Listen up, ice hockey fans, this latest shimmy down memory lane is all about shinny, in other words, for you. We’ll catch up with one of the Richmond Robins’ most popular players who, among other things, will tell us how much the game has changed in the 50 years since first being introduced here. Also, in keeping with a more modern trend, you will find the beginnings of a best list, this one rating the fist-throwing, crowd-pleasing dinosaurs who played at the downtown Coliseum, which is also extinct. How fitting is that?
This is Volume 43: “They’ve Been on a Mission … And They Succeeded.”
For the past 41 years, or since he hung up the old skates, Steve Coates has been calling ‘em as he sees ‘em as long-time voice of the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers — first on radio, then television, and now back to radio again. “When you get my age,” Coates, 70, said last week, “you have a face for radio.”
He was a never-met-a-stranger, fun-loving, always-accessible member of the Robins during their last two (of five) seasons. Small (5-9, 172) but feisty, Coates appeared in 122 games, with 39 goals, 26 assists, 18 fights and 316 penalty minutes (1974-76). One out-of-town writer, looking back to his days as a player, described Coates as an enforcer, which even he would agree is a bit of a stretch. (More on that in a moment)
From Toronto by way of Michigan Tech, Coates signed with the Flyers as a free agent in 1973 and spent the next seven years playing for nine teams in five leagues including the NHL with Detroit (1976-77). We’re talking a sip of coffee — five games, a goal and two fights — before returning to the high minors.
Coates recalled “hanging around and getting to know the [Flyers’] broadcasters,” like the late, great Gene Hart. In 1980, Coates was asked by radio and TV producer Pete Silverman “If I wanted to do 30 games on the radio, and I said, ‘Yeah.’ I had just retired from playing,” Coates said.
“So, I jumped right in … and I was awful.”
How did you know? “They told me,” Coatesy said, “I was a typical [censored] hockey player who thought he could come right in, sit down, put a headset on and describe a hockey game. It wasn’t that easy.”
He quickly recognized he needed a crash course in Broadcasting 101. Without it, no telling where he’d be today. “It took people tutoring me, helping me understand the nuances of what you had to do. I even had a speech coach,” Coates said, “I’ve been very fortunate.” That he was so eager to improve surely made it easier. OK, so Coates was raw out of the box; that also was/is part of his charm.
He survived the initial 30 days to be between-periods host and game color commentator until 1999 when he moved to Flyers’ TV. For the next 14 seasons he did color, between-the-benches reporting and hosted a taped Coatesy’s Corner that aired during the first intermission. In 2014-15, it was back to radio where he is a game analyst. So how long before he retires?
“My wife told me I have to work 10 years after I die,” the good humor man said. “I love the game. I love what I do. What else would I do?”
After all, he’s had a rink-side seat as the pro game has evolved, not always for the better depending on your point of view. “The rules have changed. The players are bigger, stronger, faster. Back in the [his] day, average size was 5-10, 180. Now it’s 6-2, 200. And, the equipment is better,” Coates said.
“Now, it’s big business, I mean BIG. In [AHL] Richmond we had a coach, Larry Wilson, and a trainer, Earl Curtis, who basically was an equipment manager who gave you some tape. Now, in the NHL, they have two athletic trainers, two equipment guys, two masseuses. You charter everywhere. Stay in nothing but high-end hotels.”
In other words … “It was a different game back in the day compared to what it is now,” Coatesy said.
Check it out and, immediately, you notice hardly anyone finishes a check anymore. Players tend to pull up rather than punish an opponent with a big hit, presumably protecting a multi-million dollar investment … in themselves. As a result, the really skilled players do whatever they want. They are impressive, sure enough, but it’s certainly easier when you don’t have to worry about being the object of a stiff, fillings-loosening body check by Scott Stevens or taking a stick to the ribs from Ed Van Impe.
Then there is the fighting, dropping the gloves to go mano a mano with unmistakable anger … a crowd-pleasing perk back in the day … oops, they don’t do that much anymore, do they? Once a staple, fisticuffs have become almost an afterthought.
“They’ve been on a mission for years to get rid of fighting … and they succeeded,” Coates said.
