Joe Watson #14
Article by Bill Meltzer
Reliability. Leadership. Hard work. Enthusiasm. Those are the traits that any employer covets and are the qualities that Joe Watson has come to personify in over three decades of nearly uninterrupted employment by the Philadelphia Flyers. Whether preventing opposition scoring chances as a mainstay on the Flyers’ blueline, working as a pro scout or in the organization’s sales and marketing departments, Watson has earned his keep and served with distinction. He was elected to the Flyers Hall of Fame in 1996.
A friendly, gregarious man with a booming voice (hence the nickname “Thundermouth”), Watson has always been a favorite of fans and reporters. He always has a story to tell and his passion for people and hockey runs as strongly as ever. Walk around the Wachovia Center before or during a Flyers game or the home locker room afterwards, and you stand a good chance of seeing Joe Watson there, engrossed in conversation or meeting new people.
From Smithers to Saskatchewan
Joe Watson was born on July 6, 1943, in the tiny town of Smithers, British Columbia, located 600 miles north of Vancouver, about 150 miles from the Alaska border. The ice on nearby Lake Kathleen freezes in late October and doesn’t melt until late April.
“There were only about 800 people living in Smithers at that time,” recalls Watson. “There wasn’t a hell of a lot to do. With me, I was always very involved in sports and I moved on to other things because of that, but a lot of people never left.”
Joe was the oldest of six Watson children, all boys. Brothers Fred, Steve, Jimmy, Glen and Jerry followed Joe. To support the family, their father worked as a butcher in the winter and a logger in the summer.
Five of the six Watson sons played hockey. Fellow defenseman Jimmy later went on to become Joe’s teammate on the Flyers’ Stanley Cup teams and earned several trips to the NHL All-Star game. Glen went on to coach junior hockey, most recently for Paw, Manitoba. “Jerry was a really good player, too, but he was the last one to leave the nest. My parents got divorced and Jerry didn’t want to leave Mom alone to go off playing hockey. So he stayed in Smithers,” says Joe.
Joe first started playing hockey at about 31/2 years of age with the Smithers Tots. His lifelong love affair with hockey has continued unabated ever since. The game didn’t come particularly easy to him, but he was up to the challenge.
“In the wintertime in Smithers, it got to be 15 to 20 degrees below zero, and we only had one rink, which was outdoors,” says Watson. “We’d put on our tuques, play two minute shifts and then we’d all go off and the next group would go out for two minutes.”
Even as a youngster, Watson dreamed of playing in the National Hockey League. With no NHL team in western Canada, he adopted the Detroit Red Wings as his favorite hockey team, in part because Wings’ defenseman Red Kelly was his favorite player. A boy with boundless energy, when Joe wasn’t play hockey, he could usually be found on a curling rink. When the weather turned warmer, he turned his attention to baseball. As a fan, Watson once again looked to Detroit for his rooting interest, following the Detroit Tigers. Watson was quite accomplished on the diamond himself.
Nine years Joe’s junior, Jimmy loved to tag along with his older brother, following him to go skating or play baseball. “Anything I’d do, Jimmy would want to do with me. In baseball, I’d be the pitcher and I’d make him be the catcher. I’d throw the ball as hard as I could,” said Joe years later.
When he was 16, Joe Watson led his team to the British Columbia baseball championship, winning tournament most valuable player honors. An intriguing offer soon followed.
“There was a New York Yankees scout watching the tournament,” remembers Watson. “He asked if I’d be interested in signing a contract and going to spring training in Florida.”
Joe considered the offer briefly, but decided to decline. “I told him that I thought I had a better chance in hockey. There were too many guys playing baseball. Too much competition,” he explains.
Joe never regretted the decision. Before the National Hockey League established an entry draft, the NHL teams sponsored junior programs in Canada and laid claim to the top players on those teams. The Boston Bruins sponsored teams in Oshawa and Niagara Falls, Ontario as well as Estevan, Saskatchewan.
In 1959, at age 16, Joe left Smithers to play for Estevan. He says that he’s grateful to this day for the role his Estevan coaches such as Scotty Monroe had in preparing him for a professional career.
