Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Bullard and Prospal, ships passing in the night

On this date 23 years ago, the Flyers made a deal which seemed unremarkable at the time, but eventually provided the franchise with a center they'd been looking for to match the skills of the declining Pelle Eklund.

The rights to Mike Bullard, then a veteran of 11 professional seasons, were shipped to the Toronto Maple Leafs for a third-round draft pick in 1993. That pick ended up becoming Vaclav "Vinny" Prospal, who is one of the more than three dozen players to take more than one turn in the Orange and Black.

At the time, Bullard had spent the 1990-91 season in Switzerland, lighting up its top division with 41 goals and 78 points in only 41 games. He was not offered a contract the year prior though the Flyers still held his rights. With new GM Russ Farwell angling to make over the roster into something a bit younger, Bullard (along with Ilkka Sinisalo and Ken Linseman) were left to seek employment elsewhere.

Carrying a rightful reputation for carousing and perhaps an undeserved one for not bowing to authority, Bob Clarke picked up Bullard from the St. Louis Blues in a straight-up swap for Peter Zezel on November 29, 1988. It was Bullard's fourth stop since November of 1986, when he was traded to Calgary from Pittsburgh for Dan Quinn a day after cursing out Pens head coach Bob Berry. Despite a 103-point season with the Flames in 1987-88, he was moved to the Blues.

The burly winger had brought offense -- five seasons of at least 30 goals, two of at least 40 and one of 51 -- to a club desperately trying to turn itself out of a tailspin. For a franchise in transition and a rogue on his last chance, Bullard performed well here, picking up 50 goals and 113 points over 124 games from 1988-90, including 23 in his 54-game stint for the remainder of the 1988-89 season.

Two of his iconic career moments occurred during the Flyers' memorable run to the Wales Conference Finals in the Spring of '89. One was sweet and the other sour.

First, following a surprise 4-1 victory over the Penguins at the Civic Arena in Game 7 of the second round, Bullard finally responded to the formerly friendly fans turned hecklers who jibed him for the entire series by "gesturing" to them with single digits on each hand raised. He scored two of his three tallies that postseason against his former franchise, with the final one being a power-play goal which put Philly ahead 3-1 only 40 seconds into the third period.

Then, in Montreal the day before Game 5 of the Wales Finals at the Forum, and with the Flyers trailing 3-1 in the series, Jay Greenberg described the scene in Full Spectrum:

"(Holmgren) told his team the Canadiens couldn't keep it up. He wanted the Flyers to be loose, but Bullard took him too literally, seeking relaxation in the Montreal night. When Pat Croce saw Bullard come in well after curfew, Holmgren took the opportunity to make a point. As he charged up the troops the next day, the coach suddenly wheeled around on Bullard and picked him up by the throat.

"You, out late drinking the night before a playoff game!" Holmgren grunted.

"Urrrgh," said Bullard.

"One of the scariest things I've ever seen," admitted Mark Howe later on.  

"Clarke talked Holmgren out of benching Bullard. The veteran center felt lucky to be alive and Holmgren wanted the Flyers to feel the same way."

Bullard had been goose-egged the entire series, and that did not change over the final two contests until the season concluded. His three goals and 12 points were accumulated in the first 13 games through two rounds.

From his days as the best player on a historically desolate Penguins franchise, Bullard was dogged by the label that he couldn't come through when it counted. He tallied six points in six games for Calgary in a first-round loss to Winnipeg in '87, then produced just two assists in six games the next year before a Marty McSorley spear put him out of commission during an Oilers' four-game second-round sweep.

Prospal arrived in North America, having been born behind the Iron Curtain in Czechoslovakia, at the age of 18, after Russ Farwell used the pick, at No. 71, to take the skinny puck-mover from Ceske Budejovice.

His play during the first three years with Hershey steadily improved, from 35 to 45 to 51 points in 1995-96, but things took off once the Flyers decided to abandon their affiliate agreement with the Bears in favor of creating the expansion Phantoms to play at the Spectrum.

All Prospal did, at the age of 22, was finish second on the club (behind Peter White) with 95 points and dish out a team-high 63 assists for a club which saw four players record at least 50 helpers. In their first year of existence, the Phantoms ran away with the Mid-Atlantic Division, but their dreams of Calder Cup glory were short-circuited in a Game 7 second-round loss to Hershey -- now an affiliate for the defending Cup champion Colorado Avalanche.

Why the Phantoms lost could be directly attributable to Prospal's absence, not due to injury but to a call-up to the Flyers in early March of 1997 due to the loss of Dale Hawerchuk with recurring hip issues that helped end his career. He scored twice in his second NHL game, and went on to add three more goals and 15 total points in 18 appearances before adding four points (1G, 3A) in a five-game, first-round victory against the Penguins. There was little question Prospal would be the heir apparent.

Then, things went off the rails.

During a practice before an anticipated second-round meeting with the Buffalo Sabres, Prospal suffered a badly broken wrist when trying to absorb a hit during a fight for the puck along the boards. Video of the unfortunate circumstance was recorded by Channel 6 and broadcast that night, as Prospal was lost for the remainder of that postseason. He went scoreless in six, and then eight straight games under Wayne Cashman the following season, then missed four games due to injury just prior to the All-Star break, when a bombshell exploded in front of a national audience and thousands of jaws dropped in unison.

One day before the game, scheduled for Vancouver, and during the skills competition, ESPN broadcasters broke news that Bob Clarke swapped Prospal along with Pat Falloon and a second-round pick in the 1998 draft to the Ottawa Senators for struggling former second-overall selection Alexandre Daigle. It was a devastating move for a team that had risen to the top of the Eastern Conference standings.

That wrong wasn't righted until Paul Holmgren dipped into the well of ex-Flyers talent and pulled Prospal from the Lightning at the 2008 trade deadline for defenseman Alex Picard and a 2009 second-round choice. A puck mover for the trigger man Danny Briere on the power play, Prospal had 14 points (4G, 10A) in 18 regular-season games, then added 13 points over 17 playoff contests to stoke the surprise run to the 2008 Eastern Finals.

As Bullard did 19 years before, Prospal enjoyed prosperity in the opening rounds before being shut down to the tune of one assist over a five-game loss to the Penguins. His 12 points represented one of the top scorers through victories against Washington and Montreal.
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