It wouldn’t be too far-fetched to suggest the beginning of the end started with the first Robins (1971-72), who included several of the Flyers’ Broad St. Bullies-to-be that won back to back Stanley Cups with a combination of skill and intimidation — not necessarily in that order of importance.
The exposure afforded to the game by the Bullies led to people who knew nothing about hockey but became indignant about its brutality, calling for reform. It became right of passage for sports columnists in major cities. Repeat something often enough … well, you get the idea. The NHL caved.
First, in 1977, rules were changed to eliminate the third-man-in a fight. Then (1992) they started penalizing the player who started a fight. With the advent of helmets being mandatory, players were instructed not to remove them intentionally to fight or be penalized even more. And, of course, referees were given even more latitude — encouraged is a better word — to toss players creating a disturbance.
So much for the good old days of shinny. “They’re gone,” Coates said. “Now we talk about scorers, defensemen who can put the puck in the net, great goaltending. Taking the body is still an element … when need be. There’s still some fighting … but we don’t have the specialty guy [read: designated enforcer] any more.”
In other words, had E. Claiborne Robins Jr. been so inclined to push the startup button on hockey now as he was then, a half-century ago, there would be no Dave Schultz play-a-likes, no Jack McIlhargey wannabees. Or, to take it a step further, to the players (and teams) that followed the Robins … no reasonable facsimiles of Trevor Senn, Brian Goudie or the brothers Vandermeer, Peter and Dan. We certainly never would have crossed anxious moments with Bill Goldthorpe, who gave new meaning to the word goon and was the inspiration for the character “Ogie Ogilthorpe” in the 1977 cult classic movie “Slap Shot.”
All of which leads us, as promised, to rating the tough guys who stuck out their chins and said hit me if you can while attempting to inflict considerable punishment themselves here. On second thought, maybe it would be more logical to list them in no particular order — say a top five and best of a considerable rest. It’s all in the eye of the beholder, clearly more subjective than objective, after all.
(Also, it should be noted that some of these players were versatile enough to have value to their teams without dropping their gloves. For those who watched the Robins, Wildcats, Rifles, Renegades I, Riverdogs and Renegades II — starting in 1971-72, ending 2008-09 — make up your own minds. The rest of you, just read on … and enjoy.)
We’ll start with McIlhargey, an undrafted defenseman (6-0, 195), who Coates says, “Pound for pound was as good as any of them.” From Edmonton, “Captain Jack” (better known as “Bucky”) had a unique style, throwing rights in a rat-tat-tat fashion, straight and fast, as opposed to the more accepted way of grabbing with one hand and tossing uppercuts or round-house hooks.
Ask Willie Brossart, one of the original Robins, his choice for best here, gloves off, and he also begins with McIlhargey — but with a caveat. “He probably was the best [Robins] fighter because he was here longer … Davey was here only the one year,” Brossart said.
“Davey,” of course, is Schultz, who honed his toughness and fistic ability while collecting 392 penalty minutes — and becoming a fan favorite — for the first Robins that included NHLers-to-be such as Bill Clement, goaltenders Michel Belhumeur and Bob Taylor, Don Saleski, Rick MacLeish and Brossart. “We had 18-20 tough guys … with Davey to back us up,” said Brossart, 71, who played eight years in the NHL with Philadelphia, Toronto and Washington.
Still vivid in our memory is McIlhargey wasting Virginia Red Wings’ Dennis Polonich to start a major brawl on a Sunday afternoon at the Coliseum. “What Jack brought was not only his fighting ability but also his ability to scare the hell out of you,” said Coates, who was a teammate of McIlhargey in Des Moines, Iowa (1973-74) as well as the next two seasons with the Robins. “The intimidation factor was so important back in the day … making your guys feel a little bit tougher because they knew they had him on the team.”
McIlhargey played all or parts of four seasons in Richmond for Wilson who eventually persuaded the Flyers to give him a nice contract after the 1974-75 campaign in which he had 16 fights and 361 penalty minutes, both team highs. A year earlier Wilson talked Des Moines into sending McIlhargey to the Robins on loan for a few weeks. Then, when it was time to send him back, Larry pulled the old “fog at the airport” trick to keep McIlhargey here. He never returned.
