Barry Ashbee #4
Article by Bill Meltzer
To many casual fans and youngsters who come to the First Union Center and glance up at the retired jersey banners in the rafters, there is one name that seems out of place. Every Flyers fan knows of the exploits of Bobby Clarke and Bernie Parent. While Bill Barber's Hall of Fame career was sometimes overshadowed by Clarke's Hart Trophies and Parent's Vezinas and Conn Smythes, he too is a fixture in team lore. Barber was a frequent NHL All-Star and is famous for his long continuous service to the Flyers organization, most recently as coach of the Philadelphia Phantoms. But who was that other guy Number 4, Barry Ashbee?
A glance at The Hockey Encyclopedia does not reveal much that would seem to suggest that Ashbee was one of the team's all-time greats. He was a 31 year old NHL rookie? He only had 15 career goals and 85 career points? He only played 4 seasons in the NHL? Sure, Ashbee was named an NHL second team All-Star in 1973-74, but does that alone merit having your number retired, let alone being enshrined in the team's Hall of Fame? To be sure, there are other, seemingly more deserving candidates for the honor of having their jersey retired: Mark Howe, Jimmy Watson, Tim Kerr, Rick MacLeish, and Brian Propp were all crucial Flyers players during their respective Philadelphia careers. Cases could also be made for Joe Watson, Gary Dornhoefer, and Ron Hextall for their long, loyal, and productive service to the team. Pelle Lindbergh is a popular sentimental choice whose number 31 was "unofficially" retired after he died. While many of the aforementioned names are members of the Flyers Hall of Fame, none have had their jerseys retired. Ashbee, however, was posthumously awarded both honors. So, again, who was this Barry Ashbee?
William Barry Ashbee was a man whose personality and playing style were deceptively prickly and rough hewn but who possessed as much character and inner strength as anyone who has ever been a professional athlete. There was nothing phony or pretentious about the guy teammates called "Ash Can." He saw the world and the sport of hockeyin black and white. You worked hard, you did not make excuses for failure and you did not expect a pat on the back for doing what was expected of you. Ashbee despised egotists and glad-handers. He believed in results, not words. If someone or something did not fit in with Ashbee's no-nonsense view of the way things should be, he let it be known in no uncertain terms. Otherwise, he was quiet and stoic.
Ashbee was born in Weston, Ontario, on July 28, 1939. His junior career for Barrie was unremarkable. He was a solid, physical, defenseman, but an average skater and passer. Apart from Eddie Shore, defensemen had no offensive role at all when Ashbee grew up learning the game. It would be a long time until Bobby Orr came along to regularly join the rush and revolutionized the position, setting the standard for what are now known as "two-way" defenseman. In Ashbee's youth, defensemen rarely ventured much past center ice, let alone made forays deep into enemy territory. A shot from the point off a faceoff win was about as offensive as the position got. Even as the game began to transform in the mid-1960s, Ashbee preferred the same fundamental style he had been taught as a young player.
In the six team NHL era, there was no such thing as the entry draft. NHL teams established relationships with Junior teams, often on a territorial basis, and exercised domain over the players from those teams. The best Junior prospects were signed to NHL contracts and either joined the big team upon graduation from their Junior career or, more likely, served an apprenticeship of a season or two with a club in the higher minor leagues, such as the AHL. The "high" middle grade of prospects were recruited directly by the teams in the more prestigious minor leagues but did not have an NHL affiliation until they proved themselves. The next grouping down hooked on with teams in the lower minor leagues and tried to work their way up from there. The rest either got tryouts with obscure minor league teams or, more likely, were finished with hockey and had to go on with the rest of their lives. Ashbee fell on the borderline of the second and third category and, in 1959-60, ended up in the obscure EPHL (Eastern Pro Hockey League).
Ashbee toiled in the EPHL for three seasons, playing for Kingston. He was good at shutting down opposing forwards and steered traffic away from his goalie. He was also not afraid to take a vicious hit to get the puck to safety. He was no goon but he was a tough guy who never shied away from a collision or a fight. Several times during his stay in Kingston, Ashbee heard that assorted AHL teams were interested in him. Each time, he was disappointed. Finally, when he least expected it, he was invited to join a prestigious minor league outfit. After an injury plagued third pro season, Ashbee joined the Hershey Bears of the AHL for the 1962-63 season.
