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From Brawls to a Missing Bus: the Unforgettable First Season of the Philadelphia Firebirds

The Firebirds skated in the NAHL, the league that inspired Slap Shot. And much like the iconic movie, the team's tales verge on unbelievable.
Bruce "Scoop" Cooper.

Bruce "Scoop" Cooper.

Philadelphia has been a hockey town since 1897. Well before the Flyers were even a thought in someone's head, the city had called itself home to various minor league squads, along with one horrid season from the NHL's Quakers in 1930-31. Even after the Flyers began their tenure as the city's top hockey organization, Philadelphia still welcomed other professional teams, from a World Hockey Association franchise that lasted just one season to minor league teams such as the Firebirds of the now-defunct North American League, the circuit on which Slap Shot was based. From the sport's start at the University of Pennsylvania in the 19th century, hockey has always been at or near the top of charts in Philadelphia. In this excerpt from the new book, Professional Hockey in Philadelphia: A History, that story is told through the Firebirds and the many antics that endeared them to their faithful fans. 

Training camp would open on October 7 at the University of Pennsylvania’s Class of ’23 rink. A few weeks later, the Firebirds were offered an expansion draft. However, because the franchise was granted after the schedule was already released, the other teams demanded more money per player. The Firebirds rejected the offer, figuring they would find better players elsewhere anyway.

“Drafts are a joke,” [coach Gregg] Pilling said. “I’ve scouted juniors and the minors and I’ve already contacted 19 players. They’ll come here if they don’t make some club in a higher classification.” Asked about the comparisons to the [WHA’s] Blazers and the Jersey Devils, the EHL team which played in the Cherry Hill Arena for nine seasons, both of which failed in a short period of time, Pilling was quick with his reply. “The Blazers were in direct competition with the Flyers,” he said. “We’re not, obviously. We’re an alternative. And, we’ll be competitive. People also try to draw comparisons between us and the Jersey Devils. Again, there’s no comparison. We’re not in the Cherry Hill Arena.”

With training camp behind them, the Firebirds opened their season with three straight overtime games, coming out the other side with a win, a loss, and a tie. They spent the next half-month struggling to get their legs and attempting to gel as a team – by November 8 they were 5-6-1 and sat toward the bottom of the league standings. But as they returned home from a road game in Mohawk Valley to play the Maine Nordiques at the Civic Center, a spark seemed to ignite something in the locker room. The team demolished their northern rivals 9-4, setting them off on a six-game winning streak that propelled them upward.

But, just as quickly as they turned it around, lady luck seemed to walk out on the Firebirds. A November 20 loss to Syracuse started a five-game losing streak that returned the team to below .500. The streak included a famous walkout by Pilling in which he pulled his team off the ice in protest. At an away game against Maine, Lemelin was injured on the play that resulted in Maine’s fifth goal. When Pilling pulled Lemelin to replace him with backup Dan Sullivan, the referee refused to give him a two-minute warmup period to which Pilling felt he was entitled, based on WHA rules (under which the NAHL operated). Pilling brought his players to the locker room, refusing to return to the ice until Sullivan was given the opportunity to warm up. The referee refused, demanding the Firebirds return to the ice. When Pilling ignored the warnings, the referee forced the Firebirds to forfeit the game.

[Team president Robin] Roberts was furious at his coach, who was fined $1,000 and suspended five games for the act. He described the decision as “fair because of the consequences of such an act when you’re dealing with paying customers. …This won’t be a reflection on the Firebirds, but on Gregg.” The incident created a rift between the two that only widened as the season progressed.

Bruce "Scoop" Cooper.

Bruce "Scoop" Cooper.

The streaky Firebirds continued their roller coaster inaugural season, embarking on a seven-game winning streak in December that pushed them far into first place, a shocking development for an expansion franchise. Included in that streak was a December 17 win against the Long Island Cougars in which Pierre Henry scored a hat trick and forward Bobby Collyard added a goal and two assists of his own to push himself into a tie for the league points lead with 44.

The next night, the Firebirds clinched the seventh win of the streak in a nasty battle against the Johnstown Jets in front of 1,039 fans at the Civic Center. Tied early in the second period, a brawl broke out when the Firebirds’ Les Crozier and the Jets’ Jack Perpich began tussling. Others added to the fun, culminating in the Carlson brothers (Steve and Jeff, who would go on to play two of the Hanson brothers in Slap Shot) dropping the gloves with just about everyone on the ice. The referee handed out 130 penalty minutes, including two match penalties, while the Firebirds squeaked away with a 6-5 victory.

