Friday, March 14, 2014

Home and home with Penguins took bizarre turn thanks to WIP host

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor 

If you think James Neal's sudden concussion diagnosis is a sign of the "Philly Flu" and adds a bit of controversy to this weekend's clash with the best team in the Metropolitan Division, have I got a story for you.  

It happened 17 years ago last month.  

By the time it was over, the Philadelphia Flyers had laid waste to their Western PA rivals, sweeping the mid-February home-and-home set against the Pittsburgh Penguins by a combined score of 11-3.

The dual wins pushed the club's lead over the Florida Panthers to five points in the Atlantic Division, while also separating them from the Buffalo Sabres in the Northeast by five points in the race for the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

It was made all the more impressive because the biggest piece to the winning puzzle, captain Eric Lindros, was absent from both -- the first time he'd missed any action since returning from missing 23 games due to a nagging groin/hamstring issue just before Thanksgiving.

But the real story had not yet begun. That would take several weeks to surface, and would be unleashed on an unsuspecting public by an outlet Ed Snider once controlled.

WIP had been the flagship station of the hockey club for more than a decade by the time the 1996-97 season arrived, fresh with a new arena on South Broad Street. That year, John Weidemann was on play-by-play, taking over for Steve Carroll, with Steve Coates doing his unique brand of color commentary. Terry Murray's club was coming off a disappointing second-round playoff exit to the Florida Panthers as the East's #1 seed, and by February, was finally hitting their stride (thanks to a 14-0-3 run at the holidays) and sitting just four points back of Colorado for the Presidents' Trophy.

Yet, Lindros was curiously missing from the lineup on February 15 and 16 when the schedule dictated the Penguins play a Saturday-Sunday set against the Orange and Black. Twelve days later, WIP host Craig Carton went public with a story, he says confirmed by multiple sources, that the club captain showed up hungover for the Saturday matinee at home and was promptly suspended by the team.

For their part, the organization claimed Lindros' absence was due to a lower-back strain, and Big E returned to the lineup for a 2-2 home tie against Hartford on Feb. 19.

At this time, the station had begun its ascent to the top of the sports-talk ratings game on a national scale thanks to program director Tom Bigby, an intimidating Texan who ran things his way -- and only his way. On air, it was a mixed bag of erudition and controversy seven days a week, highlighted by the running feud between weekday morning host Angelo Cataldi and afternoon maven Howard Eskin that often spilled into the late, lamented Great Sports Debate. Snider previously owned WIP for several years, notably switching formats from music to sports, before selling in 1992 when the talk began to get a little too outrageous for his liking.

That alarming talk eventually boiled over and hit home for Snider thanks to the Carton report. Five days after it was broadcast, Snider fired back. From a story by Les Bowen (yes, he was on the Flyers beat then) of the Daily News, the day after a 3-1 home loss to the New Jersey Devils:

"Snider, the Flyers' chairman, stood at a lectern before the game and denounced WIP, the radio station that airs his team's games, the station that went to a sports-talk format under his ownership before he sold it in 1992. Excerpts from Snider's remarks were later broadcast between periods on the scoreboard video screen, drawing cheers as loud as the boos elicted by the WIP logo, displayed on the very same screen once each period, as mandated by the team's contract with the station.

Snider said his team was suing WIP and host Craig Carton for libel...the suit, which did not specify damages, was filed against Infinity Broadcasting Corp., the AM station and Carton. 

Snider and team president and general manager Bob Clarke also said the team will attempt to buy its way out of the contract with WIP, which has one year to run."

When pressed for a reason why this particular story required corrective measures, as a report from the previous season that Lindros provided tickets to alleged crime boss Joey Merlino surfaced, Snider continued: 

"Because this is one step too many. They finally went over the ledge. We were willing to give them the benefit of the doubt last time, but we're not willing to do it any longer. We're not going to sit back and take it. We understand that they have the power of the airwaves, but we have the power of our integrity and our pride, and we're not going to sit back and take this garbage.''

Broadcast on FOX as the regional afternoon matchup, the Flyers were unfazed by their leader's absence, and lit into the defensively-challenged Penguins to came away with a 5-1 victory.

