The uses of intimidation come easily to Fred Shero; after all, he’s been driven by fear most of his life
Fred Shero has been dealing with fear in many forms all his life and his handling of it has turned him into a revolutionary kind of hockey coach. It has rocketed him and the muscles he masterminds, the ungentlemanly Flyers of Philadelphia, from nowhere to the Stanley Cup in three years. It has brought him from an unknown worrywart at 45 to international recognition stretching all the way to Russia at 49. It has made him the highest-paid thinker in the history of hockey.
Standing behind the bench of the most turbulent and at the same time the most disciplined team in the game just now, Freddie Shero displays all the emotion of a guy viewing a march-past of soldiers. Occasionally he’ll move both hands to the frames of a pair of trendy silver-rimmed sunsensors or he’ll bend to talk quietly to a Flyer player on the bench. He appears calmly in command. Who’d ever suspect, looking at him, that he’s a guy who firmly believes the sky is falling?
When he was a kid in school he used to dream he was going to fail. So he worked twice as hard and always passed with honors. When he played the game (he was in the NHL briefly with the Rangers) he kept dreading the day when he’d be washed up. So he studied hockey the way stockbrokers study the market tables, figuring a coaching job might open. Then, in 13 years as a minor-league coach, he was afraid he’d never get a shot at running an NHL club so he studied some more, tried new things, devised crazy schemes to take the boredom out of practices for the players. In his last seven years down there, he finished first five times, second once, third once. That record got him his break with the Flyers.
Yet when he finally arrived in 1971 he wasted a year, afraid the things that had worked for him were too unsophisticated for the big league, even a watereddown big league and even with an inept bunch like the Flyers. He missed the play-off's, had the guts to kiss good-bye to his awestruck w-ays and brought in the
deep-think that had won for him in the hinterland. In the next two years, Freddie Shero turned the Flyers into the most talked about bumper-bangers in the game, the Mad Squad, the Broad Street Bullies, all that. And in the high excitement last spring when they won everything, beat the old-line Rangers, out-big-badded the big bad Bruins, he stood there like a guy watching a cortege roll by.
Even now, with the Stanley Cup and a fat and reassuring $100,000 contract for each of the next three years as concrete evidences of his worth, there’s still this Mr. Doom-and-Gloom. I talked to him one day at Allan Stanley’s hockey school in the Kawartha Lakes district of eastern Ontario where he worked with kids for two weeks in August. “There must be something more to life than hockey,” he said then, his lean face sombre. “I look around and I see brainy men, people I went to school with, contributing to society in important ways. A friend of mine is a chest surgeon on the west coast and another is a defense attorney. I was smarter than they were in school and look what they’ve done and what I’m doing. I feel maybe I could have been the same thing, and I wonder sometimes what the hell I’m doing in hockey.” Typically, struggling to counter his doubts, what he’s done is return to an extension course in law at Chicago’s La Salle University to guard against whatever disasters may lurk ahead.
But fear is also a tool of the hockey trade that Shero knows how to turn to advantage, and it has played a big part in the success of the ferocious Flyers. His team is the most penalized in hockey history, combative, tough, belligerent and loaded with eager fighters. Shero denies he’s ever instructed a player to pick a fight but he knows the Bullies scare the hell out of a lot of teams just by showing up. His man Dave Schultz has become a folk hero because of the countless times he’s mugged somebody. Shero is aware of Schultz’s impact and, if he’s never spelled it out in specific terms, there’s no question
Schultz has caught the message.
“Intimidation is a big part of the game,” Shero says. “A lot of guys would be better off if they’d fight but they’re afraid. If there’s skating room they look just great and they score a lot of goals against the easy teams. But in tight, in the tough games, they freeze. There are guys who rush into corners determined to come out with the puck. On the other hand, there are guys who always make sure they’re late arriving in the corners. We don’t have any of that second kind.”
Shero has been given a lot of credit as the thinking man’s coach since he turned his pumpkins into champions because, except for goaltender Bernie Parent and centre Bobby Clarke, his roster is remarkably bereft of hall-of-fame candidates. Thougn largely anonymous outside Philadelphia, the rest play an aggressive organized style, staying in position, forechecking in an orderly rather than haphazard way, covering their checks, keeping their goal mouth uncluttered, passing the puck accurately; in short, executing the fundamentals of the game with a minimum of error. The patient Shero has instilled in them the discipline to perform these basic tasks, and he overlays the fundamental concepts with often inspired and occasionally heretical innovations.
Consider, for instance, two of the most widely accepted and broadly employed facets of the game: the slapshot and the tactic of shooting the puck from the centre red line into the opposing team’s zone. On the Flyers, they’re not allowed. Well, “not allowed” is a little heavy; on the Flyers, very little is not allowed. But they are discouraged.
“The slapshot is ridiculous,” Shero says. “Once a guy makes up his mind to shoot he can’t change it; if somebody gets into better position, it’s too late. Winding up takes time, too, so the shot’s often blocked or deflected. Also, who can control it?”
