Professional Hockey in Philadelphia: A History

By Alan Bass · Oct 4, 2020 · Updated Oct 4, 2020
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  1. Alan Bass Registered User

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    Philadelphia has been a hockey town since 1897. Before and even during the Philadelphia Flyers' tenure, other teams--the Ramblers, the Quakers and the Firebirds, among others--called the city home, for better or for worse. The first of its kind, this comprehensive history covers the teams and players that graced the ice from the turn of the 20th century through the 2009 demise of the Philadelphia Phantoms. Offering something for every hockey history fan, each chapter focuses on one of the teams that played in the City of Brotherly Love. The book starts in the 1890s, when hockey was first introduced to Philadelphia at the University of Pennsylvania, culminating in the construction of the city’s first professional hockey arena in the 1920s. The narrative continues with the Arrows, the first bona-fide professional team to play in the city, as members of the Canadian-American League. In those first few years, Philadelphia saw multiple hockey teams call the city home, including their first foray into the NHL with the lowly Quakers. Those Quakers set a record for futility that still stands today, with the fewest wins in an NHL season.

    The city’s hockey history makes a turn for the better in the 1930s with the American League’s Ramblers, a farm team of the Rangers, who earned Philadelphia’s first professional hockey championship. Unfortunately, the Rangers eventually shut down the successful squad, leading to a string of homegrown entries into the AHL and the Eastern League, most of which were less than successful, to put it kindly.

    That led to the Philadelphia Ramblers of the EHL, the longest-tenured Philadelphia team before the Flyers took the ice in 1967. And the Flyers chapter discusses the generally-untold story of Ed Snider and Jerry Wolman, their partnership in starting the Flyers, and their ultimate breakup just as the Flyers prepared to play their home opener in the old Spectrum.

    The book continues with chapters on the World Hockey Association’s Blazers, the North American League’s Firebirds, and the AHL’s Phantoms, all of which had illustrious characters and entertaining stories throughout their tenures in the city. The Blazers were a fun, if not disastrous season of Philadelphia hockey history, with some of the more outrageous hockey characters that have graced the city. The Firebirds chapter will come of particular interest to the many fans of Slap Shot and the associated leagues. The movie crew actually followed the Firebirds around for part of a season to garner research for the film – and the stories within the chapter sound like they were written especially for the movie. And last, but not least, the Phantoms chapter shows how successful a minor league club can be when they have a top-notch business plan backed by one of the most successful organizations since 1967 expansion.

    At the end of the day, hockey’s story in Philadelphia is best told through the lens of all of the professional teams that played there, not just the Flyers. The continued success of the Flyers is based in the foundation that was laid in the years before their arrival and in the minor-league clubs that graced the city’s ice during their history.

    The book is available now in e-book and paperback from your favorite online book retailer. At 237 pages, it includes over 80 photos from across the last 125 years of Philadelphia hockey history. The retail price of the paperback is $35.00 and of the e-book is $21.99. It is available for purchase here.

    Book excerpt:

    The almost 100-year history of professional hockey in Philadelphia has often been one of stark contrasts. To be sure, over the past half century Philadelphia has been home to many truly great hockey exploits – the NHL Flyers’ frequent regular season division and conference titles, eight trips to the final, and two Stanley Cups; their incredible defeat of the Soviet Central Red Army team in 1976; the unprecedented 35-game unbeaten streak in 1979-80; the Hall of Fame playing careers of Bob Clarke, Bernie Parent, Bill Barber, Mark Howe, Eric Lindros, and others; and of course, the consistent success of the Phantoms between 1996 and their exit in 2009, especially their AHL-record 17-game winning streak in 2004-2005 and their two Calder Cup-winning seasons.
    With a few exceptions, however, the history of the game’s earlier years in Philadelphia was a much more colorful – and perhaps more interesting – story. That history is both distinguished and filled with proud moments, from the original Ramblers’ 1936 Fontaine Cup championship to the Firebirds winning the NAHL crown in 1976, from the Flyers’ defeat of the Soviets to the Eastern League’s Ramblers battling the Soviet team nearly twenty years earlier and getting public praise from legendary coach Anatoli Tarasov amidst a hard-fought tie.