“I wasn’t the biggest guy or the fastest skater, but I knew the value of good defense,” says Watson, who stood 5-10 and weighed about 180 pounds in the prime of his career. “My job was always to prevent goals, not score them. I always knew my role.”
While at Estevan, Watson honed many of the unglamorous, but vital skills that later played an important role in two Stanley Cups. For a defenseman, body and stick positioning are crucial, especially if you lack the quickness to recover if you’re beaten on a play. Already a student of the game, Watson found that good hockey sense can compensate for disadvantages in speed, size, or reach.
Watson didn’t shy away from taking the body, either. While he was good at finishing his checks, he was never a heavily penalized player (he never topped 56 penalty minutes in any season), “You can finish your check without putting a guy through the boards,” says Watson. “I always believed that I was a guy who helped the team more on the ice than sitting in the box.”
Watson emerged as a team leader. While a typical teenager off-the-ice, he stood out from some of his teammates in his mature approach to hockey practice and preparation. Even as a young player, he understood that team unity and hard work led to greater success than individual talent.
Breaking in with the Bruins
In 1963, the Bruins offered Joe his first pro contract. He accepted in a heartbeat, although Boston hardly lavished him with riches. “They gave me $1,000 to sign the contract and then I made $3,000 my first year,” he remembers with a chuckle. “I didn’t care. I was playing hockey professionally and I thought I was on top of the world.”
The Bruins in the early 1960s were the doormats of the pre-expansion National Hockey League. They finished last on nearly an annual basis. Even so, they were stockpiling a wealth of young talent during these years and would later go on to be an NHL powerhouse.
During these years, Watson’s main ambition was to earn a spot in the Bruins’ starting defense. He earned his first cup coffee in the NHL, a 4 game callup, during the 1964-65 season. The next year, he beat out the competition and became a regular starter on left defense, suiting up in 69 games.
The Bruins started out very well in 1966-67 under coach Harry Sinden, standing in first place in late November. Their success was thanks in large part to good defense and goaltending. One thing they weren’t doing was lighting up the scoreboard.
Remembers Watson, “Our general manager, Hap Emms, comes down to the [locker] room and tells us, ‘If our third line leads this team in scoring all year, we’re in trouble.’ I mean, we were in first place, for Chrissakes! From there, we just sank.”
The Bruins struggled the rest of the season. Sinden soured on scuffling second year goalie Bernie Parent, who ended up getting sent down to Oklahoma City and supplanted in the Bruins long-term plans by another future Hall of Fame goaltender, Gerry Cheevers. Meanwhile, on the blueline, Watson made his share of rookie mistakes, but he seemed to have a solid future in Boston.
The Bruins’ brightest hope was Watson’s fellow rookie, friend and roommate Bobby Orr. During the season, Watson and Orr shared an apartment overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
“[Orr] did the cleaning and the cooking and really was a great cook. Bobby had so much energy that he did most of the work. About all I did was wash the dishes and water the plants,” Watson told Philadelphia Bulletin writer Jack Chevalier in 1974.
Watson still marvels at Orr’s play on the ice. Today, he recalls, “To watch Bobby on film, he made everything look so easy, but he worked very, very hard. He was very smart, too. He was blessed with so much God-given hockey talent but he worked for everything and he was a great teammate.”
After finishing his NHL rookie year, Joe returned home to Smithers. He still wasn’t making enough money playing hockey to take time off during the summer, so he earned some extra money at a job with the Public Works Department. Watson was in good spirits. He was in love with a pretty girl named Marianne, a young nurse. He seemed to have a solid hockey future in Boston.
Watson’s optimism soon turned to gloom. One of his co-workers informed him of a radio report that the Philadelphia Flyers selected Joe in the NHL expansion draft. Joe was crestfallen.
“Total depression,” is how he describes his feelings at the time. Watson had no inkling that he was exposed in the expansion draft. “The Bruins didn’t protect me in the draft but they did protect a couple guys I’d just beaten out [for an NHL job]. Hell, I didn’t even know where Philadelphia was. I was devastated.”
Arriving at his first Flyers’ training camp in Ontario, Watson was still in a dark mood. Missing Marianne and unenthused about playing for the Flyers, Watson commiserated with another unhappy new teammate, fellow defenseman Ed Van Impe. The pair decided to leave camp and hold out. Crusty Flyers’ general manager Bud Poile told the two to take a drive and call him when they got to their destination. The players agreed.
