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I went to see the Flyers play the Capitals last week, and that got me thinking about Kenny, a kid who grew up in my neighborhood. Kenny loved Caps-Flyers games. Not for the hockey. For the fights.
In my youth, Caps-Flyers was too one-sided to even be called a rivalry. Philly dominated the NHL, with wondrous ugliness. The Flyers of the 1970s, remember, were the Broad Street Bullies, legendary purveyors of goon hockey, a team loaded with guys who could skate and shoot only adequately, but punch like heavyweights.
The Flyers were an unapologetic embarrassment to the leagueSlapshot wouldn’t have been made without ’emand the worst ambassadors the sport ever had. The finesse-dependent Soviet hockey team once came over for a series of allegedly feel-good exhibitions with NHL squads on a junket sanctioned by the State Department, and some numskull or Commie-hater scheduled a game at Philadelphia. The Flyers said detente, shmetente and pummeled the Russkies until their red blood spilled all over the Spectrum ice.
And during the team’s glory years, Philly fans aped their heroes’ goonish tendencies, making Flyers games even more violent off the ice than they were on it. Gettysburg may have been the site of the two bloodiest conflicts to ever take place on Pennsylvania soil, but the Spectrum hosted a lot of honorable mentions.
The Caps, of course, were a brand-new franchise back then, and every bit as dreadful as the Flyers were successful. The Spectrum sold out night after night, so the Flyers’ hardcore faithfulthe closest thing to hooligans American sports has ever seenwould follow the team whenever the Bullies played here. Drunks in orange-and-white replica jerseys with the names of their favorite goons like “Schultz” and “Holmgren” stitched on the back would come down I-95 by the busload for those games. They’d take over the Cap Centre, bellow their favorite chant”Let’s-go Fly-ers!…clap-clap…clap-clap-clap…Let’s-go Flyers!”in perfect cadence, and basically humiliate and terrorize Caps fans like me all night long, just as the Flyers would humiliate and terrorize the Caps down on the ice.
Kenny, however, was beyond humiliation and usually too drunk to terrorize. He couldn’t wait for Flyers’ visits. I’d go to the games just to watch him work. He’d put on his official Caps jersey, the one with his own name stitched on the back, and head out to the Cap Centre not only hoping but knowing, absolutely knowing, that before the night was over he’d be trading blows with a bus rider from Philly. He’d loiter around the arena between periods and invariably find a similarly misguided and drunken soul in a Flyers jersey, and the two of them would drop their imaginary gloves and just start flailing away until it got broken up or one of them went down. And because there were enough other Kenny types inciting minibrawls all over the building on those nights, security forces were so busy that Kenny could usually get in two or three throwdowns before being escorted out. And even when he got bum-rushed, Kenny would wait around in the parking lot until after the game, hoping to face off against a couple more Flyer fans before they boarded the bus for home.
I haven’t seen or even heard from Kenny in about a decade, or about as long as it had been since I last went to a Caps-Flyers game. The NHL has changed a lot since then, and wherever he is (assuming he still is) I’m sure Kenny’s not liking the changes. He must hate that Russians and other fast-skating, talented, but nonfighting Europeans are wimpifying the league now, and that goon hockey has fallen out of fashion. (In the most hilarious scene in Swingers, the main characters whine about the death of hockey violence, pointing out that Sega has taken away the ability of players to drop the gloves and fight in the latest version of its video hockey. Kenny could blend in that crowd.)
The Flyers are back in first place in what is now called the Atlantic Division this year, just as they were in the old days, but they’re nowhere near as dominant or intimidating as the Bullies were. And since the franchise hasn’t won a Stanley Cup since 1975, I figured their once enviably obnoxious fans would stay home in much greater numbers than they used to.
As soon as I arrived at USAir Arena, I saw how wrong I was. Bus after bus was unloading jersey-clad South Jerseyans and Philadelphians into the parking lot. And in the stands, the visitor’s shirtsmost now emblazoned with “Hextall” or “Lindros”outnumbered Caps blouses by two or three to one.
Once the game started, the presence of so many Philly fans got even more conspicuous. I don’t really give a damn about the Caps anymore, but the comportment of the imported fans got to me.
“Let’s-go Fly-ers!…clap-clap…clap-clap-clap…Let’s-go Flyers!” came down from the rafters, louder and louder each time. Some Caps fans tried periodically to boo the visitors’ cheer down but never found much success.
Down on the ice, the Caps weren’t faring so well, either. The Flyers’ Rod Brind’amour scored the game’s first goal near the end of the first period, and the place absolutely erupted, sending the deci-meter to its highest level of the night. The Flyers never gave up the lead. And although the final score was just 2-1, I never got any sense that the Caps had a chance to win. The only highlight for me was watching Brind’amour get the crap kicked out of him in the second period by some Cap named Anson Carter. I’d never heard of Carter before this game, so I know it makes no sense that I took pleasure in the beating. But I did.
On my way to the parking lot, a hard-looking drunken guy in a Flyers jersey with “Carkner” stitched on it stepped in front of me for no polite reason. (Terry Carkner’s career stats: 29 goals, 867 penalty minutes.)
“You a Caps fan?” faux Carkner asked me.
“Yeah,” I said, more out of reflex than any desire to scrap with the guy.
“They suck!” he said.
If I had given the wrong retort or even just shut up and stuck around, I’m certain Carkner wannabe would have beaten me about the head and shoulders until he tired, so I turned away and just looked around for another way out of the arena. And I missed Kenny a whole lot more than I ever thought possible.