He abhors the idea of shooting the puck in. “All you’re doing is giving it away,” he says. “Why should you give the other team the puck?”
Shero told his team to give Orr the puck
But once he did condone giving away the puck; in fact, it was his own idea, and it was an inspired one. Last spring, before the Boston final, he and his right arm Mike Nykoluk, the assistant coach, were struggling for strategy that would nullify the effectiveness of Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito. They spent hours analyzing films of their games with the Bruins and of the Team Canada-Russia series.
“We’re a hitting team but we’ve always made the mistake of treating Orr and Esposito as untouchables. So they’d been killing us all season, especially Orr. The referees think that Orr is God. He’s not God. We had to stop treating him like God. I remember when Howe and Rocket Richard and Bobby Hull were in this league, they had to earn their way. Everybody went after them, but nobody goes after Orr.”
So Shero instructed his players to give the puck to Orr, to dump it into the corner on his side of the rink, forcing him to go back and retrieve it. Then, instead of one man going in to check Orr, Shero had his forwards swing in front of the net, forcing Orr behind it, compelling him to pick his way toward centre in slow curving routes with one or the other of the forwards always getting a little piece of him.
“The idea was to make Orr work harder than he normally has to work, to tire him if we could.” And of course the tactic worked.
Against Esposito and his towering line mates Wayne Cashman and Ken Hodge, physically the most powerful line in the game, Shero refused to send out a purely checking line to try to contain them. “We’d sometimes make three line changes against their single shift.”
Shero had another reason for not assigning a designated checker to hawk Esposito. “When you break up your lines or shuffle them to contain one man, you’re playing in fear,” he says. “You’re providing an out for not winning. The hell with that.”
A surprising thing about Shero, nobody knocks him. That’s practically unheard of in hockey, where even Stanley Cup coaches are put down as dumbbells lucky enough to be assigned to geniuses. But with Shero it’s all hearts and flowers. He levels with the press, never ducks a question, always returns calls, and the minions respond positively to this. Rival coaches understandably are able to contain their enthusiasm but they give him marks. “He didn’t make any mistakes,” Punch Imlach, Buffalo Sabres’ general manager, says of Shero’s work in the
Parent won a car and gave it to Shero
play-offs. “That guy in the goal turned the Flyers around last year,” says Chicago’s Billy Reay of Bernie Parent, “and Shero did the rest.” Rival players admire him. “He was the difference against us,” says Phil Esposito. “He won the Stanley Cup for them.”
And his own players have only respect. “1 think our success is Freddie,” says Bobby Clarke, the team captain. “He brought in his kind of players. And we play his system.” Parent’s praise was mute but it had flourish. The goaltender won a car from a magazine as the outstanding player of the play-offs. He gave it to Shero.
Even the Russians were eager for words from him. He enrolled along with 99 other coaches and hockey students in a sports course at Montreal’s Loyola College that involved a three-week visit to the Soviet Union to study physical education. But when they arrived the Russians prevailed upon Shero to give three lectures. One was on Philadelphia’s system, another was on the styles of all NHL clubs, and the third was on what Shero had learned from the first four games of the 1972 CanadaRussia series. He even held impromptu midnight seminars for the Canadians. He’d crawl around on his hands and knees in the hotel room shifting Russian beer bottles on the carpet to explain his system.
Shero will share his knowledge with anyone at any time, even with rival NHL coaches, although he finds that only two of them are willing to exchange information, Bob Pulford of Los Angeles and Lou Angotti of St. Louis.
“We’ve accomplished very little in our game in the last 30 years; in fact, we’ve gone back,” he says. “The only thing we’ve improved is our skating and that only because kids are bigger and stronger these days. But our shooting is not half as good. The Bentleys could thread a needle; hell, everybody could.
“AU my Ufe I’ve been fighting the estabhshment,” Shero said, “You have to. If you let them run the team you can’t win”
But now everything’s that damned slapshot. We can’t stickhandle as well, we can’t pass the puck as well, we can’t manipulate it with our feet as well, and mostly it’s because the centre red line has made everybody lazy.”
Shero is the only NHL coach who has taken the Russians seriously. The truth is, he has taken them seriously since 1960. Then, coaching in St. Paul, he watched a team of touring Soviet teenagers coached by the now universally renowned Anatoli Tarasov and was amazed by the things the kids could do. In 1972 when the Russians landed at Montreal Shero watched them in every workout; his peers not only avoided the Russian practices, most of them even avoided Montreal.
He has incorporated Tarasov’s innovations into Flyer practices. He has three-on-two drills in which the forwards manipulate three pucks, passing and receiving them as they skate (“It makes them think”). He has defensemen play forward and forwards play defense so each will appreciate the other’s problems. He puts wingmen on their wrong sides and centres on the wings so each will learn to make and take passes better. Sometimes he’ll throw 40 pucks on the ice so that everybody can fill the net. “When I played,” he says, “practices were a drag; the same old scrimmages, the same old routine every day. Sometimes you’d go two weeks without scoring, even in practice. That’s ridiculous. Everybody who plays hockey loves to score.”
