50 years after Flin Flon Bomber debut, a hockey legend reflects

From the moment his skate blades hit the Whitney Forum ice, there was something different about Bobby Clarke.

Then just 16, in a league dominated by men three and four years his senior, Clarke made an immediate impact for the Flin Flon Bombers.

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Now, 50 years after his debut in maroon and white, Clarke remains an iconic hockey figure, both in Flin Flon and around the globe.

But the born-and-bred Flin Flonner hasn’t forgotten his roots.

“It made my career as an NHL player,” Clarke, now 66, says in a phone interview from his New Jersey home, referring to his time with the Bombers. “[Coach Pat] Ginnell was an exceptional coach for young players. Every day you…were taught to work your ass off. Whether you played the night before or were going to play the next day, you worked and you worked. You were taught to work and you were taught to battle, and that proved successful for myself and for numerous players who played for Ginnell over the years in junior hockey.”

Some older Bomber fans still remember the humble Clarke’s miraculous 1966-67 season, when the gangly teen notched an average of four points per game.

Lesser known – and indeed excluded from some accounts of Clarke’s career – is the fact that he actually joined the Bombers the previous season, 1965-66.

He only played four games, but he left little doubt he would be back the following season by notching a remarkable seven points (four goals and three assists).

At the time of his call-up, “Clarkie” was a standout player in Flin Flon’s juvenile hockey system. In a classic case of foreshadowing, his team was called the Flyers.

“Any kid who come through the minor hockey programs of Flin Flon, and I started right at the bottom, wanted to play for the Bombers,” he recalls. “So getting a call at 16 to come up and play a game, because I assume somebody was hurt, is pretty exciting.”

Clarke retains only fuzzy memories of his four-game introduction, but he knows each match-up would have been at the Whitney Forum. As a 16-year-old still in high school, he couldn’t join the team on the road.

He thinks he scored his first goal against the now-defunct Moose Jaw Canucks.

“I slapped the puck from inside the blue line and it went in, and that’s about the only recollection I have of when I was called up,” Clarke says. “It’s 50 years ago now. I could be wrong in my recollection as well.”

Considering he earned nearly two points per game in his four-game trial, Clarke seemed like a shoo-in to crack the roster the following season.

But No. 11 himself wasn’t so sure.

“No, not at all,” Clarke says. “There was so many good players, players as good as I was, when I was growing up, you know. I started at 8 playing [minor] hockey and went all through the program. There was players easily as good as I was through my whole minor hockey career in Flin Flon. I had no idea I could make the Bombers. And they brought in a lot of players from out of town and stuff. You never knew, you know. I dreamed of playing for the Bombers, but I never knew I was going to make it.”

Dennis Ballard, a longtime Bomber fan, recalls Clarke’s early days with the team.

“As soon as you saw him play, you knew he was destined, even then, [to play professionally],” says Ballard. “He was playing with the men. He was beating them in the corners, he was digging hard.

“He played with a  certain fierceness. I don’t know how you could describe it. He wanted that puck, that was his puck.”

When Clarke first donned the exploding “B”, the team was a laughing stock under coach Tom (Butch) Baird. Flin Flon finished last in the league in 1965-66 with just eight wins in 60 games.

The following season, 1966-67, was a watershed year for the Bombers. The tough-as-nails Pat (Paddy) Ginnell replaced Baird as coach. On the ice, Clarke established himself as the dominant force of the MJHL (the Bombers had transferred over from the SJHL that season).

Clarke, a centreman, led the league in all offensive categories with a barely believable 183 points (71 goals and 112 assists) in 45 games.

Indicative of his get-the-hell-out-of-my-way style, he averaged 2.7 minutes in penalties every game. One can only imagine how his scoring stats would read had he spent more time out of the sin bin.

NHL teams would later shy away from Clarke because of his diabetes (he pronounces it “diabeat-us”) and the blood-sugar balancing act and infection risks that came with it.

But during his Bomber years, Clarke says neither he nor the team worried.

“I never looked at myself as a diabetic hockey player,” he says. “I looked at myself as a hockey player who happened to have diabetes. Lots of guys I played against had knee surgery and broken legs and broken shoulders and stuff. They were never called the broken-shouldered hockey player or the torn-up-knee hockey player. They were a hockey player who had knee problems, but they played hockey. I considered myself the same. I had diabetes, but it was not an excuse for me not to play to the best of my ability.”

Clarke was not the only offensive force on the Bombers in 1966-67. Reggie Leach, a highly touted aboriginal winger from Riverton, Manitoba, came to the team as a 16-year-old rookie.

Leach amassed 113 points (67 goals and 46 assists) in 45 games. He and Clarke would spend two more seasons as linemates in Flin Flon and the rest of their lives as friends.

The Bombers lost just six times 48 games that season en route to a league championship. The Flin Flon Bombers were back with a vengeance.

The Bombers were again a juggernaut in 1967-68, with Clarke winning his second straight league scoring title (the Bombers were now in the WCHL). Flin Flon finished first in the regular season but lost in the league final to the Estevan Bruins.

