Bill Barber #7
Article by Bill Meltzer
Now entering his 29th season in the employ of the Philadelphia Flyers, the name Bill Barber conjures images of consistency, loyalty, and undying passion for the sport of hockey and the Flyers franchise. As much as the organization has provided for him over the years, Barber has given back even more. Barber has served the organization remarkably well as a player, scout, assistant coach, and minor league head coach. His number 7 has been retired by the team and he is a member of the Flyers Hall of Fame. In 1990, he received the sport’s ultimate individual honor, enshrinement in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.
There are some who say that Barber was not a worthy Hall of Fame selection because: 1) he did not score 500 career goals; 2) he averaged a bit short of a point-per-game for his career and only had one 50 goal and 100 point season; 3) he played in the shadows of Bobby Clarke and Bernie Parent; 4) he was blessed with exceptional linemates in Clarke and Reggie Leach; and, by Stan Fischler’s reasoning at least, 5) Barber’s reputation for diving to draw penalties on the opposition should have counted against him when his career merits were weighed.
With all due respect to Fischler, who is a legendary hockey writer but can also be insufferably sanctimonious, the only thing that really needs to be said in regard to the fifth issue is that there are players in the Hall who did things on the ice far more detrimental to the game than diving to draw penalties. The Hall celebrates some downright vicious players. Players who intentionally injured opposing players. That, to me, is far worse than trying to draw an edge for your team by going down easily when you feel a slight grab or hook. Besides, it was not as if Barber faked injuries trying to get opposing players thrown out of games, as some players do today. Barber’s reputation as a diver is a notable side story to his career but hardly worthy of deflecting attention from the other things he did.
As far as the other arguments go, anyone who played with or against Barber will readily attest to his worthiness of being in the Hall. Many considered him the NHL’s best all-around left winger of the 1970s. Barber was not quite as prolific offensively as Buffalo’s Richard Martin or Montreal’s Steve Shutt (the player to whom Barber was most often compared, going back to their days as junior hockey rivals) but he was stronger defensively. Although he did not draw the media attention of Clarke or Parent and he lacked the flash of Rick MacLeish, the shot arsenal of Leach and the rambunctious on-ice disposition of the Broad Street Bully tough guys, Bill Barber was all but irreplaceable in the Flyers lineup. Quite simply, the man did everything well. He also possessed one of the best minds for the game of any player in the NHL.
Barber had speed and strength to go along with a sniper’s finishing ability and a playmaker’s ice vision and unselfishness with the puck. Although primarily a left winger throughout his NHL career, Barber played all three forward positions during his Flyers career and even filled in on the blueline a few times. No matter where he played, Barber played extremely well. He ran the point on the Flyers powerplay, killed penalties, and was routinely counted upon to protect leads late in games.
Barber was a real coach’s delighta favorite of Fred Shero, Bob McCammon, and Pat Quinn. He was always in shape, even when battling through knee problems that ultimately slowed him down. His practice habits were impeccable. He rarely missed games. He took pride in his defense and in winning the battles along the boards. Most of all, he absolutely hated to lose. Barber never cared about his stats winning was everything to him. One of the most intense players in the game, even Barber’s teammates steered clear of him before a game and after losses.
Barber was a productive offensive force almost in spite of himself. To paraphrase Jay Greenberg, Barber had the skills of a hockey artist but the soul of a role player. If he had focused exclusively on his offensive stats, Barber would easily have had the "magic" 500 goals and 1000 points that the critics of his Hall of Fame induction so often point to. As it was, he was a model of offensive consistency. In a "down" year, he’d get a minimum of 30 goals and 70 points. In a good year, he’d get 40 to 45 goals and average over a point-per-game. It was never even a question the team went into every season knowing that Barber would produce like clockwork. As he hit the prime of his career, he was especially good in the biggest games of the season. For example, in the 31 playoff games the Flyers played in 1980 and 1981, the intrepid Barber scored some 23 goals and 37 points. In the 1980 run to the Cup Finals, Barber tied an NHL record with 3 shorthanded goals. That is the very definition of "clutch performance."