Watson and Van Impe drove to Erie, Pennsylvania. Then Joe bought a plane ticket to British Columbia to go see Marianne. As Poile requested, Watson telephoned when he arrived.
“You’re where?!” Poile thundered, upon hearing Watson announce his whereabouts. The Flyers GM blew a gasket. He yelled into the receiver. Watson, for once, could not get in a word edgewise.
“Holy smokes, was he mad!” says Watson now, with a hearty laugh. Joe returned for the final week of training camp. But his mind was still on Marianne. In his first month with the Flyers, he spent every free moment he could on the phone with her. He was horrified when a then-astronomical $150 phone bill arrived.
With Watson and Van Impe now back in the fold and with Parent and Doug Favell in goal, coach Keith Allen instilled a disciplined defensive system that kept the fledgling team competitive, despite their decided lack of offensive firepower.
The Flyers played in the newly created Western Conference, although the conferences were not based on geography. The original six teams made up the East and the six expansion clubs comprised the first configuration of the Western Conference.
With the team in first place and registering upsets against the established team (the Flyers beat each of the “Original Six” at least once during their first season, including a win at the Boston Garden spearheaded by a rare Watson goal in the opening seconds of play), fan interest started to rise. Then the roof blew off the Spectrum during an Ice Capades performace on February 17, 1968.
While Philadelphia politicians pointed fingers and the timeframe lagged for the roof repair and building re-opening, the Flyers were a hockey team without a home. “We were vagabonds, traveling around and playing our home games wherever they could schedule them,” says Watson.
The Flyers were eventually able to return to the Spectrum. They finished the season in first place in the Western Conference, one game below the .500 mark. In the first round of the playoffs, the Flyers met the St. Louis Blues, who were already emerging as the club’s first truly hated rival. The Blues, coached by Scotty Bowman, emerged the victor of a brutal seven game series.
“We had won the sixth game in double overtime,” says Watson. “Then the Blues brought up Doug Harvey [by then 43 years old and a minor-league player coach] and damned if he didn’t score and give them the lead. They won 3-1.”
Check, but don’t check
Back home in Smithers for the summer, on August 1, 1968, Joe went swimming and nearly drowned as he attempted desperately to dog paddle. It took a fully-clothed man, three women and fast artificial respiration to save his life.
The Flyers second season was not as successful as their first. They slipped to third place and got swept by the Blues in the quarterfinals. In the summer of 1969, Joe and Marianne got married in Smithers. Orr served as Joe’s best man. The newlyweds settled in the Philadelphia area. Eight years later, the Watsons celebrated the birth of their first child, Ryan. Daughter Heidi was born three years later.
The Flyers’ on-ice fortunes did not improve much over the next few seasons. Keith Allen moved from head coach to the general manager role. Vic Stasiuk then stepped behind the bench.
“Vic was an interesting guy. Not a real good coach, but an interesting guy,” says Watson. “We could never comprehend what he was trying to tell us. He’d say, ‘check but don’t check.’ He would try to change your skating style, too, which is virtually impossible to do.”
Stasiuk’s Flyers never got very far. Even so, Watson says he enjoyed even some of the lean years. He loved playing at the Spectrum and says that he could see the roster improving annually. A promising rookie named Bobby Clarke arrived in 1969-70 and other future building blocks filtered in through the draft each year. On June 2, 1971, Allen relieved Stasiuk of his duties and replaced him with Fred Shero.
“I could see light at the end of the tunnel. I was very happy to be a Flyer,” says Watson. “I didn’t really know that much about Freddie yet, but I was glad to be a part of it.”
Nevertheless, business was business. Discouraged by the Flyers contract offer and wondering whether the Flyers’ recent addition of defenseman Larry Brown meant they were shopping him in trade, Joe walked out of camp in 1971.
Shortly thereafter, Joe received a phone call. It was Bobby Orr. “He really gave me hell,” said Watson three years later. “He told me I could still play another five or six years at least and he reminded me that I was only twenty-eight and just reaching my prime. Then he told me I have a wife to think about, not just myself.”
