On Tuesday, Bobby Clarke – one of the most important men in Philadelphia hockey history – turned 64. Clarke is remembered as much for his impact on the ice in the '70s as he is for his influence as a GM decades later.
Clarke, however, is far from the only individual to contribute significantly to the sport in this city. Herb Gardiner, a coach whose name is spoken far less than Clarke’s or Flyers chairman Ed Snider’s, left a lasting impression on hockey in Philadelphia, despite the relative obscurity in which his memory remains for most local fans.
Gardiner coached the 1935-36 Philadelphia Ramblers (originally known as the Arrows, Philly’s first professional hockey team), a New York Rangers farm team, in the Can-Am Hockey League. He led them to one championship, then known as the Frank Fontaine Cup, with a team that featured future 1940 Rangers Stanley Cup teammates Walter “Babe” Pratt, Alex Shibicky and Mac Colville.
“Dad always considered Lester Patrick and the New York Rangers to have the premier minor league development program in the NHL,” said Shibicky’s son, Alex Jr., “[that identified] young prospects at Lester's scouting camps in Winnipeg and their process of sending the recruits through the Brooklyn Crescents and Philadelphia Ramblers before promoting the properly seasoned youngsters to the Rangers, and with Gardiner overseeing that last and most important step.”
In 1936-37, the new International-American Hockey League (or “I-AHL”) was formed, and it had some Hall of Fame talent like Clint Smith, Murray “Muzz" Patrick (son of the legendary Lester) and Bryan Hextall Sr. (Ron’s grandfather), who was a star on that team having scored 29 goals, which led both his team and the league. Hextall, in fact, had more goals than the entire Buffalo Bisons team, which combined for 23.
The Ramblers lost in the Calder Cup Finals in the first official season of the eventual American Hockey League. They lost again in the finals in 1939.
Gardiner patrolled the bench of the Philadelphia Auditorium and Ice Palace, which was built in 1920 and located on 4530 Market St. until it burned down in 1983. He had a short three-year NHL career playing for the Montreal Canadiens (he won the Hart Trophy in his first season at the age of 35 in 1926) and the Chicago Blackhawks in the late ‘20s. His final year in Chicago, he was a player-coach and was booted after posting a 5-23-4 record. His rights were eventually sold to the Bruins, and he became a player-coach for their affiliate, the Philadelphia Arrows.
In 1945-46, Gardiner coached the Philadelphia Falcons of the Eastern Hockey League to a winning record. When his coaching career ended, he stayed in Philadelphia. He was named as a GM of the failed Philadelphia Maroons in 1947. There was a hope that the city would get another NHL franchise during his career (the Quakers had played in the NHL from 1930-31), but it never happened.
He was, though, inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1958.
In 1967, the NHL expanded to 12 teams, ending the Original Six era and adding the Philadelphia Flyers to the mix. When that happened, Snider made Gardiner the team’s first season ticket holder.
“[Snider] learned Gardiner was retired and living in the Philadelphia area so he made him the team's first season ticket holder,” Comcast-Spectacor VP of public relations Ike Richman said. “Herb came to our ticket office at 15th and Locust street, and was greeted by Ed Snider, minority owner Joe Scott and team president Bill Putnam. Photos of the presentation appeared in the press and in the Flyers’ newsletter.
“Still an avid fan of the game, Herb made it to every game he could until his death in 1972.”