    While the Flyers rightfully headline the marquee of professional hockey in Philadelphia, the city’s hockey history outside the Flyers organization is extensive and just as important to understand. The beginnings of the sport throughout the city helped set the stage for the eventual success of the NHL club. Through team histories, anecdotes, and player profiles, this book will take you through the ups, downs, and characters that have paraded across Philadelphia ice. From the sport’s 19th century beginnings in the city in the form of the Quaker City Hockey Club, all the way to the Phantoms and their relocation to Allentown, Pennsylvania, hockey holds a special place in the heart of Philadelphia sports fans. This book chronicles the city’s lengthy, illustrious history with the game.

    About the author:

    Alan Bass is a published author and freelance writer who has covered topics ranging from psychology to sports to business. A New Jersey native, he received his B.A. in Psychology from Muhlenberg College, where he did in-depth scientific research on various topics, including athletic development in sports.
    A small business owner, Alan enjoys writing as a side hobby and has contributed to multiple published works. His first book, The Great Expansion: The Ultimate Risk That Changed the NHL Forever, was published in 2010. His most recent book, Professional Hockey in Philadelphia: A History, was published in 2020. A contributor to The Hockey News since 2009, his work has been featured on various national outlets, from NHL.com to ESPN.com.

    [​IMG]
     
  2. Theokritos Moderator

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    Nice to have you!

    125 years of hockey in Philadelphia – that's a lot of ground and quite a few clubs to cover. Did you get into the topic because you followed the Flyers or from another angle?
     
  3. Alan Bass Registered User

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    Thanks for having me! Having grown up in South Jersey, the Flyers were always front and center in my love of hockey. But my interest has always been in the management, business, and historical side of the game. When I wrote my first book on 1967 NHL Expansion, I began learning a lot about the teams that came before the Flyers and it kind of sat dormant in the back of my mind for many years, before my interest grew much too much to ignore. That's the very short story of how this came about!
     
  4. Theokritos Moderator

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    I've long been under the impression that Philadelphia is one of the not-so-many American cities where hockey is at least as popular as the other major league sports. Would you agree with that? And if so, do you think it's because hockey has such a long and steady history in Philadelphia? (Of course, one could ask why hockey was able to strike such firm roots in that particular city so early on.)
     
  5. Alan Bass Registered User

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    Absolutely. Hockey is usually the second sport in Philadelphia after football. Though in a year in which the Eagles are bad and the Flyers are good, they are definitely in a 1A and 1B situation. I’m willing to guess it has more to do with the style of hockey matching the tough, blue-collar attitude of Philadelphians. It explains why they fell for the Broad Street Bullies type of game. Passion, loyalty, protective of the city and those of speak negatively of it.
     
  6. nabby12 Registered User

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    What did you find out about the great Herb Gardiner for your story? I'm the writer who wrote the "Golden Boys" book!
     
  7. Alan Bass Registered User

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    A lot! Herb’s grandson still lives in the region and has kept a great deal of archives on him. He was extremely helpful in sharing everything with me for the purpose of this book.
     
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  8. Theokritos Moderator

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    I was about to ask... which sources did you use for your book? Given the length of time covered and the various clubs, it must have been a lot of research.
     
  9. ted2019 Know your History

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    Where at in the great South Jersey? I grew up in Blackwood and moved to Audubon ( about 2-3 miles from REXY's) Now I live further south in the country in Pittsgrove. It's great because we have all of this fresh food around in our area and it's a short 30-40 minute drive from the beach and only 30 minutes from Philly. The best of both worlds.
     
  10. Boxscore Registered User

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    Theo, as someone who was born and raised in South Philadelphia--and have spent my entire life here--I will describe it this way...

    The Eagles are "Philadelphia's team" and it's not close. Pretty much everyone in the Philly area has a family connection to the Eagles and owns jerseys and hats. The Eagles dominate sports talk on the two sports stations in Philly by 80%.

    The Phillies are the 2nd most popular in terms of "volume" and historic popularity. The Phillies have been around since the late-1800's, and although not great throughout, the Phillies are the second (some even say first) most popular team in the city--if we're counting fans.

    The Flyers are the 3rd most popular in the city, edging the Sixers. Here's the thing though about Flyers fans--they are a smaller group but, historically, their passion has rivaled any team--including the Eagles. In the 70's and 80's especially--the Flyers fans were as rabid as any sports team's fans on the planet--regardless of sport.

    I grew up walking distance from the sports complex in Philadelphia and Flyers fans were over-the-top passionate. When the team would lose in the playoffs, fans would be waiting for the players by the hundreds (if not thousands) along the fence of the Philadelphia International Airport. I used to wait in lines that were blocks long in the 80's and early-90's for tickets, the day tickets went on sale.

