TORONTO – With 22 black-and-white pages, Fred Shero changed hockey.
Before Shero coached the Philadelphia Flyers in the 1970s, NHL teams didn’t do much in the way of systems. His playbook and standard for fundamentally sound hockey, more so than hitting or fighting, won the Broad Street Bullies two Stanley Cups.
“Freddy revolutionized the game,” said former defenceman Joe Watson, who played seven years under Shero. “We never had assistant coaches till he came in. We never talked about a system until he came in. We never had practices the day of the game, we’d come to the rink but very seldom ever went out on the ice. Freddy brought this to the forefront.”
Shero, who will be posthumously inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame Monday, set the tone for his teams with a playbook that led off with “Fundamental Rules.” Watson remembered when the Flyers had 10 rules to follow, but by the 1975-76 season, the list grew to 16.
“This was the God’s gospel as far as I’m concerned regarding hockey,” Watson said. “I think if you did all these things in a game, you would be successful.”
Rule No. 1 was: “Never go offside on a 3 on 2 or a 2 on 1.” Others included “Never pass diagonally in our zone unless 100 per cent certain” and “No forward must ever turn his back to the puck at any time, know where the puck is at all times.”
It was up to the players to follow those rules on the ice and memorize them for pop quizzes.
“We had to tape them on the side of our stalls and look at them,” Watson said. “Sometimes he’d ask us a question about what Rule No. 4 or No. 5 or 10 or whatever and we were supposed to know the answer.”
Shero’s nickname was “Freddy the Fog” but what he expected from his team was very precise. It wasn’t anything fancy.
“It’s kind of simplistic play, but you have to go out and execute,” said Bob Kelly, who also played for the Flyers all seven seasons Shero coached them. “He had 1-4, 2-1-2 systems. Couple minutes to go, three, four minutes to go in a game, you didn’t take chances and stuff like that. Just common sense, repetitive hockey. Freddy’s drills were so repetitive as far as the dump-and-chase. Basically it was getting traffic to the net and getting the puck first. Just a commitment to each other to be the first one to arrive and hang on to the puck and never give the puck away.”
Puck possession was the name of Shero’s game, well before advanced statistics were ever quantified. The playbook included 20 plays, many of which were predicated on getting out of the defensive zone.
Watson and his teammates didn’t have to memorize the plays because they were reminded of them often.
“We would practice for 45 minutes and half an hour spent in our zone every drill, every practice,” he said. “And he always felt that if we spent the least amount of time in our own zone we were going to be better off. He said these are the four or five ways I want you to come out of our zone.
“He said it doesn’t matter how the checkers set up, as long as we execute the play coming out of our own zone, they can’t break down our system. He believed that, and we believed that.”
Offensively, Shero let his players freelance a little. But it should be no surprise that the Flyers clinched their first Cup with a 1-0 victory over the Boston Bruins in 1974.
A large part of that was Conn Smythe-winning goaltender Bernie Parent, but it exemplified Shero hockey.
“In group activity there must be supervision and leadership and a disciplined effort by all, or much of our united strength will be dissipated pulling against ourselves,” Shero wrote in the introduction to the Flyers’ playbook. “If you discipline yourselves toward team effort under the supervision of the one in charge, even though you might not always agree with the decisions, much can and will be accomplished.”
Those words aren’t as famous as Shero writing on a locker-room blackboard before Game 6 against the Bruins: “Win today, and we walk together forever.” His sayings were memorable, but players recall much more than that.
“He was always writing slogans on the board. You never knew what you were going to do,” Kelly said. “His practices, they were pretty intense, but they were always repetitive: coming out of your end zone. You knew blindfolded how far or deep to come in, what defence was out there, which way the puck’s going to move. He was a big stickler on being repetitive and execution and hard work.”
Shero wrote that he would not treat players the same all the time, but his standards were high across the board. He sent a letter home to players’ wives before the season to tell them that they would take a back seat to hockey and counted on players to be consistent.
When Rick MacLeish was struggling, Kelly recalled Shero bringing a bucket of water into the locker-room to make a point.
“He says, ‘Ricky, come here, put your hand in this bucket of water,'” Kelly said. “So Ricky does, pulls it out. He says, ‘That’s how long it’s going to take to replace you.’ I think Rick got the message there.”
Sometimes it was up to players like captain Bobby Clarke to send a message during Shero’s practices.
“We’d do drills out there and Clarkie would stop and say, ‘Freddie, this makes no (expletive) sense whatsoever,'” Kelly said. “He said, ‘Yeah I know that, I was just waiting for somebody to challenge me on that.'”
Shero challenged his players with the line: “Your lot is certain failure without discipline.” The Flyers didn’t fail much with him behind the bench, missing the playoffs only in his first season in 1971-72.
Kelly understood why Shero left to coach the New York Rangers in 1978-79 out of loyalty to the organization that gave him a shot in the minor leagues. He had accomplished plenty in Philadelphia, including three trips to the Cup final and a victory over the Soviet Red Army team in 1976.
Because of all that, Shero’s former players and Flyers chairman Ed Snider believe his induction was a long time in the making. Snider said in a phone interview prior to the announcement that Shero was getting in that it was a “disgrace” he had been passed over for so long.
“When you see people going in there and they haven’t accomplished what Freddy’s accomplished, it’s pretty sad that it’s taken so long to get in there,” said Kelly, who figured the Flyers’ fighting style kept Shero out.
Watson said Snider is flying more than a dozen of Shero’s former players to Toronto for Monday’s ceremony, and some living in Canada will meet them there.
“Obviously we’re very thrilled and excited for this because it’s long overdue,” Watson said. “By having 14 or 15 of my teammates there, it says a lot about what we think of Freddy Shero.”