Tim Kerr #12
Article by Bill Meltzer
Tim Kerr has never been one to wallow in self-pity or to cower in the face of adversity. He spent much of his life dealing with tremendous professional and personal misfortune that could have broken the spirit of a lesser man. Kerr always battled the longest of odds with stoic determination and quiet dignity. He did not always won but he always fought the good fight.
In retrospect, it is incredible to think that Kerr had to spend much of his pro career trying to erase two ugly labels that dogged him since he junior days: "soft" and "lazy." Until he proved himself repeatedly in the NHL, Kerr's easygoing disposition was often mistaken by coaches and scouts for sloth. To be sure, Kerr did not typically play a mean game. He would defend himself if provoked, but he rarely sought out confrontation. Scouts would shake their head when they would watch the powerfully built forward (6'-3", 225 lbs in his prime, about 185 pounds as a junior) fail to finish off a check in the corner. They also filed negative reports on his skating, his puck handling and his defense. Once Kerr got labeled as a one-dimensional, nonchalant player, he was virtually written off as a prospect.
Never chosen by a major junior team, the native of Windsor, Ontario, Kerr played for the Kingston Canadiens of the Ontario Hockey Association's Junior A division. Even when he scored 40 goals in 63 regular season games his final season with Kingston, Kerr was met with indifference or disdain by most pro teams. A minority of scouts considered him a longshot prospect, noting his size and "decent" hands, but the consensus opinion remained that he was too unskilled and too unmotivated to be a professional. Even his scoring touch seemed to betray Tim when he needed it the most. Kerr struggled in the few games that most scouts saw him play, scoring just one goal and three points in 9 playoff games.
The 1979 draft class was one of the deepest in NHL history. It produced some of the best talent ever to grace the NHL, including Ray Bourque, Mark Messier, and Mike Gartner. The Flyers also benefited greatly from the '79 draft, selecting future stars Brian Propp and Pelle Lindbergh and a solid role player, Lindsay Carson. Later, they added another key component to their mid-1980s success by trading to acquire Brad McCrimmon, who was originally a Boston first round draft pick in 1979. However, Philly's biggest coup may have been someone who waited in vain for his name to be called on the day of the 1979 draft: Tim Kerr. After the six round, 126 pick draft was complete, Kerr was still on the outside looking in. (Interestingly, another Ontario native right winger, Dino Ciccarelli, also found himself in the same unenviable predicament after the '79 draft. Ciccarelli and Kerr merely went on to score a combined 972 NHL goals!). In January of 1980, on the advice of scout Eric Coville, Flyers GM Keith Allen offered Kerr a free agent contract. Kerr finally had his foot in the door.
After a short stay with the Maine Mariners at the end of the 1979-80 season, Kerr joined the Philadelphia Flyers for their 1980-81 training camp. Flyers coach Pat Quinn was immediately impressed by Kerr's soft touch around the net. Quinn discovered that Kerr had a very quick release and an uncanny ability to come up with loose pucks. Apart from his defense, Kerr's non-shooting skills immediately proved to be better than advertised. Although he was by no means a speed demon, Kerr was not a plodder, either, especially once he got his powerful legs churning. He also was very difficult to separate from the puck once he got it in deep. There was a lot of goal scoring potential, at least if Kerr was provided with the right linemate to get him the puck. Kerr also benefited from his versatility. Able to play both center and wing, he offered the team some flexibility with their forward combinations. After a strong pre-season, Kerr made the Flyers opening day roster.
Kerr did not get a lot of ice time in his rookie and sophomore seasons. He primarily played on the third or fourth line at even strength and saw secondary powerplay duty (although he sometimes moved up to the top unit). Right from the start, though, there were glimpses of the scoring machine that would emerge a few years down the road. Kerr's greatest early-career thrill came on the same night that Bobby Clarke scored his 1,000th career point. Playing in front of his parents, Kerr torched the Boston Bruins for his first career hat trick. Kerr went on to score a very respectable 22 goals in his rookie year, 7 of which were game winners. He followed that up with 21 goals and 51 points his second year.