Ashbee proved himself to be a fine defenseman in the American League. The Boston Bruins offered him a contract after an excellent '62-'63 season. Ashbee was told that the franchise saw him as part of their future on the blueline. Two years later, Ashbee was still waiting for his chance. The Bruins were an NHL doormat; the weakest of the six clubs in the league. "Ash Can" began to become bitter and mistrustful of anything that management types told him. He also came to resent players whom he believed put personal goals above team goals. Most of all, Ashbee disliked any player who demanded- and received- special treatment from the team.
In 1965-66, Ashbee finally had a stint with the Bruins, albeit a short one. He played in 14 games before sustaining a serious injury. He suffered a crushed disc in his back. Ashbee could hardly move, much less play hockey. Surgery was required, knocking him out of the remainder of the 1965-66 season and all of the 1966-67 season. Incredibly, Harry Sinden deemed Ashbee a malingerer and had him returned him to Hershey, never to play another game for the Bruins. Obviously, Sinden had no clue about the type of man that Ashbee was. The injured Ashbee was then ignored in the NHL expansion draft.
Three more AHL seasons followed. Ashbee played better than many NHL defensemen but by now was labeled a "career minor leaguer." He also had compiled a litany of injuries that was impressive even by hockey standards: the bad back, problems with his left shoulder, bone chips in his left elbow, creeky knees, and nerve damage in his neck that required him to wear a padded white "horse collar." However, Flyers general manager Keith Allen and head coach Vic Stasiuk had heard enough good things about Ashbee over the years to take a look at the now 31 year old defender on their struggling fourth year team. In a seemingly minor June, 1970, trade, the Flyers sent defenseman Darryl Edestrand and left wing Larry McKillop to Boston in exchange for Ashbee.
"Ash Can" seemed to have a chip on his shoulder when he arrived at the Flyers 1970-71 training camp. Legendary Flyers announcer Gene Hart recalled that his first impressions of Ashbee were not positive. According to Hart, Ashbee struck him as "a loner, an unhappy man, even an angry man." Ashbee's face wore a perpetual frown and he seemed suspicious of anything that was said to him. On the ice, he played as though he was daring the Flyers to cut him. Stasiuk, an old school coach, liked what he saw. Ashbee made the team and immediately became a mainstay on the Flyers blueline. When Fred Shero took over for Stasiuk as head coach in 1971-72, Shero also became taken with the tough minor league veteran. Said Shero, "I remember saying [in the lockerroom] my first season, 'We have nineteen chickens on one team.' I was just trying to get them ready for the game but Ashbee took it personally. He wanted me to name names." Shero assured Ashbee that he was not among the "chickens."
Ashbee's unsubtle, angry man demeanor manifested itself in tough, hard-nosed hockey on the ice. Opponents quickly learned that Ashbee knew when to play the angle and when to take the body. When a hit was open, he doled out punishing body checks. When he had to go down to block a shot, he would willingly take the puck in the chest in order to stop the puck. The Flyers goalies appreciated Ashbee's ability to clear out the traffic without screening them. It did not take long for Ashbee to gain as much respect around the NHL as he had in the minors.
On one occasion in Pittsburgh, though, Ashbee went over the edge. Infuriated by a call made by referee Bryan Lewis, Ashbee decked the official with a right to the jaw. He was, of course, ejected and suspended by the NHL.
Over his four years in Philadelphia, Ashbee relaxed enough to let himself enjoy his teammates and to allow them to see the warmth that lay beneath the gruff exterior. He became a lockerroom leader-by-example, playing through constant, excruciating pain in his neck, shoulder, elbow, and knee. By 1972-73, his left knee was in terrible condition. The kneecap was deteriorating and the ligaments were barely held together. Fans on the road taunted him about the "toilet seat" he wore around his nerve-damaged neck. Ashbee played on all the while. Bobby Clarke called Ashbee "the strongest guy mentally I've ever seen." The other Flyers concurred. Hockey players are a tough breed by nature but Ashbee's stoicism impressed even his most hardened teammates.
Even so, Ashbee remained something of a loner. He wanted no part of locker room pranks or curfew-breaking hijinks on the road. He was there to play- and win- hockey games. Teammates who got on his bad side learned that his will was stronger than theirs. They also knew, although it never came to pass, that if they tried to take Ashbee on in a real fight, they wouldn't win. A case in point of Ashbee's watchdog influence over the locker room was his sour relationship with promising young puck-rushing defenseman Rick Foley. Foley had size, speed and offensive talent but he was reluctant to pay the price physically and he was not careful about his conditioning. Ashbee hated Foley and just about drove him off the team. Within a year, Foley was gone from the Flyers and Ashbee remained.