William Charles Barber was born in Callander, Ontario, on July 11, 1952. Prior to Barber’s rise to pro hockey fame, Callander, a quiet hamlet on the banks of Lake Nippiseng, was best known for being the home to a set of quintuplets born in 1934. Callander was a small, close-knit town comprised mostly of working middle class families. The winters were long and snowy but the summers were pleasant, offering the chance for swimming, fishing and boating on Lake Nippiseng. There was not a lot to do in Callander and most of the boys took up an interest in hockey.
"Billy" was one of five Barber children; all sons. The brothers fought, as siblings always seem to do, but the family unit was very strong. Barber recalled his childhood as a happy one. Barber paid sincere tribute to his folks when he and his wife were expecting their first child in 1974. Said Barber to the Philadelphia Bulletin’s Jack Chevalier, "I just hope I can be as good a parent to my children as my parents were to me."
The men of the Barber household all shared a passion for hockey. Bill’s father encouraged his sons to play the game, emphasizing fundamentals without forgetting that the game should also be fun. The elder Barber made sure that his boys had proper equipment and even built a rink in his backyard for the use of his sons and their friends.
Barber recalled, "Just to make sure we had everything going for us, Dad built us a rink that was almost regulation size. He had hydro poles put up and lights strung out like a big league arena."
The Barber boys spent countless hours patrolling their backyard ice palace. The games would last into the night. Billy was an average student in school but much preferred pucks to books. The only thing that could delay his daily afterschool trek to the backyard were the heavy Callander snows.
He said, "We’d get through plowing off a foot of it off the rink and then the snow would start again. So, I had to clear another foot of it. All that plowing was the thing that made my arms as strong as they were when I got to the NHL."
Barber was a highly prized recruit of the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey Association. He immediately vaulted to junior stardom, centering a high scoring line with left winger Jerry Byers and right wing Al Blanchard. Barber scored 127 goals and added 171 assists over his 3 season with Kitchener. The team was successful, but was overshadowed by the Toronto Marlboros. Debate raged among OHA devotees as to which team had the best line in the league" the Rangers’ Three B’s (Byers-Barber-Blanchard) or the Marlboros’ trio of Steve Shutt, Billy Harris, and Dave Gardner. The majority opted for the Toronto line but there was no doubt that the Rangers’ Bill Barber had a bright future ahead.
All six forwards from the rival Kitchener and Toronto lines were chosen in the first round of the 1972 NHL Entry Draft. Harris was taken first overall by the Islanders; Shutt went fourth to Montreal; Barber’s name was called by the Flyers at number seven (how appropriate!); Gardner came up eighth with the Canadiens’ second pick of the first round; the Rangers of Broadway took the Kitchener Rangers’ Blanchard tenth; and, finally, Byers was selected twelfth overall by the Minnesota North Stars. The players enjoyed varying degrees of professional success. The cream of the crop was clearly Shutt and Barber.
Barber had a good training camp for coach Fred Shero’s Flyers before the 1972-73 season but got caught in a numbers crunch. He was sent to the Flyers’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Richmond Robins.
The difference between the quality of the defensive play in the NHL and the American League was immediately apparent to Barber. He said, "I learned there was a world of difference between Richmond and the NHL. You wouldn’t believe all the breakaways I had in the AHL."
Barber’s AHL stay was short. In his first 11 games as a pro, he racked up 9 goals. In the meantime, injuries cropped up on the Flyers NHL roster. Barber was called up to the Flyers.
Not wanting to relegate Barber to centering the third line with wingers Dave Schultz and Don Saleski, Shero switched Barber to left wing and put him on the scoring lines. First, he played with MacLeish and Gary Dornhoefer. Later, he was put on Clarke’s line. Their on-ice partnership would last for over a decade. Barber quickly mastered the forechecking and backchecking skills that Shero required from his wingers. The 6-foot-1, 195 pound Barber had the strength to win the battles in the trenches to complement his well above-average speed. Immediately impressed, Shero and assistant Mike Nykoluk installed Barber as the left point man on the powerplay. Quite an honor and a challenge for a rookie.