Although few doubted any longer that Kerr belonged in the NHL, there were still many critics of his game. Many still considered him soft along the walls and a defensive liability. He was knocked for being injury prone, although few bothered at the time to note his diligence in working to rehab his injuries and get back in the lineup. In his first two seasons, he missed a combined 31 games with a pair of serious knee injuries. In his third season, Kerr suffered a broken leg and was limited to a mere 24 games (in which he scored 11 goals and added 8 helpers).
In 1983-84, Kerr finally had his breakthrough. He emerged as one of the NHL's best goal scorers, particularly on the powerplay. Given extensive time on the man advantage by coach Bob McCammon, Kerr responded with 54 goals and 93 points. He found his niche by camping out in the slot, deflecting pucks and using his quick release to pump rebounds and quick centering feeds past goalies. Kerr also had a very underrated slapshot and even a good backhand. Kerr could score goals from any angle and was especially good at scoring from his knees or stomach after being knocked to the ice. Although most of his goals came within two feet of the net, Kerr could also overpower a goalie from long range.
By the end of Kerr's 1983-84 season, opposing defensemen had come to dread the thought of task of trying to move the oak tree-like Kerr from the slot. Cross-checks, slashes, and bearhugs didn't seem to phase him. Taking him out of the play legally was almost out of the question. Once Kerr was cinched in with the puck down low, it was virtually impossible to stop him from doing whatever he wanted to do. Somehow, though, universal respect was still elusive for Kerr. After Clarke retired as a player to become the Flyers new General Manager, he openly questioned whether Kerr had the desire and work ethic to duplicate his totals from the just-completed season. Said Clarke later, "The worry and the question was would he work hard enough?" Tiring of hearing such complaints and unhappy with the Flyers contract offer after his 54 goal season, Kerr publicly requested a trade during the summer of 1984. Softening his negotiating tactic, Clarke convinced Kerr to re-consider. The two sides eventually compromised on a new deal. It turned out to be one of the best trades the Flyers never made.
The 1984-85 season marked a major turning point in Kerr's career. It was the year, he finally shook off the label of being a soft player. He emerged as more of a complete player. New head coach, "Iron" Mike Keenan and assistant coach, E.J. McGuire, insisted that Kerr work on his all-around game, particularly his defensive play. They found him to be very receptive to their coaching. Said McGuire, "I knew that the goals would come for him but it was his ability to do the unglamorous things that had us pleased." Although Kerr would never be confused with a Selke Trophy winner, he became respectable in his own end of the ice, especially when the game was on the line. He also became more consistent in doing all the little things right; such as getting the puck in deep when it was time for a line change.
Kerr was the biggest gun of the underrated attack that led the Flyers to the 1985 Stanley Cup Finals. When Kerr got on a roll, the goals came in bushels. In the regular season, he once again found the net 54 times. In the post-season, Kerr stepped up his game even further. He ripped home 10 goals in 12 games. It was amazing that Kerr even dressed for the playoffs at all. After suffering a serious late season knee ligament sprain that knocked him out of action for four games, Kerr returned to the lineup, wearing a heavy knee brace. His return paid huge dividends in opening round series against the Rangers. In the series-clinching game, Kerr singlehandedly turned a 3-2 deficit into a 6-3 lead. In an incredible 8 minute and 16 second span, Kerr ripped apart Rangers goalie Glen Hanlon for four consecutive goals. The Flyers held on to win and advance beyond the first round for the first time since the 1979-80 season. He was also a tower of strength in the second round of the playoffs, as the Flyers knocked off the Islanders in 5 games. Unfortunately, Kerr's knee gave out on him again in game one of the conference finals against Quebec. He was feared lost for the playoffs. Somehow, though, he managed to suit up for game one of the Stanley Cup Finals. He assisted on the first goal of the game, scored by Ilkka Sinisalo. Later, Kerr added an insurance goal of his own. In game two, which was won 3-1 by Edmonton, Kerr tied the game at 1-1 in the second period before the Oilers went ahead to stay. By game 3, though, Kerr's unstable knee would barely allow him to stand, let alone skate. Kerr tried to play but after a few shifts had to leave the game. He was a frustrated spectator as the powerhouse Oilers went on to close out the series in 5 games.
