MacAdam in the deal.

Two of Allen's later-era deals transformed a porous defense patched together with glorified AHL players into a formidable back line throughout the mid 1980s. In November of 1981, an unhappy Bridgman was shipped to the Calgary Flames for Brad Marsh in a deal of two team captains. Marsh set the standard for stay-at-home backliners with his shot-smothering ability over the next six-plus seasons. August of 1982 saw the acquisition of Flyers and Hockey Hall of Famer Mark Howe from the Hartford Whalers for Greg Adams, Ken Linseman and two picks. The one selection gained in the deal turned out to be Derrick Smith, an energetic bottom-six presence on the club for seven years.

Allen pried the No. 1 overall pick from the Washington Capitals in 1975, and the lone first-overall selection the Flyers ever owned was used to select Mel Bridgman from the Victoria Cougars of the Western Hockey League in Canadian juniors.

And, of course, his first and best gambit -- letting every other NHL team pass over a feisty, diabetic kid from Flin Flon, Manitoba in the first round of the 1969 draft before striking like a cobra and snatching Bobby Clarke into the jaws of history.

Subsequent selections in drafts yielded famous talents such as: Dave Schultz (1969), Bill Clement (1970), Bill Barber (1972), Paul Holmgren (1975), Pete Peeters (1977), Linseman (1978), Brian Propp and Pelle Lindbergh (1979), Ron Sutter and Ron Hextall (1982). 

Under his watch, the Flyers grew from expansion also-rans to league powerhouse. They won six division titles (1974-77, 1980, 1983) and a pair of Stanley Cups (1974-75) along with two more finals appearances (1976, '80).

Allen was also a recipient of the Lester Patrick Trophy in 1988 for outstanding service to hockey in the United States, and was named The Hockey News’ NHL Executive of the Year in 1979-80 for assembling the team which went a record 35 games without a loss.

"I think Keith never got nearly the credit for what he did that he should have," Clarke told NHL.com on Tuesday, in keeping with the long-standing theme that those controversial winning teams over which he presided never got their proper due. "He was in charge of the draft, in charge of the trades, in charge of getting Bernie [Parent] back-- all the things necessary for us to win the SC. He put the pieces in place and hired the coach. He, more than anybody was responsible for us winning the Cups."

Let's now give Allen credit for what he did for some of those players he so shrewdly wrenched from the competition and allowed to stay with the Flyers and carve out not just a career, but a life in the Delaware Valley.

Nearing the end of their playing days, Allen, with Snider's blessing, could have very easily cut the cord and let guys like Ed Van Impe, Joe Watson, Tom Bladon, Orest Kindrachuk, Don Saleski, Andre Dupont, Bob Kelly and MacLeish go without any compensation. That was the tenor of hockey business.

Instead, Watson and Saleski were shipped to Colorado where the Rockies needed some veteran help. Kelly enjoyed his best season in the year after being shipped to the Capitals. Bladon and Kindrachuk were sent to Pittsburgh where they played several more years. Dupont was given a new three-year contract just before being dealt to the Quebec Nordiques, while MacLeish was eventually given a second chance to prove himself with a half-season contract for the 1983-84 season. Van Impe and Watson also enjoyed long-term associations within the organization for years after their careers ended, the former as a broadcaster and the latter as a salesman and team ambassador.

"Behind all that strength, he had a grandfather’s kind of gentleness," Clarke added. "In a time when teams were bleeping on their players and taking credit for it, the Flyers weren’t like that. I can’t think of one guy whom Keith ever traded away who disliked him. They all came back and spent their summers here and visited with him, never seemed to hold a grudge.That’s a pretty hard thing to do when you are running a hockey team and have to make miserable decisions."

Sadly, all that positive karma accumulated through decades of plying his trade in the game of hockey meant nothing during his later years. Alzheimer's, and its tell-tale signs of worsening dementia, is a sinister affliction which robs a person of his humanity. The body may be strong, but the mind eventually disappears. It can be a disorienting, traumatizing experience for family members and caregivers.

If you believe in that sort of thing, I bet Allen's spirit probably worked a deal with St. Peter for a great spot on a cloud with a fantastic view of the rest of the universe. All he might have had to give up was a couple of Stanley Cup rings, now useless as a badge of honor in the ephemeral.

"I asked him about hockey, and he said, 'It's not here anymore,' " said Lania Adderly, a care manager at Sunrise, where Allen spent his last years, in an Inquirer piece from December of 2012. "He still knows his birthday, and knows he's from Canada," Adderly said. "He talks about it sometimes. He still remembers lots of stuff."

Throughout the article, there was ample evidence of the vagaries of the disease. Allen vacillated between bravely recalling his exploits as a player fighting off the competition, to becoming emotional after receiving guests.

In the picture which introduces this story, Allen is presenting the Barry Ashbee Trophy to Howe, upon his election as the team's best defenseman for the 1985-86 season. Take the connection one step further and you find that Gordie, none other than Mr. Hockey himself and father to Mark, is showing signs of Alzheimer's in his mid-80s and may not have much time left. The great minds and players which defined the so-called "Original Six" and the expansion era are disappearing, and it's all the more heartbreaking when the memories and the strengths that made these people who they are no longer enliven what are little more than empty shells operating on borrowed time and living out someone else's life.

Still, what one man loses of his legacy inside the tangles of his own mind, ends up being transferred and entrusted to those around him to carry the torch. Keith Allen is gone, but his story will live on in the realm of hockey and within his own family. That is something that time and sickness will be hard pressed to erase.

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