Ed Snider thought about the question for several seconds.
What if one of his 15 grandchildren were to ask him, ‘grandpa, what made Freddy Shero so special’?
What would the response be?
“He knew exactly what to do with the players he had,” Snider said. “To me, great coaches, are coaches who can adapt to the players they have. They can change their system based on their players.
“Freddy understood the mix of players we had and how to use them in a way that was unique and created situations that we won those two Stanley Cups.”
On Monday night in Toronto, after literally decades of being overlooked, Fred Shero will be posthumously inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Shero died of cancer at the age of 65 in 1990.
Leaving his mark
Though his NHL coaching career was brief – a scant 10 years – he left an indelible mark on hockey.
Four Stanley Cup final appearances; two Cups; first coach to employ systems; first to hire assistant coaches; first to mandate in-season strength training; first to break down film; first to travel abroad to study Soviet influences; among the first to mandate morning skates.
While Roger Nielsen may have been Captain Video, Shero was the Admiral.
“His use of film back then was radical,” Brian Burke said. “He was an innovator. People remember those teams and say, Broad Street Bullies. Those Flyers were the prototype of the Islanders’ four Cup teams. They were the first team where no matter what style you would play, we’re gonna be able to match you.
“If you want to play hard, we’ll play hard. If you want to play skill, we can do that. Look at the guys they had on that team. [Bobby] Clarke, [Reggie] Leach, [Rick] MacLeish. He was an innovator and his practices were much better than what most teams were doing at the time. Most practices were very simple back then but Freddy’s were more complex.”
Sometimes, deliberately complex to make the players think about what they were doing on the ice and not drift into bad habits.
He had four versions of a breakout. He used a 2-1-2 attack and had a 1-4 shutdown for the final five minutes of a game. When his 1973-74 club beat the Boston Bruins for his first Cup, he went against conventional wisdom to defend Bobby Orr.
“It wasn’t so much let Orr have the puck as, every time you had it, throw it into his corner and make Orr skate back hard for it,” Bob Clarke recalled.
“Freddy knew it was going to be a long series and Orr would play 30-35 minutes a game. Every time we got it, we throw it into his corner, make him skate back hard, and if you got there in time, hit him.
“I don’t know if it took a toll on him. The fifth game, they beat us and he was by far the best player on the ice. But the sixth game here, he wasn’t quite the factor he was in some other games.”
Building his legacy
Shero was a teacher, student and an innovator.
That qualifies him being recognized through the “builder’s category” in the Hall. And that’s how he will enter on Monday. More than a dozen members of his two Cup teams will be in attendance.
His influences were afar. He studied the Soviets in Russia while building a friendship with two men he considered his own mentors – Anatoli Tarasov and Viktor Tikhanov.
It was no accident his 1976 Flyers beat the Russians decisively (4-1) at the Spectrum – the only NHL club to defeat the Soviet Red Army during its North American tour.
“We were Stanley Cup champs, they were dominating the NHL opponents, people said if we could win, we would salvage the pride of the NHL, that type of stuff,” Clarke said.
“Some of us had played against the Russians. We knew how they played. They wanted to pass the puck. As soon as you left a spot, they’d pass it where you used to be. If you weren’t prepared for that, they would make you look pretty bad.
“Freddy said, ‘just hold your positions.’ Let them pass it around all they want. They tried that the first eight minutes of the game and we never chased them. They broke down. As long as we held our positions, they had no where to go with the puck.”
Shero’s winning percentage in Philadelphia was .642. He had four straight seasons with a .700 or better winning percentage.
In a 1999 poll conducted by the Daily News, Shero was voted the greatest coach in Philadelphia sports history, surpassing the likes of the legendary Connie Mack, Greasy Neale and Dick Vermeil.
An avid reader, two books influenced Shero profoundly.
“He was somewhat of a disciple of Lloyd Percival’s hockey handbook and I remember Fred talking about that on different occasions,” recalled New Jersey Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello.
Percival’s “The Hockey Handbook” was published in 1951, six years before Shero began his minor league coaching career. Shero reportedly memorized the book, and used it as tool for future study.
That book became the foundation upon which Shero co-wrote his second book in 1980: “Hockey For The Coach, The Player and The Fan.”
Shero had other influences outside the sport, as well.
“He was really big on John Wooden and had a lot of Wooden stuff around the house and books,” said Ray Shero, his son.
“Dad saw how [Wooden] used his psychology of reading people at UCLA as applicable to hockey. My dad was pretty quiet, but if he trusted you, he would engage you and talk for hours about things.”
The psychology of Wooden might well have the impetus behind Shero’s many sayings he would scribble on the blackboard in the dressing room, including the famous line, “Win today, and we walk together forever.”
“In his own, sort of quiet, reserved way, Freddy was brilliant,” Snider said.
Bob Kelly felt that the essence of Shero’s being could be found at the team’s practices. That’s where Shero would go over all his “cardinal rules” – other players called them his “Commandments” – even quiz players on them, from time to time.
“Dad had his Ten Commandments,” Ray Shero said. “I’d say nine of 10 are still applicable to today’s game. So much was repetition. He felt repetition was the key.”
Among the most important, players said, was Shero’s insistence that you had to protect the puck, control the puck, and distribute the puck with a conviction of knowing what you intend to do.
All of that began at practice.
“We had repetition,” Kelly said. “You go out on our practice and do it blindfolded. The systems were in place. All we did was practice, practice, practice them. But Freddy kept it fun.”
In games, Shero would walk the bench, asking players if they understood what the time, place and score was. It all went back to his Ten Commandments.
“If you were captain, you had a fair amount of freedom to say things in the locker room and that,” Clarke said. “He did things that got the captain to challenge him. Why are we doing this? What he was trying to do, in hindsight, was keep everyone involved in what the team was doing.
“He’d walk up and down the bench, ‘how much time left in the period.’ [Bleep] Freddy, look up yourself. But his game plan was, if there were five minutes left to play, this is how he wanted us to play. He wanted everyone to know how much time was left on the clock. None of us had ever seen this approach.”
Shero's lighter side
Joe Watson says for all Shero’s brilliance, there was also a lighter side to him, one that the players could relate to.
The team was flying from Philly to Seattle to Vancouver on New Year’s eve for a game on New Year’s day. Watson, Bernie Parent and Shero were in the front of the plane drinking. Shero was a legendary drinker.
“On the way over Freddy and Bernie drank eight, nine Scotches a piece,” Watson said. “We get to Seattle and Bernie starts kayaking like a bird with all these funny noises. ... We get to Vancouver and there’s a friend of mine, we got out and he takes us to arm wrestling contest at City Hall on the grass.
“It was raining like hell. We were lying in the muck arm wrestling and Freddy happen to come by, says, ‘what are you doing after drinking for 10 hours?’ Next day, we beat Vancouver, 2-0. Freddy comes up to us and says, ‘we gotta do that more often, boys.’”
Interviews for this story were conducted over the past four years.