For most teams, throughout the history of all sports, it is a singular trait that can be used to define them.
The Chicago Bulls of the 1990s were “great.” The Seattle Supersonics of the 1990s were “mean.” Those are two quick examples, but the prevailing logic has staying power. Usually a team was either great, or mean. Rarely was a combination possible. One trait would steal focus from the other. But when the two distinctive marks became conjoined few fans, players, coaches, and owners remained neutral.
The moniker of The Most Hated Team Ever is not easily earned. It takes outrageous acts of greatness and brutality. Only one team was able to effectively, and consistently, combine sports’ most lasting brands to earn the dubious title.
The Broad Street Bullies were sports history’s rare amalgam. Fans, media, and opposing teams simultaneously revered, feared, hated, were frustrated by, and lamented arguably one of the most successful sports teams ever, the 1974-1975 Philadelphia Flyers.
The entire team played mean. There was no one player on the team that opposing coaches and players would not worry about. In fact, in many ways, the team defined an entirely new description of a hockey roster position – the enforcer. The only problem with the enforcer on the Broad Street Bullies is that no one player owned the title. It was a badge of honor each player sought, and one the coach, Fred Shero, encouraged each player to embody. A famous Shero quote encourages brutality. He urged his players to, “…take the shortest route to the puck carrier and arrive in ill humor.” The philosophy is borderline eloquent on paper, and downright brutal on the ice.
Team captain Bobby Clarke took Shero’s words to heart. His well-earned toothless smile dotting his face, he was never afraid to stick his neck into a situation – or put his stick into a neck. Clarke was known as a free slasher opponents feared because he cared so little about the consequences of his dangerous activity.
But teammate Dave Schultz, a.k.a. “The Hammer,” made Clarke looks like a boy scout. To say that Schultz did a lot of fighting would be a complete understatement, and potentially an insult. After all, he was the first NHL player ever to wear boxing straps during fights on the ice. His effective use of them led the league to ban them. Schultz also has the record for the most penalty minutes ever in a single season with 472. Think about that. With a game lasting only 60 minutes, Schultz spent nearly eight ENTIRE games in the penalty box.
And, both Clarke and Schultz were offensive players… well, they played mostly on offense. Though I am quite certain most opponents found them offensive, too. The roster was stocked with players that believed in one system of hockey – intimidation with a dash of skill.
This team, which won back to back championships in the 1973-1974 season and the 1974-1975 season, was hated by even casual sports fans. The entire team was physical, cocky, and without remorse. The players were also incredibly talented, and the team was enormously popular. No visiting team helped sell tickets like the Broad Street Bullies did at the peak of their influence on the NHL. The team was easy to hate, and fans wished to make their opinions known in person.
But, selling tickets is not the only standard by which a team can be measured. The footprint of the team reached far beyond the NHL. On an international stage American teams are often branded as brutes with little finesse and mostly muscle. The Broad Street Bullies did much more than transform hockey physically, they defined the United States’ brand of hockey in the world. Tough, physical, bruising, relentless hockey has become the hallmark of American hockey. That may be changing with newcomers on the scene that are more finesse than brute, like Patrick Kane and Zach Parise. Like it or not, to win the NHL a team needs one or two physically imposing, brutally minded players that are willing to bend the limits of what is accepted on the ice. The mid-1970s Philadelphia Flyers began the trend that transformed the NHL.
Nevertheless, if an identity transformation were to occur for the NHL it would take years, even decades, because of the indelible mark the Broad Street Bullies left on both hockey and America’s professional sports. While many teams deserve to be hated throughout history, only one forever changed a sport and helped define America’s athletic brand – the Broad Street Bullies.