The hosts threw 27 shots over the final two periods at Pens netminder Ken Wregget, scoring all of their goals in that span, including an incredible three on clean breakaways. John Druce opened the floodgates inside of five minutes remaining in the middle frame, then Eric Desjardins, Pat Falloon, John LeClair and Daniel Lacroix turned on the red light. Trent Klatt added two assists and Ron Hextall made 17 saves, only letting a Greg Johnson shot elude his grasp.

The next night at Mellon Arena, Jaromir Jagr and Chris Tamer measured Garth Snow by the end of the first period, but then the visitors did a complete 180-degree turn, stinging rookie goalie Patrick Lalime with six unanswered strikes to walk away with an emphatic 6-2 decision. It was the first win for Philly in Pittsburgh since 1990.

Klatt got the ball rolling with a power-play strike late in the second and LeClair tied it. Klatt added a short-handed goal to open the third, Druce went loose again, Rod Brind'Amour tallied and though Dainius Zubrus was denied a goal thanks to the ridiculous crease rules of the era, Mikael Renberg put the finishing touch on the win with his goal 28 seconds before the buzzer.

Carton, who now famously works mornings on New York's WFAN alongside former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason, rose to infamy due to the controversy, but then sank with it once it died away. His contract was not renewed in July of 1997, roughly a month after the Flyers were unceremoniously dumped from the Stanley Cup Finals in a four-game sweep by the Detroit Red Wings.

WIP even made its impact felt there. Just over 24 hours before Game 1 of the Finals was played in Philadelphia, the station held a Flyers pep rally in the City Hall courtyard, drawing hundreds of rabid fans whipped into a Wings-hating frenzy. They laughed, they cheered, they chanted. They took a sledgehammer to a beat-up car spray painted red and bearing the Winged Wheel. Gene Hart even made an appearance, informing the fans of the proper way to say "Russians go home" in the tongue of the motherland. 

Lindros' impact was not felt in the championship until his goal with 14 seconds left in Game 4 which prevented Mike Vernon a shutout in the clincher. He then helped the Flyers reach the top of the NHL standings mid-season, without the Legion of Doom, under new head coach Wayne Cashman, before falling prey to the roving shoulder of Darius Kasparaitis, whose hit to the head gave him a Grade III concussion and forced him off the ice for five weeks.

Around the midway point of his absence, Lindros and the Flyers received some good news regarding Carton's on-air strafing. Tim Panaccio's report from the Inquirer in late March of 1998 included the following terms of a settlement reached between the parties:

* WIP would issue a written apology to Lindros.
* Lindros would receive financial compensation for damages from WIP and its corporate owner, CBS. The money would go to a charity of Lindros' choosing (Ed. Note -- it was the Children's Miracle Network)
* WIP would broadcast news of the settlement during its station breaks.
* No on-air WIP personality would be permitted to discuss either the settlement or subsequent news stories arising from it. Likewise, no callers would be permitted to discuss the settlement on the air with WIP personalities.

In addition, Gary Blockus' piece from the Morning Call one week later revealed the content of the missive:

"In a broadcast on February 28, 1997, a former WIP personality stated that Philadelphia Flyers captain Eric Lindros was unable to play a Feb. 15, 1997 game against the Pittsburgh Penguins," the letter of apology begins. "Although Eric suffered from an injured back sustained against Ottawa on Feb. 13, 1997, it was stated that he did not play because he was `hung over` from an excess alcohol consumption the prior evening. WIP's personality also stated that the Flyers organization reported that Eric was injured to cover up his inability to play.

"After an investigation into the facts underlying its Feb. 28 broadcast, WIP executive management has concluded that the sole reason Eric did not play on Feb. 15 was because of his injured back and not for any other reason. The entire management of WIP regrets this unfortunate incident and wished to apologize to Eric Lindros, the Flyers and their fans for the broadcast."

Snider's love-hate relationship with 610 waxed and waned for years afterward, but the Flyers maintained their broadcast ties to the station until 2012, when a new deal with 97.5 the Fanatic was consummated.

Lindros seemed to put it all behind him, and enjoyed a monster 1998-99 campaign, fresh with a new contract, until a collapsed lung derailed his season and prevented him from returning in the playoffs following an April 1 contest at Nashville.

While the Flyers and Penguins are the premier rivalry in today's NHL, nothing the teams have endured -- not a single regular-season tilt, or even their tension filled playoff series in 2008, 2009 and 2012 -- came close to the drama and rancor which resulted from one mouth that roared after a regular-season two-game set from the late 90s.

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