Said Nykoluk, "Barber had all the qualities we were looking for: poise, a hard shot, a smart sense with the puck, strength, and good skating ability in case he got caught."
Barber did not register a point in his first two NHL games. The ice was broken in the third game. Barber tallied two goals and an assist in a 5-3 win over Buffalo. He never looked back. Barber went on to score 30 goals and add 34 assists in 69 games as a rookie. Barber finished second in the Calder Trophy voting to the Rangers’ Steve Vickers; a result that many considered a miscarriage of justice.
Barber’s second place finish in the rookie of the year ballot was the only disappointment in an exciting year of his young life. His quick growth as an NHLer coincided with the rise of the Flyers in the standings. Philadelphia finished in second place and, for the first time, advanced to the Stanley Cup semi-finals. The team was on the brink of greatness. Away from the ice, times were also good. Barber married his Ontario girlfriend, Jenny, in the summer of 1973. Their son, Brooks, was born in 1974. They later had a daughter, Kerri.
The three years between 1973 and 1976 were nothing short of magical for Bill Barber and the Philadelphia Flyers. The team, of course, won the Stanley Cup in both 1973-74 and 1974-75, beat the vaunted Red Army team and returned to the Finals again in 1976. The Flyers reacquisition of Parent in 1973 and the addition of Leach the following off-season made the rough-and-tumble Philly team the class of the National Hockey League.
Barber and Clarke played with Bill Flett in 1973-74. The next year, Leach joined them, forming the best line in team history: The LCB Line. Barber had 34 goals and 69 points in 75 games as an NHL sophomore. Barber helped his team defend the Cup with another 34 goals and71 points (plus 6 playoff tallies) in 1974-75.
In 1975-76, the LCB Line had their best season. In fact they sent a since-broken record for the most goals scored by a line in an NHL season. Barber exploded for 50 goals and 112 points, easily earning postseason All-Star honors as the NHL’s First-Team left wing selection. That same year, Leach had 61 goals, earning second team right wing honors, while Clarke (30 goals, 119 points) won his third and final Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player. They were even better in the playoffs. Barber and Clarke combined for 8 goals of their own (6 by Barber) and set up most of Leach’s NHL record 19 playoff goals. Unfortunately, with Parent on the shelf due to injury, the Flyers lost to the Montreal Canadiens in a four game sweep in the Cup Finals. The Canadiens went on to build yet another Stanley Cup dynasty; taking Lord Stanley’s prize home four straight years.
Although the Flyers were no longer at the pinnacle of the NHL by the late 1970s, the team remained contenders. Other than an injury plagued 1976-77 season (Barber suffered a knee injury that eventually became a degenerative condition), Barber continued his remarkably consistent production every year.
He bagged 41 goals in 1977-78 and 34 goals (80 points) in 1978-79.
Barber’s need for speed on the ice carried away from the game as well. His hobbies included stock car racing and motorcycles. He also developed an interest in Wall Street; dabbling in the stock market. To his teammates, though, he made for an unlikely stock tycoon.
Barber’s Broad Street Bully comrades never called him "Bill." Instead, he was "Arny" or "Piggy"; so named for the way his skin and facial features supposedly resembled the pig from the "Green Acres" television program. Whenever Leach was at a get-together with the Barbers, his standard farewell line was "See ya, Arnie, and good night, Mrs. Pig."
Barber took it all in the spirit in which it was intended. Hockey nicknames- especially those in the blunt style of "old time" hockey- may seem cruel. but they actually became terms of endearment, even though Barber probably never enjoyed his particular sobriquet. Even so, he knew that his teammates respected him. Some even feared him. He was not a big talker around the locker room but his intensity level was frightening. The same teammates who would laugh if another Flyer called Barber "Pig" would line up to get at anyone else who dared call hm that. On the few occasions that Barber had to drop the gloves to defend himself, the strong winger handled himself well. Usually, though, opposing players left him alone, realizing that players like Schultz, Bob Kelly, and Saleskior later, Paul Holmgren and Mel Bridgman would pound the tar out of anyone who went at their all-star left winger.
