Sunday, January 15, 2017

An evening with old friends

The venue was the Spectrum, Philly's old sports arena on Broad Street.

It was the home of the Broad Street Bullies, also known as The Philadelphia Flyers hockey team.

My first date with Howard, a season ticket holder at the time, was a Flyers game on May 5, 1985.

Of course, I knew nothing about hockey... just that a bunch of men with long sticks chased a little piece of hard rubber around, trying to put it into a net at either end of the ice rink.

Still, I wanted to have an evening with this new guy, so I agreed, thinking it would be a boring night.

First period of the game, he explained the rules.
Second period, I watched the action and figured out how it was played.
Third period, I was on my feet, screaming my lungs out for our guys, the orange and black.

I was hooked.

One of the players intrigued me more than any of the others.
He was a defenseman, #8, Brad Marsh, and one of the reasons I became a fan. Brad was the only guy who played helmetless, his curly dark hair making him stand out.

In a later year, two Boston Bruins sandwiched him in a check that nearly took him out and we watched in silent horror as he was carried from the ice on a stretcher.

He recovered from the concussion, and wore a helmet from then on.

But he never changed his style.

An obvious leader, Brad went through the warmups, chatting with his teammates as they circled the ice and took shots at the goalie, Ron Hextall through most of my game years. Then, Brad would skate up to the net, rest against his stick and watch as practice wore down, then give Hextall an encouraging pat and skate off to await the game start.

No one else did that.

At the end of the game, it was again Brad who stood by the net, supporting his goalie, being a leader to the team.

I was sad when he was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs, but Howard bought me a Leafs jersey with Brad's name and number on it and when the Leafs played in Philly again, I met Brad and he signed the alien blue and white sweater.

Marsh now serves as the president of the Board of the Flyers Alumni, an ideal post for such a leader.

And last night I got to watch him on the ice again as the Flyers and arch-rival Pittsburgh Penguins played a full 60-minute game to mark their 50th anniversary celebration.

I went way back in my closet, took the orange and black jersey off its hanger and prayed it would still fit. It was a tad snug after all these years, but I wore it proudly. It bore Brad's signature and I looked in vain around the huge crowd at the Wells Fargo Center for another like it.

When the team members were introduced, one by one they came out of the tunnel and were greeted by raucous cheers.

When warmup started, Brad did what he always had... he gravitated to the goal and gave his teammate an encouraging tap.

He still didn't wear a helmet and the dark curly hair is largely gone, but the skater on the ice hadn't changed much at all.

He played at least one shift in each of the three periods, usually more than one. If I didn't know by the number and the face, I would know it was he by the smooth rhythm of his skating and that little lean to the right he added when he glided on the ice.

The Flyers ended up tying the Pens in a classic game that featured so many of the players for whom I'd cheered and yelled back in the 80s.The guys seemed to be having a wonderful time together, and I hope they knew how much fun they were giving their fans.

It was 1985 all over; we were young and energetic and the world was a happier place. For a few hours last night, we were back there again.

Thanks, Flyers, and thank you, Brad Marsh! 

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