Watson did not press the issue further with the Flyers. He returned to camp. Looking back today, Joe says with a laugh, “Yeah, and Orr is now a players agent. Hockey was different in those days.”
Like many players, Watson thrived under Shero. It didn’t take long for Joe to stake his claim on the Flyers’ top defensive pairing, beating out other left defenseman Brown, Wayne Hillman, Larry Hale and Brent Hughes. The next year, in addition to his rock steady defense, Watson even set a then-career high of 26 points (he later topped out at 30 points); a respectable point total for any defensive defenseman).
The Flyers barely missed the playoffs in 1970-71. With two games left, they needed only one win or two ties to beat out the Pittsburgh Penguins for the final playoff spot. Clinging to a 4-3 lead over the Penguins at the Spectrum, the Flyers tried to hold off Pittsburgh’s desperate push in the final minute of play. They failed. Greg Polis scored with 46 seconds left to force a tie. Even so, the Flyers still only needed a tie against Buffalo in the final game of the regular season.
They seemed to have that mission accomplished as the final seconds ticked off the clock with the score deadlocked. Buffalo’s Gerry Meehan launched a shot from about sixty feet away. Flyers goalie Doug Favell waved and missed. Four seconds remained in the game. The Flyers were out of the playoffs, quite literally, on a tie-breaker. By virtue of losing the season series to Pittsburgh, the Flyers were out and the Penguins were in, although the clubs had identical 26-38-14 final records.
“I felt numb and then I felt sick about it,” says Watson today.
Philadelphia rebounded strongly the next season, climbing to second place as the pieces in the eventual championship puzzle neared completion. Clarke won the Hart Trophy as the Nation Hockey League’s most valuable player. Previously underachieving young talent Rick MacLeish finally blossomed, scoring 50 goals and 100 points. And rookie left winger Bill Barber burst onto the scene with 30 goals and strong two-way play.
A crew of gritty veteran and young role players supported the nucleus. Most notably, Gary Dornhoefer, an original Flyer, supplied leadership and tenacity around the net and the corners.
Meanwhile, the blueline had a trio of reliable veteran leaders in Watson, Van Impe and Barry Ashbee as well as the tough Andre “Moose” Dupont. Talented but inconsistent rookie Tom Bladon joined the fold in 1972-73, too. They were joined for a four game stint by 20-year-old Jimmy Watson, who claimed a starting spot the following year and went on to become the Flyers’ top defenseman within a few seasons.
The one missing element: goaltending. By now, it was clear that Favell, while a competitor, was not a championship caliber goalie. Prone to flopping and getting out of position, he also had a tendency to give up preventable goals at the worst times.
Says Watson today, “Favell’s style was to make every save look spectacular. The truth is that if we had gotten better goaltending in 1973, we could have gone further than we did. Dougie always did the best he could do for us, but we needed a little better.”
After the Flyers won their first playoff series by downing Minnesota in 6 games, they stunned the Montreal Canadiens by winning the first game in overtime at the Forum. Game two started out promisingly as the Flyers grabbed an early lead. Then disaster struck.
“Montreal scored a goal from the red line,” says Joe. “Dougie just missed the goddamn puck.” Montreal went on to prevail in that game and win the next three after.
The Broad Street Bullies
The final piece of the puzzle came into place when the Flyers reacquired Parent in a deal for Favell shortly before the 1973-74 season. With Parent now emerging as the best goaltender in the league, the Flyers rocketed into first place and never looked back.
While the Broad Street Bully era Flyers are best known for their record-shattering penalty minute totals and a love of on- and off-ice hell raising, their true calling card was their great goaltending and their ability to execute Shero’s mantra of hard work, balanced scoring, strong defense, and tenacious checking.
“We weren’t the most talented team, but we had a lot of great players, we believed in ourselves and we hated to lose,” says Watson today. “Freddie was a great coach for us and the guys in the room kept each other honest. Slack off and someone would let you know about it right away.”
Alluding to the team’s boisterous locker room filled with colorful characters, Joe says, “We were a team that liked to go out for a few babalooeys [beers] and have a good time and this and that. But we took the game very serious, so everyone had to be ready to play.”
