Flyers Where are They Now?: Jimmy Watson

Flyers Where are They Now?: Jimmy Watson
August 30, 2011, 4:53 pm
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Admittedly, blood runs thicker than the ice water that needs to be poured over the sleeping heads of those who have a Flyers Hall of Fame vote and dont use it on Jimmy Watson. But whoever they are the team wont release names of the selectors brother Joe Watson would like to send over Schultzie, Hound and the boys for a little, uh, education.

Its a freaking injustice, said Joe. Jimmy was on five all-star teams and a Canada Cup team, I dont understand.

He was so smooth, steady, could backhand a pass as well as anybody who played in that era. People dont remember, I guess. It should have happened a long time ago.

Eventually, it probably will. But when Jimmy lay at Wills Eye Hospital for four days in 1977, both eyes covered after his left retina had been creased by the stick of the Blues Jerry Butler, Watson still had better vision than do these cumulative voters. By Cup II he had emerged as clearly the Flyers best defenseman in only his second season, on the way to a plus-295 for his nine-season career. One doesnt have to be related to him to see a wrong that needs righting.

Absolutely he belongs, said Bob Clarke. Jimmy could play.

In a day of a more up-and-down game, his lateral movement was exceptional. He anticipated the play and was really competitive, just a really good player.

Somehow this has gotten lost, despite the fact Watson is not hard at all to find on almost any day on the ice at IceWorks in Aston, Delaware County.

You have to want the puck! last week he boomed to a group of Jim Watson Hockey School enrollees, not old enough to remember him but decades away from becoming deaf enough to ignore him.

At IceWorks, a four-rink complex he owns with four partners, Watson imparts the same passion at his school and at the Jim Watson Academy for teenagers serious about scholarships or junior hockey that he brought to his contemporaries in the Flyers golden age.

The joke amongst writers who covered him was that it was impossible to ask Watson a question without him answering it this teams got a lot of pride. Indeed it did, largely because he compulsively stoked it.

Whenever anyone started complaining, Jimmy was the first guy to shut him up, Paul Holmgren once said.

Fuzzy as Watsons eyesight became after the high stick, he had a 20-20 look at a world of two distinct categories: 1) Good for hockey or 2) Bad for hockey. And three and a half decades later Can you believe it, 35 years! he said last week over an IceWorks sandwich nothing has changed at age 59, save the color of his hair.

I love working with the kids, dont think I ever will retire, he said. I will pass away in an ice rink someday, probably die right here.

As far as Watson is concerned, hes already in heaven. And he has been since he and local partners tired of driving their kids to a rundown rink in Valley Forge found a tract of land on Duttons Mill Road that shifted Watson from a contracting business he had run since retiring in 1982.

Built a lot of houses, said Watson. Two or three a year for 15 years.

General partner, general contractor, I enjoyed it for the most part. But when we built the rink in 1997, I had to be here in the summertime to work my camps and keep the cash flowing going. Thats your busy time of the year for building so I just couldnt keep both working.

Frankly, it was a blessing in disguise. The contracting business hit the skids with everything else. I got the hell out of it at the right time.

Timing is everything in life. Watson was unlucky to walk into a jaw-busting, concussion-causing, slap shot fired by Team USAs Gary Sargent early in the first Canada Cup, then four months later was star-crossed again when Butler tried to lift his stick, missed, and left half his hard contact lens in his eye and half of it on the St. Louis Arena ice.

Creased the retina, created a fuzziness in my one eye, he said. Eventually, after I quit, had to have a cataract removed.

But the eye didnt end up keeping me from playing, it was more my back that caused my early retirement.

I got nine years in, should have had five or six more, maybe even longer. I was always in great shape. But injuries eventually get almost everybody in the game, got Joe, got me. I dont feel cheated at all, no sir, not at all. I feel very, very fortunate and grateful for everything I got.

When you are a kid setting out to do this, you have no idea where its going to go. You get drafted by the Flyers, where my brother plays, thats just wonderful, then I make the team my second year. Im a rookie in the NHL and doing something I wanted to do my whole life and then we win the Stanley Cup that year. And win it again the next. As I tell my little campers, how good is that?

About as good as he was, which, in our view, is behind only Mark Howe, Chris Pronger and Eric Desjardins among defensemen in Flyers history, even if Watson is not in their Hall of Fame, even if he insists he doesnt mind.

