Clarke, Robert Earle ("Bobby")

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CLARKE, Robert Earle ("Bobby")

(b. 13 August 1949 in Flin Flon, Manitoba, Canada), Hockey Hall of Famer and three-time National Hockey League Most Valuable Player who became the Philadelphia Flyers general manager.

Clarke was born in the mining town of Flin Flon in northern Manitoba. He played for the local junior ice hockey team, the Flin Flon Bombers, in a frontier atmosphere that was rife with brawling and intimidation. He survived these battles and seemed destined for a professional hockey career when word of his diabetic condition circulated through the National Hockey League (NHL) scouting grapevine. In addition to diabetes, Clarke also had difficulty with severe myopia. "That means," he once explained, "trouble seeing far away. I never wore lenses in junior hockey. If I was on top of the play, I was okay. It was when the puck was in the air that I had trouble judging it." Fortunately for Clarke, his coach Paddy Ginnell was determined to see that his crack center got a fair chance to reach the top.

Ginnell arranged for Clarke to visit the famed Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and personally escorted him there before the 1968–1969 season. Following a battery of tests, the doctors agreed there was absolutely no reason why Clarke could not play professional hockey, provided he took good care of himself. "What's more, the doctors put it in writing," said Ginnell. "That was all I needed. We went home and when the scouts came around the following season I showed them the letter. I wanted everyone from any NHL team who came to Flin Flon to know about Bobby exactly what the doctors at Mayo Clinic knew."

Skeptical though they were, the Philadelphia Flyers gambled on Clarke, picking him seventeenth overall in the 1969 amateur draft. If anyone had suggested to the Flyers boss Ed Snider that Clarke would, in May 1973, be selected for the Hart Trophy, it is possible that he would have tumbled from his chair laughing. But Clarke made the team on his first try and, from the moment he made his NHL debut, the gap-toothed center was Charlie Hustle on ice. By the 1972–1973 season he had exceeded the 100-point mark.

Clarke's accomplishments were immense during the 1972–1973 season. During a game against the Montreal Canadiens at the Forum, Philadelphia came away with a 7–6 victory. Clarke scored a hat trick, achieving the winning goal with only 3:39 remaining in the game. Even partisan fans from Montreal agreed that the kid from Flin Flon was Most Valuable Player (MVP) material, and the Flyers manager Keith Allan agreed with them. "In Philadelphia," Allan observed, "there was nobody but Clarke to consider. Rick MacLeish had a remarkable year, but I'd hate to think where the Flyers would be without Clarke."

Clarke would have been the All-Canadian Boy, except for one factor: the company he kept. By the middle of the 1972–1973 season, the Flyers had become known as the "Broad Street Bullies" and had established themselves as the toughest swashbucklers of the NHL. Their scorn for the rule book was notorious from Flin Flon to Toronto and a cause for alarm at the NHL headquarters in Montreal. Clarke began to develop a reputation for chippiness.

Still, he never let brawling interfere with scoring. By playoff time in 1973, Clarke had fulfilled the promise of his September press clippings. He finished second in the scoring race, behind the perennial leader Phil Esposito, with 37 goals and 67 assists for 104 points in 78 games. In the 1974–1975 and 1975–1976 seasons, Clarke led the NHL in assists with eighty-nine each time. He also led in play-off assists both years, twelve and fourteen respectively. He was described as "the heart and soul of our club" by Dave Schultz, a Flyers teammate for the 1974 and 1975 Stanley Cup wins.

Clarke's contributions during the 1970s were legion. He was voted the Hart Trophy as the NHL's MVP in 1973, 1975, and 1976. He was First Team All-Star center in 1975 and 1976 and Second Team All-Star in 1973 and 1974. He starred for Team Canada in the eight-game series against the Soviet All-Stars in 1972 and played for the NHL All-Stars against the Soviet Selects in the 1979 Challenge Cup.

By the late 1970s the wear and tear of playing professional hockey for ten years began taking its toll, and Clarke's point production began a downward spiral: 90, 89, 73, 69, and, finally, only 65 points in the 1980–1981 season. The Flyers attempted to relieve Clarke by making him an assistant coach and limiting his playing time, but Clarke's will to play was overwhelming, and in 1981–1982 he helped to invigorate the team's rebuilding process with a gallant show of energy. At the age of thirty-two, he clawed for position with greater zeal than rookies fourteen years his junior.

Clarke retired from the ice in May 1984, and in a natural progression became the Flyers general manager. Although a novice at the demanding job, he soon turned the Flyers into a powerhouse once more. The team reached the Stanley Cup finals in 1985 and again in 1987. The kid from Flin Flon demonstrated that hard work pays off on all levels. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1987.

Clarke and Snider parted ways for a couple of seasons, but soon Clarke was back as the Flyers general manager, a post he still held in 2001. The hair was gray, glasses were now perched on the nose, but the intensity was still there.

What Pete Rose once meant to baseball and Michael Jordan to basketball, Clarke was to hockey and, more specifically, to the Philadelphia Flyers. Like Rose, Clarke displayed a fervor for his sport that did not diminish with age. His impressive career achievements did not come easily; he lacked the smooth skating skills of Bobby Orr and Mario Lemieux, and his shot was never particularly potent, but he always made the most of what he had. "Guts is what he had in abundance," said the Flyer Larry Zeidel. "Not everybody saw his qualities at first, but after a while they realized he was a winner."

For further information on Clarke, see James Duplacey, Joseph Romain, Stan Fischler, Morgan Hughes, and Shirley Fischler, Twentieth-Century Hockey Chronicle (1999); Dan Diamond, Total Hockey: The Official Encyclopedia of the National Hockey League, 2d ed. (2000); and Stan Fischler, The Ultimate Bad Boys: Hockey's Greatest Fighters (1998).

Stan Fischler

Clay, Cassius. See Ali, Muhammad.-

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