While the rest of the NHL dared not call him "Piggy," Barber did have another zoological nickname around the rest of the league: "The Swan." He acquired this name for his skill in embellishing marginal penalties. As soon as he felt a tug or a hook, Barber would fly through the air, smashing his stick on the ice for effect. Even when he had acquired a league-wide reputation for diving, Barber would still got the benefit of many calls from NHL referees because his speed and strength forced opposing players to grab onto him to prevent scoring chances.
After Fred Shero left as coach after the 1977-78 season, Barber quickly became well-respected by Bob McCammon (who served two stints as Flyers head coach) and was quite possibly Pat Quinn’s favorite player. Barber was a key component in the Flyers record 35-game game unbeaten streak in 1979-80. Despite the fact that the pain in his right knee was becoming chronic, Barber dressed for 79 of the 80 regular season games, adding another 40 goal season to his resumé. In the playoffs, he had 12 goals and 21 points in 19 games before the Flyers fell in a 6 game Stanley Cup Final heartbreaker to the NHL’s next Cup dynasty, the New York Islanders.
Just to show he wasn’t slowing down as his 30th birthday approached, Barber shrugged off the pain in his knee to score 43 goals (85 points) in 1980-81 and 45 goals (89 points) the following year. He played every game of both seasons. Barber also assumed more of a leadership role on the team, serving as captain for a time (1981-82 and part of 1982-83) and, in 1982, asserting his influence to help bring his good friend and established NHL superstar, Darryl Sittler, to Philadelphia.
The end of Barber’s Flyers captaincy was a sore point to him. He remained captain at the start of the 1982-83 season but it was obvious that Clarke, who reluctantly resigned his captaincy when taking on the role of a playing assistant coach in 1979, wanted the post back after stepping down as an assistant coach to concentrate solely on playing. There had been some resentment of Clarke in the dual rolea feeling by some that he was acting as an informer to management and manipulating the roster to his own liking. Barber was never directly identified as one of the players who believed that but it is also true that Barber and Clarke readily admit that they haven't always seen eye-to-eye on hockey issues over the years, although they insist that they have always been friends away from the game. At any rate, after returning to the lineup from a month’s absence (the knee was acting up worse than ever), Barber was informed that the captain’s "C" would be taken off his sweater and given back to Clarke.
"It hurts me," Barber said at the time, "but if that’s what they feel is best, I’ll back it."
Clarke and Barber’s relationship took another hit when neither player backed the other after Bob McCammon decided it was best to rest his aging stars on certain nights. Clarke balked openly, before apologizing for putting himself before the team. Barber said nothing, but privately questioned why he needed time off when his knee was feeling a bit better.
Despite only dressing in 66 games in 1982-83, Barber scored 27 goals and 60 points. The following year, now skating slowly due to his deteriorating knee, Barber played in 63 games, getting a still-respectable 22 goals and 54 points in reduced ice time.
The year of 1983-84 was a tumultuous one for the Philadelphia Flyers. McCammon was fired after the Flyers lost in the first round of the playoffs for the second straight year. Clarke retired after the season to accept the post of the Flyers new General Manager. Barber was also finished. Although he would not make his retirement official for another season, Barber never dressed in another game after the end of the ‘83-’84 campaign. His career ended as the Flyers all-time leading goal scorer (420) and second to Clarke in assists (463) and points (883). Brian Propp subsequently passed him on the assist charts, but Barber remains to this day the Flyers top scorer and second leading point getter.