One day in Philadelphia I asked Shero about the reluctance of coaches to share ideas or to adopt the better elements of Russian hockey. “A lot of them are afraid of their jobs,” he said. “They don’t want management to think they don’t know it all.” It was a hot day and he was driving into town from a rink in Villanova on the western outskirts where he’d been supervising youngsters at a hockey school. He spent his whole summer, apart from the three weeks in Russia, at hockey schools.
“Everybody thought I was nuts when I brought in Mike Nykoluk as an assistant coach,” he said, tooling the car Parent had given him. “That’s ridiculous; if he can take my job, okay. I just want his help. I’m the only coach in the NHL who has four eyes. The rest have only two because they’re afraid to tell the boss they need help. And that’s ridiculous. All my life I’ve been fighting the establishment. You have to, to win. If you let them run the team you can’t win. Only the coach runs it. I didn’t reach
management my first year but now I’m not afraid to tell them and they’re not afraid to tell me. We talk openly on any subject.”
The subject they discussed at length during this period was Shero’s future. He had a glowing offer from the Minnesota Fighting Saints and though he wanted to stay in Philly he was prepared to jump to the WHA club if he didn’t get a commensurate offer from Edward M. Snider, the Flyer chairman. “It’s bloody time people realized the coach is an important factor in any club’s success. Untried kids from the juniors have been getting enormous salaries and we’ve been treated like poor relations, like dumbbells. Are we dumbbells? We are if we sit still for it.” So Shero hung tough, hired a lawyer to negotiate for him, and was rewarded with his record salary, perhaps twice as much annually as any other coach in hockey.
In Winnipeg, where Shero grew up. people who knew him remember him as studious, quiet, a loner. “He was a tough kid but he didn’t show it much,” says Bill Mosienko, a fellow Winnipegger and former Chicago Black Hawk star. “If somebody tried to push him around, look out.”
There were 12 Shero kids but four died in infancy. Their parents came to Canada from Russia in 1910. The family name was Schirach. When Alex Schirach enlisted in the Canadian army in 1915 he simplified the name to Shera but his naturalization papers spelled it Shero, so Alex stuck to Shero. Freddie’s brother Vic is the only member of the family still living in Winnipeg. Vic remembers that their father, a carpenter, could fix anything — wiring, plumbing, he could even sew. They had a huge garden. They rented a large vacant lot from the city for a dollar and raised all the vegetables the family could eat through the long Manitoba winter.
Fred’s father took him out of school every year in May to help him with his carpentry. One summer Freddie built a two-story frame-and-stucco home on Pritchard Avenue for his parents not far from their old place. The house is still there, 1172 Pritchard.
Vic Shero and his wife live in Winnipeg’s eastern suburbs now. Thinking back, he remembers a musical household on Pritchard. The family couldn’t afford music lessons but they learned to play the mandolin or guitar or violin from instruction books.
“Fred played the violin,” Vic recalls. “He was a very quiet boy. He stuck to himself. He read a lot and he was aw-
fully good in sports. That’s where he let himself out, 1 guess. He played quarterback for the Isaac Newton school football team, the city champions one year; he played hockey and soccer and baseball, and he could box, too. He and my older brother Jack boxed at the Grain Exchange club.”
Fred went away to play hockey with the old New York Rovers, a Ranger farm club, in October of 1943 before he turned 18. lured by the Rovers’ offer of $60 a week. Then he joined the Royal Canadian Navy. When the war ended he returned to the Rovers, but he was convinced he’d never amount to anything if he didn’t broaden his education. He used a veterans grant to enroll in summer school at the University of Manitoba and took extension courses when he went away to play hockey. He got two years toward a BA that way. Studying history and English he was turned on by Dostoevsky and Shakespeare and read them voraciously.
The Rangers took him into the NHL as a defenseman in 1947. but a back injury ended his big-league career twoand-one-half years later. He had a crushed disc in his vertebrae, which he had refused to reveal for fear he’d lose his place on the roster. He went back to the minors in 1950 but finally he couldn’t handle the pain, and he turned to Frank Selke, then the managing director of the Canadiens, who hired him to run a farm club at Shawinigan Falls. There, he met his black-haired vivacious wife, Mariette, and they spent the next 15 years in Shawinigan, St. Paul. Buffalo and Omaha. They have two sons, JeanPaul and Rejean, who now call themselves John and Ray. “They were born in Shawinigan.” says Shero. “1 figured they’d be raised there.”
Instead, home for the Sheros is now Cherry Hill, across the Delaware River from Philadelphia in New Jersey. Chances are they’d be there forever if Fred could shake the notion that events will yet overcome him. When Flyer chairman Ed Snider presented his record contract, he wanted to make it for five years. Shero turned down an extra $200,000 and insisted it be for only three.
“Well,” says the most revolutionary coach in hockey, fingering a new Fu Manchu moustache, “ a coach has to be under pressure. It makes him work harder. Who knows what could happen in five years?”
Of course. A guy might get the notion he’s made it. C?