    The Flyers were a family, thanks to their owner Ed Snider, and their tight-knit group over the years. Their practices were notoriously packed like a sardine can--even their newer facility that held practice in two different rinks. I had 12-game plans from 1989-1994 when tickets were semi-affordable. Even during the awful (pre-Lindros) years, the Spectrum was packed with screaming fans.

    That said, the dynamic between the team and the fans got its first crack after the Lindros trade. Then the fans suffered through plenty of more downs. Between the passing of Mr. Snider, and the over-marketed experience at the Wells Fargo Center, the older fans started to resent the organization a bit. I came up in the 70's and myself--and many of my friends and colleagues--have soured on the Flyers quite a bit. They have been poorly run in ways over the last 20 years and the in-game experience has priced out the average person. Even middle-to-upper-middle-class fans in the Philadelphia area have chosen to put their entertainment dollars elsewhere. I've lost count of how many times I've passed on free tickets over the last 5-6 years--it's not worth the hassle, beer prices, traffic, etc.

    All of that said, the Flyers from 1970-1997 were absolutely beloved. The houses in South Philly and the North East would hang their flags and orange lights outside during the playoffs--it was amazing.

    As for the OP's book -- @Alan Bass I can't wait to check this out! I will probably buy a copy for myself and at least two buddies!
     
  11. Alan Bass Registered User

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    All varieties: books, newspapers as far back as the 1890s, interviews (for some of the later teams), and casual chats with some historians who specialized in certain eras or teams.
     
  12. Alan Bass Registered User

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    I grew up in the Cherry Hill/Voorhees area
     
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  13. ted2019 Know your History

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    I would say that a sports like Hockey & Football have had such popularity in Philly is simply because it's always been a blue collar city. Hockey & Football are tough, physical sports and mirrors the type of people that live in Philly/South Jersey. People that aren't afraid to get their hands dirty . It's the same reason a sport like Boxing & Philly are been synonymous with each other for decades. It's tough, like those that live in this region.
     
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  14. ted2019 Know your History

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    Great post and 1000% spot on!
     
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  15. ted2019 Know your History

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    Near the Skate Zone or near the old practice rink in Stratford?
     
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  16. Boxscore Registered User

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    Bang on. Boxing has a rich tradition in Philadelphia.
     
  17. Alan Bass Registered User

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    Skate Zone
     
  18. Theokritos Moderator

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    @Alan Bass, why do you think the Quakers failed and the Flyers succeeded? Was Philadelphia not quite NHL-ready yet in 1930? Were the acting persons in the club management not up to the task? What did the Flyers do better?
     
  19. Alan Bass Registered User

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    That's a great question that I explore in the book at length. Not only is it relevant to the Quakers, but all of the squads. What made some of them succeed and others fail, all within the same city (and sometimes the same building)? Without giving all of it away, to me it boils down to a few major factors: the building in which they played, the personality of the team (read: effort and passion), and most importantly, the support of the team's ownership in creating a winning culture. But I would highly recommend to everyone to make their own conclusions based on the stories in the book, of course!
     
  20. Theokritos Moderator

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    In light of what you and others have written about the character of the city, it strikes me as funny and maybe, just maybe, a little telling that a club named after a religious group rejecting violence would fail in Philadelphia while a club building its identity on roughness would succeed.
     
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  21. Doctor No Registered User

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    One of my favorite photos used as the cover! Lemelin and Molleken trying to keep things together during the team photo.
     
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  22. ted2019 Know your History

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    Flyers could win the cup. Eagles go 0-16. And the Eagles will always be more popular.

    If all four teams were successful simultaneously, it would go:

    Eagles
    Phillies
    Sizes
    Flyers
     
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  24. Theokritos Moderator

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    @Alan Bass, what would you say were the crucial moments in Philadelphia hockey history before the Flyers? You mention the 1930s Philadelphia Ramblers winning the first professional league title in city history?
     
  25. Alan Bass Registered User

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    The Ramblers winning the AHL championship is definitely one of the top moments. The Rockets came within a few goals of winning their championship years later but had an otherwise fantastic season and rough series with their rivals from Boston. And the Quaker City Hockey Club dominated their league in the 1890s, surprising many larger cities that Philadelphia even had a hockey presence — a great start to a great sport!
     
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