During training camp before the 1972-73 season, Ashbee told Keith Allen he was thinking of quitting the game. He was disgusted that his teammates, coming off yet another losing season, were being so casual in their preparations for the season. Many of the guys cut corners in practice during the day and spent the nights out partying until the wee hours. Saying that he was getting too old to waste his time with a group that was content to be losers, Ashbee told Allen he was going to retire. Allen promised to address the problem and convinced "Ash Can" to reconsider.
Ashbee was glad that he stayed. Like most others on the team, he came to respect Shero's offbeat coaching style and the way he treated his players like men. More importantly, the team began winning. With Ashbee, Joe Watson, and Ed Van Impe anchoring the blueline and an exciting corps of young forwards led by Clarke, Barber, and MacLeish, the Flyers finished second in the Western Division and advanced to the Stanley Cup semi-finals.
The 1973-74 season was both the culmination and the end of Ashbee's playing career. As always, Ashbee's season stats did not tell the story of his worth to the club. He had just 17 points in the regular season but his defensive play was stellar. The likes of Canadiens legend Jean Beliveau touted him as a deserving All-Star. But as midseason rolled around, Ashbee was left off the Western Division All-Star team. Ashbee was angry. "Don't say I should have made it," he told members of Philadelphia media. "That's all I heard for eight years in the American League I should have made it. Bullshit. I don't want to hear it anymore."
Ashbee took out his frustration on the rest of the NHL. He finished the year with a phenomenal plus-minus rating of +52, best on the team. After the season, Ashbee's mid-season slight was corrected when he was named a second team NHL all-star by the league and selected to the All-Western Conference team compiled by The Hockey News. Of course, individual honors were secondary to Ashbee. He wanted hockey's ultimate prize the Stanley Cup.
Ashbee was his usual effective self in the Flyers first round sweep of the Atlanta Flames and then stood tall as the Flyers took games 1 and 2 against the Rangers. The Flyers finally lost their first game of the playoffs in game 3 at Madison Square Garden. Game 4 was an overtime thriller, won by the Rangers. It would also be Barry Ashbee's last game. At 1:27 of overtime, a shot by New York's Dale Rolfe deflected and struck Ashbee just below the right eyebrow. The veteran defenseman crumbled as blood poured on the ice. Ashbee was taken to a hospital in New York. The diagnosis confirmed people's worst fears. Heavy hemorrhaging had caused permanent scarring of the retina. Ashbee permanently lost the depth perception in his right eye. He was told that he would recover sufficiently to engage in most daily activities. But his hockey career was over.
With a combination of great pride and a bit of sadness, Ashbee sat on the sidelines as the Flyers went on to beat the Rangers in 7 games and defeated the defending champion Bruins in 6 games to win the Stanley Cup. After his long, torturous journey to the NHL, Ashbee's name was on the trophy alongside his comrades. Wearing dark glasses, Ashbee told his teammates, "Boys, cherish this group. There'll never be another one like it." To the press, he made one of the most eloquent statements he ever uttered, saying, "Some people strive for sixty years and never make it. I got what I wanted when I was thirty-four."
Ashbee was ready to leave hockey, move back to Toronto, find another job, and spend more time with wife Donna, and children Danny and Heather. However, the Flyers asked him repeatedly if he would become an assistant coach to Shero. At first he said no, fearing that the invitation was an act of charity. Shero was the first NHL coach to name an assistant coach, selecting Ashbee's long time Hershey teammate Mike Nykoluk. At the time of his retirement, Ashbee was just getting used to the idea of having one assistant coach, but two? Surely, there was no use for a second assistant. Shero, Allen, and Clarke convinced the skeptical Ashbee that they wanted him around for his hockey knowledge, not as some quasi-mascot. In August 1974, Ashbee relented and showed up at camp as the Flyers new second assistant coach.