In 1968-69, his final campaign as a Bomber, Clarke took his third straight scoring title. The Bombers won both the league championship and the James Piggott National Championship.

As ruthless as he was dominant, Clarke ended his Flin Flon tenure with 495 points (177 goals and 318 assists) in 166 regular-season games. He added another 74 points (25 goals and 49 assists) in 53 playoff games.

He remains Flin Flon’s all-time leading goal-scorer and point-getter, and his records are likely to stand for the ages considering the leading SJHL scorer in 2014-15 had just 84 points.

Asked about his most memorable moment as a Bomber, Clarke begins by mentioning the time he earned 25 points in two games on a single weekend, but then characteristically downplays that achievement.

“I don’t know if that’s an accomplishment even, the other team had to be pretty bad,” he says.

Clarke instead cites Reggie Leach’s 87 goals in 1967-68, which broke a league record set by Fran Huck.

“Fran got his [record] when he was 20, Reggie did it at 17 and he scored five in the last game,” Clarke says. “He was my winger, so we complemented each other really good. That, I thought, was one of the great accomplishments of junior hockey for anybody, let alone a linemate.”

There’s a famous line in poetry that says, “And would some Power give us the gift / To see ourselves as others see us!” Clarke says only in retrospect could he look back on his Bomber years and realize he “was a pretty good junior player.”

“There was no chance playing under Paddy Ginnell that anything was going to anybody’s head,” he says. “There was just no chance of any of that type of thinking.”

After Flin Flon, Clarke embarked on a 15-season Hall of Fame NHL career with the Philadelphia Flyers. Known for his curly mass of blonde hair, he was also part of Canada’s renowned 1972 Summit Series victory (“Henderson has scored for Canada!”), infamously laying down a brutal slash that effectively took a Soviet star out of the tournament.

After retiring as player in 1984, he promptly became the Flyers’ general manager, taking the team to the Cup final twice in six seasons before being dismissed. After stints with Minnesota (the North Stars, not Wild) and Florida, he returned as GM of the Flyers for a 12-year reign that ended with his resignation in 2006.

Today Clarke is senior vice-president with the Flyers. The father of four lives in nearby New Jersey with his wife and to this day has never had any health problems from his diabetes (a physician friend calls him a “freak of nature” because of that).

Back in Flin Flon, Clarke’s famous No. 11 (the same number Ginnell wore as a Bomber player in the 1950s) hangs from the rafters of the Whitney Forum. Clarke’s legacy factors heavily into the rich history encapsulated in one of junior hockey’s most fabled arenas.

Hank Kosar, current president of the Bombers, says Clarke’s legacy has been invaluable for both the team and the community.

“When you make it into the NHL and you represent your country, everybody knows where you are from [and] it [goes] a long ways to promote Flin Flon as well as the Bombers organization,” Kosar says. “Being a local kid that grew up and was raised in Flin Flon, that’s a huge thing for the town and for the club.”

Kosar says Clarke maintains a good relationship with the Bombers franchise.

“He always stops by to see how we’re doing when he’s in town,” says Kosar. “He’s always been a supporter. Ever since he’s left he’s never forgotten his roots and he’s a great ambassador for our club.”

Today, five decades after his junior debut, it is impossible to think of Clarke separate from hockey. And despite his achieve-at-all-costs mentality, he had something of a back-up plan had he not turned pro.

“I think I would have been very happy to go back to the mine,” he says, referring to HBM&S, now Hudbay, where he worked part-time while with the Bombers. “I loved working in the mine. It was a great job, we were paid good money and when you’re 17, 18, 19 years old, those were days when it was all men, so you learned how to be a man from the men you work with and go for beer with after work and all that stuff. You know how men are supposed to act. For me, I loved the mine. I mean, not as much as playing hockey. I was glad to get out of the mine to play hockey, but I certainly would have had no problems going back.”

In addition to his front-office duties with the Flyers, Clarke recently penned the foreword for his old friend Reggie Leach’s new autobiography. So might Clarke be next in putting his life story to page?

“Nah, I don’t think so,” he verbally shrugs. “I’ve had lots of opportunities, but I played [pro] hockey for 15 years. I’m grateful and I’m grateful for all it’s brought for my family, for myself, everything, but I don’t think my life was that interesting. I was a hockey player. There’s tonnes of hockey players around the world. I love it, it was great for me, but I don’t really have a story to tell anybody that’s interesting.”

There is famous footage of Clarke, a gummy gap where his front upper teeth should be, smiling and winking after his Flyers captured the 1974 Stanley Cup. It is one of hockey’s all-time celebrated images – and the most emblematic visual of Clarke’s athletic philosophy.

“I always felt that professional athletes’ only purpose is to try and win,” he says. “And you use whatever you feel it takes, and they’ve got referees, they’ve got rules, they’ve got things and [if you] you break the rules you get penalized. But you’ve got to try your hardest to try and win. That’s what they’re paying for.”

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