No one took the pursuit of the Stanley Cup more seriously than Joe. “You could hear Joe from across the building. He’d usually encourage you, but he’d get on you if he had to,” said ex-teammate Bob “The Hound” Kelly in 2003. “Between Joe and Crispy [Terry Crisp], it was never, ever quiet in the room or the bench.”
The elder Watson brother earned his first to the mid-season all-star game in 1973-74, one of several Flyers to make the team. Meanwhile, the brash and brawling Flyers drew scathing criticism from the old guard hockey establishment and non-Philadelphia media.
The Flyers could not have cared less, so long as they kept winning. And win they did, taking out the Atlanta Flames in the first round of the playoffs and surviving a seven game war with the New York Rangers.
Everything culminated in the Stanley Cup Finals against Joe’s former team, the Bruins. Winning in overtime in the second game in Boston and then taking the next two in Philadelphia, the Flyers needed one more win at the Spectrum to win the Cup and avoid a deciding game back at Boston Gardens.
With Joe and Jimmy’s dad in the stands (after a 15 hour bus ride and a flight from Denver), the Watson brothers helped Parent preserve the team’s skinny 1-0 lead. In the closing seconds, Orr threw the puck down the ice in desperation and Joe Watson ragged off the last few ticks behind the Flyers net.
Bedlam ensued in the Spectrum and around Philadelphia. Fans poured out onto the ice to mob the team as the Flyers’ celebrated. Back in the locker room, a teary-eyed Joe sat with his father and brother. A little later, he connected with Orr in the corridor between the two locker rooms. Although bitterly disappointed, Orr offered his congratulations.
“I offered him some champagne,” Watson said a few months after the Cup win, “but he was dejected and he said he didn’t deserve it.” Today, Joe says that he still maintains his friendship with Orr after all these years, but the two don’t get to speak regularly anymore.
The Flyers and Watson were anxious to prove their Stanley Cup victory was no fluke. The next season, they erased all doubt that they were deserving champions, again taking first place during the regular season, led by Hart Trophy winner Clarke and Vezina Trophy winner Parent. Then they won the Stanley Cup again, this time defeating the flashy, offense-oriented Buffalo Sabres in a six game final.
By 1975-76, the Flyers needed new challenges to prove themselves. Such a challenge came from the Soviet Red Army team, who were undefeated in their series of midseason exhibition games against NHL opponents. That all changed when they came to the Spectrum.
The Flyers found themselves in the unfamiliar position of receiving support and encouragement from other NHL cities. “We were in Toronto for our last game before we played the Soviets. Remember, they hated us in Toronto. But as we left, fans were cheering for us to beat the Russians,” remembers Watson.
Shero, a longtime student of Russian hockey, devised a plan to counterattack the Red Army’s precision passing game. His team simply wouldn’t chase the puck and they’d bottle up the skating lanes.
“Freddie said ‘we’ll show them a real Iron Curtain’ before the game, and that’s exactly what we did,” recollects Watson.
Frustrated by the Flyers’ defensive wall and more than a bit intimidated by their physical play, the Red Army got dominated. In the second period, Joe Watson found himself doing something to which he was unaccustomed. With the Flyers shorthanded, he followed the play all the way up the ice. The former curler then swept home a Don Saleski rebound for what proved to be the game winner in the Flyers 4-1 victory.
“Freddie told me I had set back Russian hockey twenty years with that goal,” laughs Watson, who says that he still gets asked about that goal more than any other single play in his career. “It wasn’t a fancy goal even, but it was a goal.”
A painful end and a new beginning
In many ways, the win over the Soviets marked the culmination of the Broad Street Bullies. The team began a gradual slide as they sustained numerous injuries—most notably to Parent and MacLeish— and eventually got swept in the Cup finals by the Montreal Canadiens. Then the Flyers slipped a bit further in each successive season, with somewhat longer regular season downturns and now unable to get through the semi-finals. Joe, however, continued to be one of the team’s most consistently reliable players. He earned his second and final All-Star selection in 1977.
By the end of the 1977-78 season ended, Allen had begun to dismantle many of the pieces from the Cup team rosters. Shero also left at the end of the season to accept the head coaching and general manager job with the Rangers. While things were going well in his personal life—a nice home, a happy marriage and a baby son—Joe’s professional career had reached a crossroads. He had only managed to play 65 games in the regular season and one playoff tilt.