In all, McIlhargey spent eight seasons (393 games) in the NHL, three with the Flyers, and spent 1,102 minutes in the penalty box. He was coach of Vancouver’s AHL affiliate in Syracuse (1994-99) and also served the Canucks as assistant coach and scout until 2007 when he rejoined the Flyers.
Likeable, everyone’s friend as a player — off the ice, of course — and in retirement, McIlhargey was serving as a scout for Philadephia when he died July 19, 2020 at age 68. “He had throat cancer,” said Coates, an old friend, “… and he never smoked a day in his life.”
Now 71 and pretty much keeping a low profile, Schultz left Richmond to become one of the — if not THE — most storied purveyors of mayhem in NHL history. The Flyers won back-to-back Stanley Cups (1973-74, 1974-75). They got stand-on-his-head goaltending from Bernie Parent (1.89 goals against). They had a bunch of skilled skaters — Bobby Clarke, MacLeish, Bill Barber, Reggie Leach, Ross Lonsberry and Clement, etc., etc. But, most of all they will be remembered for terrorizing opponents with Schultz (still a record 472 PIM in ‘74-75) their most-wanted ringleader. They were Bullies, after all.
Little known … Schultz was valued for scoring goals in junior hockey and didn’t start building his reputation as a brawler until his first season (1969-70) as a pro with the Salem, Va., Rebels. In 72 games, he had 379 PIM.
By then, with the downtown Coliseum under construction, we knew hockey was in our immediate future, and I was sent to the Salem Civic Center for a piece on the Rebels, at that point the commonwealth’s only professional team. Schultz was gone for an eight-game tryout with the AHL Quebec Aces. Missed him. Bummer. Nevertheless, there was all kinds of material.
Talk about a zoo! That night Rebels coach Colin Kilburn was ejected in the first period. Defenseman Lynn Margarit also was tossed. While the linesmen were trying to get him under control, goalie Jim Letcher left his crease, skated slowly to center ice and punched referee Ted Daily, knocking him to the ice. Then, at period’s end, a fan waited for Daily as he left the ice and jumped on him from an overhanging ledge. Hockey, what hockey? Dave who?
Schultz spent 1970-71 with the Aces, who would become the Robins thanks to Robins, Jr., and the Flyers in partnership the following season. In Quebec, Schultz continued to build his reputation as an enforcer, accumulating 397 PIM in 72 games. From Richmond, he spent four years in Philadelphia, earning “The Hammer” nickname with 1,749 penalty minutes — an astonishing average of 4.8 per game.
The internet is loaded with opinions about who have been the greatest at dropping gloves and throwing punches. Only Detroit’s Bob Probert and Toronto’s David “Tiger” Williams rank consistently ahead of Schultz. He unquestionably got the most publicity for being part of back-to-back Cup-winning teams.
Davey even cut a record, “Penalty Box,” in 1975. “But, I can’t sing,” he said, then proved it. Flyers fans didn’t care, of course.
Now, about Coates, the enforcer not. Still vivid is the night (Oct. 18, 1974) at the Coliseum he challenged Nova Scotia’s Gilles Lupien, a tall, tough and always willing to go defenseman. From a size standpoint, it was a mismatch, Coatesy giving away as many as 10 inches. No matter. “I didn’t mind fighting,” he said, adding, “I liked it.”
So, there was the smallish winger, jumping up off the ice, trying to land a few blows, while Lupien was trying to swat away this little pest. Coates kept leaping and swinging until the linesmen intervened. It was almost comical — if it hadn’t been so serious.
Call it a draw although Coates would suffer a knee injury during the game and missed the next three. No telling how many fights Lupien had during an eight-year pro career — four in the NHL with Montreal (two Stanley Cups), Pittsburgh and Hartford — while spending 1,646 minutes in the sin bin. He’ll never forget the ...ahh … unique bout with Coates.
“He’s an agent now,” Coates said, “and whenever I see him he calls me crazy man.”
Call me crazy but we’ll leave the rest of our fighters’ ratings for another time. Rounding out our top five, however: Senn, Goudie and Dan Vandermeer. All three played for the Renegades and Riverdogs, occasionally together. And the runaway (not close) leader in penalty minutes — games with local teams only — with 1,787 in 261 games (including playoffs) is …?
Until next time ...