While Barber struggled unsuccessfully to rehab his bad knee on last time, he was angered by the inelegant way that Sittler’s departure was handled by Clarke. Sittler, promised the team captaincy by Clarke the previous offseason and informed by new coach Mike Keenan that the announcement of his captaincy would be forthcoming the next day, readied himself to make a speech at a Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce luncheon. Without a word of explanation, Sittler was never called to the podium. Returning to the Flyers practice facility, Sittler was pulled aside by Clarke and tersely informed he’d been traded to the Detroit Red Wings for Murray Craven and Joe Paterson. Sittler was crushed and Barber, who had campaigned hard to bring Sittler to Philly in the first place, was angered by Clarke’s handling of the whole situation. For the only time in his tenure as a player (or, later, coach) Barber publicly criticized the organization; albeit mildly.
Whatever his differences of opinion with Clarke, Barber always remained a loyal soldier, with fierce devotion to Flyers owner, Ed Snider. Barber has accepted any role the organization has given him. In 1984-85, he officially retired as an active play and took over for Jay Leach as head coach of the Flyers’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Hershey Bears. Barber subsequently served as an assignment scout, the Flyers Director of Pro Scouting, and a Flyers assistant coach, before returning behind the AHL bench for Hershey about halfway into the 1994-95 season.
After the 1994-95 season, the Flyers ended their affiliation with Hershey and formed their own AHL club, the Philadelphia Phantoms. Barber and his crew of Flyer-affiliated prospects now set up shop in the Spectrum. The team experienced immediate success, taking first place in their division in each of their first three seasons and winning the Calder Cup (AHL championship) in their second season. In 1999-2000, the team slipped a bit in the standings and lost in the first round of the playoffs, but not before Barber spurred his players to force a fifth and deciding game in a best-of-five series the Phantoms trailed 2 games to none.
Although Barber’s Phantoms teams were primarily been composed of minor league veterans, he did a good job preparing his better young players for careers in the NHL. Taking a tough-but-fair approach and demanding that his players never cut corners, Barber helped prepare players such as Brian Boucher, Andy Delmore, Vaclav Prospal, Colin Forbes, and Aris Brimanis for the NHL. Barber is more visibly emotional as a coach than he was as a player but maturity has enabled him to learn not to take the game home with him as much as he did as a young man. Make no mistake, though. Barber’s intensity for the game burns as strongly as ever.
Barber has been passed over several times for head coach of the Flyers. When Wayne Cashman was hired, Clarke (now in his second term as Flyers GM) said that Barber would be ready to be an NHL head coach someday, but not yet. Later, when Roger Neilson and current coach Craig Ramsay were chosen, Clarke preferred to speak of the qualifications of the men he had chosen rather than one he did not. The Flyers General Manager, however, has given an endorsement of Barber as a worthy choice for an NHL head coach.
In each of the last two offseasons, Barber interviewed for coaching vacancies in NHL expansion cities. Barber pursued the outside opportunities more aggressively the second year than the first. After the 1999-2000 season, he announced that he no longer wanted to ride the buses in the AHL and would be stepping down as Phantoms coach even if he did not get an NHL head coach job. When nothing panned out, Barber returned to the Flyers for his 29th year of service to the organization; accepting Ramsay’s offer to take over for the departing Cashman in the Flyers secondary assistant coach role.
Whether he ever becomes the Flyers head coach or must finally leave the organization to get the opportunity he craves, Bill Barber will always be one of the most hallowed names in the pantheon of Flyers heroes. Likewise, the Philadelphia area will always be home to the Barbers. Bill and Jenny Barber have lived in Cherry Hill, New Jersey since 1973. They made their home in the Delaware Valley, raised their children here, and served the community here (especially in Bill’s work for Muscular Dystrophy and Jenny’s role in Flyers Wives Charities). Barber has indicated that his off-season home will always remain here, even if he eventually takes a job with another NHL organization.
Bill Barber has often said that he was a lucky man when the Flyers selected him back in the 1972 Entry Draft. That may be true but it is equally true that the organization has been just as fortunate to have him. A model of consistency as a player and a capable and loyal employee in his various post-career roles: that is Bill Barber.