Keith Allen summoned thirty-six-year-old Joe to his office. Says Watson, “Keith told me that they were looking to rework the defense and that I could either stay with the Flyers and play about 30 games or give him a list of teams I’d be willing to be traded to.”
Joe’s heart told him to remain in Philly, where he planned to make his permanent home. His head, however, told him it was time to move on. Besides, he wanted to play at least two more years, and it was clear that his chances of doing so in Philadelphia were slim.
While Joe’s competitive fire still burned, he realized that it was time to set a goal that would probably mean playing for a non-playoff team. “I looked for clubs where I could get a chance to play and maybe help out some of the young guys. So I picked some clubs like Los Angeles, Colorado and Pittsburgh.”
Allen traded Watson to the Colorado Rockies (formerly the Kansas City Scouts). Joe didn’t get much of a chance to help them try to establish a new identity. Just 16 games into the season, Watson was on the receiving end of a check from Wayne Babych of the St. Louis Blues. With his right leg pinned and nearly 400 pounds of pressure going crashing into the boards, Watson’s leg shattered, breaking in 13 places. He knew immediately that his career was over.
Over the next nine months, Joe had six operations. Three additional surgeries followed later, the most recent in 2002. Watson’s right leg is now two inches shorter than the left. Joe reports, however, that the leg gives him much less trouble now than it did in the past.
With his playing career over, Joe returned to Philadelphia. In 1979, he accepted the first of many off-ice positions with the Flyers, serving as an advanced scout. During Philadelphia’s record 35 game unbeaten streak in 1979-80, Joe traveled to scout future opponents at the behest of Flyer coach Pat Quinn.
“Every time the Flyers would win, Pat would send me on another city,” remembers Watson. “It got so that I was totally exhausted. To be totally honest, while I enjoyed the streak, I wasn’t all that sorry to see it finally end.”
Joe’s future positions kept him closer to home. He sold season tickets during the mid-1980s, along with ex-teammate Rick MacLeish. Then he moved from ticket sales to the club’s marketing department, where he still works.
Watson also heads the Flyers Alumni team, traveling near and far to play hockey and have a little fun. “We still wanna win, too,” says Watson. “We’ve got a nearly unblemished record.”
In 1996, Joe was elected to the Flyers Hall of Fame in the final year the team called the Spectrum home. Moving across the parking lot to their new digs, Watson quickly became a fixture around the building. He frequently can be seen meeting and greeting fans at the arena.
“I love it,” he says. “People still stop me and tell me thank you for the Stanley Cups. They tell me about where they were when we won the Cup. Us guys from the Cup teams have a real special bond with Philadelphia. Thirteen of us still live in the area and the people are still really great to us.”
Joe is also a fixture in the locker room after games. His photograph hangs in the Flyers locker room, along with the team’s other Hall of Fame inductees. “I don’t know if the younger guys know who I am, but I know some of the older guys pretty well. Guys have told me they’d like to have their picture up there, too, someday. I tell them, ‘if I can, you can.’”
Watson, who will soon celebrate his 61st birthday, makes his home in Media, Pennsylvania (Delaware County). He reports proudly that his daughter, now 24, followed in her mother’s footsteps and become a nurse. She recently accepted a graduate nursing position at the VA Hospital in Philadelphia. “Just out of school and she got six job offers,” brags Joe proudly. “And my son Ryan, who is now 27, works on Wall Street.” Brother Jimmy also still lives in the area, where he has a successful contracting company.
When he has free time, Watson enjoys gardening, bicycling, and fishing. In years past, he also used to enjoy hiking and mountain climbing back in British Columbia, where he’d go along with Jimmy. While the Philadelphia area is Watson’s permanent home, British Columbia still holds a special place in his heart. His mother, now 81, still lives in Smithers. His father, 88, is in a nursing home. Brother Fred owns a crane company, while Steve Watson made his mark in the restaurant business.
“I’ve been very lucky,” concludes Watson. “I’ve got a lot to be thankful for.”
So do the Flyers and their fans.