As their first regular season began to dwindle, though, the Firebirds again began to slump. Sitting in first place on March 8, the team dropped its last five games to fall into second place just before the playoffs, finishing behind the Syracuse Blazers. The frustration was evident in a March 16 game at Cape Cod in which the Firebirds started a bench-clearing brawl, resulting in five major penalties, four misconduct penalties and a double-minor. The fight yielded nothing, as the team lost 5-4 and were mathematically eliminated from the regular season title.

Nonetheless, Philadelphia fans responded to their new hockey franchise. In their final home game of the regular season, against Cape Cod on March 7, an NAHL-record crowd of 9,184 showed up to watch Lemelin backstop the Firebirds to a 5-0 shutout win, according to a March press release from the league office. “I think we have proven that there is room for the Firebirds in Philadelphia,” said Roberts excitedly after the game. Dextraze concurred, stating that “it’s a fine tribute to the owners, players, and staff of the Firebirds. The fans have treated the Firebirds well and the entire league is pleased with their progress.”

Bruce "Scoop" Cooper.

Bruce "Scoop" Cooper.

Matched up against the Long Island Cougars in the first round of the playoffs, the Firebirds came out strong, battling their way to a 4-2 victory in front of a Philadelphia crowd of 4,316 to take a lead in the best-of-five opening series. “All year we haven’t been going to the body at all,” said Mike Clarke after the win. “About five games ago we figured we’d have to get something going or forget it for the playoffs.”

After falling in their second game by a 3-2 score, the Firebirds went to Long Island for the next two games. The Cougars took Game 3 with a dominating 5-2 win, despite the Firebirds’ protests. The night got off to a fiery start when Pilling arrived with a fake newspaper, which was created on his behalf by [Firebirds owner] George Piszek. The paper’s top headline stated that the Chicago Cougars, who owned the Long Island squad, was out of money and would be unable to pay any of the players in their employ. “We were just trying to get them unsettled and not thinking about the hockey game,” Pilling said years later, laughing at the memory.

As the night progressed closer to puck drop, the players noticed that the new ice surface, which had been put down earlier in the day to replace the recent circus, was soft, chipped, and covered with holes behind the nets. The game was delayed a half-hour while the officials attempted to fix the poor conditions. When they couldn’t, Pilling took his team to the locker room and refused to go out. The referee agreed, sending both teams to the locker room in an effort to cancel the match. But, with the Firebirds on the team bus ready to pull away and the players already having enjoyed a few drinks, a call came from Commissioner Bob Dextraze that the game had to be played. An hour later, after more repair work was futilely attempted, the game commenced and the teams cautiously played through an ugly contest, with the game-winning goal coming when Pierre Henry tripped over a divot in the ice and lost control of the puck.

The final game of the Firebirds inaugural season took place – eventually – on April 4. While the game was scheduled to start at 8:00 PM, the Firebirds were nowhere to be found. Their bus had yet to arrive at Long Island Arena, angering both the Cougars and the commissioner, who said, “We’re going to play the game, no matter what time they arrive. We’ll talk about disciplinary measures later.” As the clock turned to 8:15, then 8:20, the team still was missing in action.

“He’s pulled this before,” said Cougar center Howie Colborne, referring to Pilling, under whom he played for part of the season before being loaned to Long Island.

“I’m sure he’ll come up with some fantastic story,” said Cougar goalie Chris Grigg.

Bruce "Scoop" Cooper.

Bruce "Scoop" Cooper.

While the story being circulated was that the Firebirds’ bus was stuck on the Verrazano Bridge because of heavy winds, the hometown team and fans were buying none of it. As the clock hit 8:25, the bus finally pulled into the parking lot. Pilling exited the bus with a “wry smile,” according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Couldn’t get the damn bus over 45 miles an hour,” he said. “The wind was blowing the bus all over the place.” Despite his attempt at gamesmanship, the Firebirds were unprepared for the game, taking an 8-2 defeat to clinch the series for the Cougars and end Philadelphia’s first NAHL campaign with disappointment.

From Professional Hockey in Philadelphia: A History © 2020 Alan Bass by permission of McFarland



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