After overcoming his initial discomfort and the awkwardness of coaching the same guys who were his teammates just a few months earlier, Ashbee settled into the role and even began to relish his job. However, he was adamant that he did not want the team to honor his just-completed playing career with a special night in his honor. With prodding from Donna, Barry agreed on the conditions that the ceremony be kept short and no gifts were to be presented to him. "I'll go through with this," said Ashbee, "but if you give me one gift, I'll walk right the hell off the ice." Ed Snider promised Ashbee that his wishes would be honored.
Ashbee had been lied to by management types many times in his career. But this was a different kind of lie. Despite his grumbles and protests, Barry was actually flattered when it turned out that Snider arranged exactly the kind of tribute Ashbee said he didn't want. With Donna and the children standing by his side, accolades poured in for the proud warrior. Then the night's biggest surprise was revealed. All the players on the team had chipped in and bought Ashbee a brand new camper. Fighting back tears and stifling a smile, Ashbee tried, but failed, to seem upset that he had been fussed over after all. The next day, at practice, Ashbee had a surprise of his own for all the Flyers players. He had driven the camper onto the ice and invited the team members to come inside. They soon discovered that Ashbee had stocked the vehicle with beer and soda. It was his way of saying thank you. With Shero's full approval, the team celebrated together that day, rather than practicing.
Ashbee was behind the bench with Shero and Nykoluk when the Flyers won their second Stanley Cup in 1974-75, downed the Red Army, and went to their 3rd straight Cup Finals in 1975-96 before going down to the Montreal Canadiens. There was talk of Ashbee eventually succeeding Shero as the Flyers head coach but, predictably, Ashbee scoffed at the possibility.
In February 1977, Coach Ashbee worked a booth at the first Flyers Wives Fight For Lives Carnival. At the beginning of April, as the Flyers prepared to meet Toronto in the first round of the playoffs, it was revealed to the players that Ashbee had been diagnosed with a form of leukemia. He told the players, "I don't want this to turn into a 'Win One for the Gipper' situation. You'll win and I'll get better. That's it." Ashbee was placed under the care of Dr. Isadore Brodsky in Philadelphia. From his hospital bed, Ashbee stayed in daily contact with the team's defensemen. The Flyers fell behind 0-2 in the Toronto series before rallying to win the playoff round.
Ashbee did not fare as well but he remained brave when he learned that his chemotherapy failed and the cancer had spread to his kidneys. To the very end, he battled on, refusing to give himself over to death. On the last night of his life, he told Donna, "I'm tired now, but I'll whip this thing in the morning." He never awakened.
Ashbee's funeral was held in Toronto in May 1977. Ed Snider chartered a plane to Toronto for all of the Flyers players, their wives, assorted team personnel, and Ashbee's friends and neighbors. Among the others who attended the funeral were former Hershey Bear teammates, former opponents (including the Maple Leafs' Darryl Sittler and Lanny McDonald) and many ex-Flyers, including Dave Schultz and Doug Favell. Bobby Clarke delivered the eulogy for his former teammate and assistant coach. Ashbee was interred at Glendale Memorial Gardens Cemetery, in the suburbs of Toronto.
Back in Philadelphia, the Flyers held a memorial tribute at the Spectrum for Ashbee. After Barry's death, the team took many steps to make certain that his memory would live on. His number 4 jersey was retired. The Flyers Wives Carnival was dedicated in perpetuity to his memory and a large portion of the proceeds from Flyers Wives Charities goes to the research and treatment of leukemia and other blood diseases. There was a Barry Ashbee Research Laboratory established at Hahnemann Hospital. Later, when the Flyers created team awards to be presented to players at the end of the season, the award for the team's best defenseman was named the Barry Ashbee Trophy. In 1991, Ashbee was enshrined in the Flyers Hall of Fame. All throughout the years, Donna and the Ashbee children have remained close to the Flyers family.
So who was Barry Ashbee? Perhaps it can best be summed up in a silly analogy that was a favorite of Fred Shero: "The difference between making a contribution and making a commitment is like ham and eggs. The chicken has made a contribution. The pig has made a commitment. I want guys who make a commitment!" Ashbee's number hangs in the rafters because he was the epitome of the type of hockey player that every team needs to win. He wasn't the most talented guy around but no one was more dedicated to winning or persevered more tenaciously. Ashbee's name is in the rafters and the Flyers Hall of Fame not so much to venerate his career but to honor his spirit. By celebrating Barry Ashbee, the Flyers are paying tribute to all the players who came before and after him who had the same character and dignity that he possessed.