Too busy here at the rink to think about that, he shrugged, perhaps because though he has never been unheard, Watson has had previous practice at being overlooked.

Joe was the booming Thundermouth of the six siblings of Joe Sr. and Mary Watson of Smithers, B.C. a remote picture postcard town set in the Canadian Rockies. But Jimmy brought some decibels, too, along with mobility to a blueline that apparently was undervalued in the 1972 draft.

A first-team Western Hockey League all-star in Calgary, Watson nevertheless dropped to the third round of what would be an exceptional Flyer haul of Bill Barber (first), Tom Bladon (second) and Al MacAdam (a 240-NHL goal scorer after being used in the Reggie Leach deal, taken fourth).

When Watson, following a full season in Richmond, made the Flyers out of training camp in 1973, Fred Sheros trust was implicit from the first shift of the season. More offense in Watsons game was on its way, too, when essentially it was struck down by that high stick. Jerry Butler, never got along with that guy, sort of a dirty player, Watson said.

Nevertheless, Watson scored the goals that took out the Maple Leafs in Game 6 in 1977 and restored a two-goal lead in Boston the December day of 1979 when the Flyers set an NHL record with their 29th consecutive game without a loss. Even as his back began to diminish him, Watson remained among the better defensemen in the league.

Problem started as early as the second Cup year, he said. We kept it hidden, but I was getting treatment in Buffalo during the Final.

When he got to his fourth one in 1980, it was with a clavicle that had been broken by a Barry Beck check in the second round. A couple hard hits in Game 6 of the Final left him in the locker room for the third period and overtime, when Bob Nystrom scored.

We almost won a third Cup, said Watson. Leon Stickle, jeez.

What a year that was. Clarkie, Reggie, Ricky, Moose (Dupont) and I were still around from the Cup teams. Paul Holmgren had a great year and then we had what I called "The New Breed," (Brian) Propp, (Pete) Peeters, Ken Linseman, Behn Wilson. Some real beauties there. But we just kept outscoring everybody. Thirty-five without a loss, goodness!

His body wore down before his enthusiasm. When electrical stimulation treatments didnt work, Watson underwent fusion surgery in February 1981.

Dr. Ian McNab at Wellesley Hospital in Toronto, world-renowned back guy, did a great job, said Watson. I feel great today, work out, have no back problems at all.

But when I tried to play after the operation, I was stiffening up all the time, didnt have the range of motion. A bad back never leaves you, just wears you down emotionally. I was not as active as I used to be and the Flyers could see that.

In 1981-82, he played 76 games, but not well. Watson gave himself the summer to rejuvenate, but after an exhibition game at the Meadowlands, he sat quietly sobbing on a locker room bench, knowing it was over.

I said to Joe, (then a Flyers assistant coach) I just cant go anymore. The next day Watson went to see GM Keith Allen and emerged with a scouting job to fulfill the final year of his contract. The Flyers, who had just acquired Mark Howe, were building and by the following year, Watson was too, sturdy single-family units in Delaware County, where he had lived during his playing days.

A marriage failed. So Im still eligible, he laughed.

For Father of Every Year certainly.

Chase, 28, who played at Providence College, hopes to find another years work in the East Coast Hockey League. Told him to keep chasing his dream, said Jimmy.

Son Brett, recently graduated captain at UMass, has gone to work for J.P. Morgan. Daughter Caitlin, who just graduated from Penn State with a degree in elementary education, is substitute teaching and coordinating Watsons hockey school.

Joe still works in sales for the Flyers. All six Watson brothers survive, probably because they come from sturdy stock. Joe Watson Sr. died in March at 93, a year after Mary passed at 87, the last two times Jimmy has gone home. He used to say he would draw his last breath in Smithers, but now plans to have it take place at IceWorks.

We built this thing in eight months, he said. Unbelievable, just a wonderful accomplishment.

You cant say enough about fully-involved, do-it-yourself, endeavors and thats what we have here. I won two Stanley Cups and Im more proud of my work with these kids than of anything Ive done in my life.

No tricks up the rolled-up sleeves of one of the best and most sincere Flyers ever. If few ever bought a ticket to the Spectrum for the express purpose of seeing Jimmy Watson play, once inside everybody was reassured by his being there.

Jay Greenberg covered the Flyers for 14 years for the Daily News and Evening Bulletin. His history of the Flyers, Full Spectrum, was published in 1996. He can be reached at jayg616@aol.com.