Kerr worked out hard to rehab the knee in the offseason and reported to camp in great condition, although there were still concerns about the long-term stability of both of his knees. The 1985-86 season, marred by the death of Pelle Lindbergh and a shocking first round playoff exit, proved to be a joyless but statistically impressive campaign. The Flyers, posting 110 points, were runners-up to Edmonton for the Presidents Trophy before bowing out in the first round of the playoffs to the superior goaltending of Vezina Trophy winner John Vanbiesbrouck and a surprising resourceful New York Rangers squad (who had only 78 regular season points and were prohibitive underdogs coming into the series). Even without Lindbergh, the Flyers had a powerhouse team. Especially fearsome was the Flyers powerplay, with Mark Howe quarterbacking at the point, rookie Pelle Eklund showing extraordinary playmaking ability, and a trio of excellent finishers in Kerr, Brian Propp, and Ilkka Sinisalo. Kerr notched 58 goals in 1985-86, an NHL record 34 of which came on the powerplay. In the Flyers abbreviated playoff run, Kerr added 3 goals and 3 assists in 5 games. Although bitterly disappointed by the abrupt end to the season, Kerr was glad that he knees held up sufficiently to play 76 games in the regular season and all 5 matches in the playoffs.
The next season, 1986-87, would be the bittersweet culmination of the Mike Keenan era Flyers and would be both the high point and the beginning of the end of Tim Kerr's career. The Flyers, despite earning 10 fewer regular season points than the previous season, were once again the best in the Eastern Conference and runner up to Edmonton for the President's Trophy. For the first and only time of his NHL career, Kerr ranked among the league's top 10 scorers. Once again tallying 58 goals (topping the 50 goal plateau for the fourth consecutive year), Kerr finished with 95 points, good for a tie with Ray Bourque for 10th in points that season. Although Kerr was still a quiet guy who preferred to lead by example, the courageous way he shrugged off considerable pain in both knees and his left shoulder to go out and score another boatload of goals was an inspiration to every player in the lockerroom. As Peter Zezel said, "if Timmy can go out there and play like that, none of the rest of us has an excuse to slack off, no matter how bad you think you feel." Secure in his status as one of the NHL's premier snipers and basking in the respect and admiration of his teammates, Kerr was happy in both his professional and personal life. On November 23, 1986, he married his fiancee, Kathy Anzaldo. The couple bought a home in Avalon, New Jersey.
In the playoffs, Vezina and Conn Smythe Trophy winning rookie goalie Ron Hextall, spearheaded a magical run to the finals. Throughout the playoffs, the Flyers suffered casualties to many of their most important players: Dave Poulin, Brad McCrimmon, Ilkka Sinisalo, Mark Howe, and Kerr were all either playing with significant injuries or, in Kerr's case, forced out of the lineup altogether. Kerr tried to play with a separated left shoulder and, for a time, managed to succeed. He popped 8 goals in the Flyers first 12 playoff games. But the pain finally got to be too much even for Kerr. The shoulder gave out entirely and Kerr could no longer so much as lift his left arm. Kerr was a spectator as the Flyers polished off the Islanders in the conference finals and then took the Oilers to the seven game limit in the Finals. Just as in 1985, Kerr's body betrayed him at the worst possible time.
The worst was yet to come for Kerr. Over the summer, Dr. John Gregg cleaned out the damage in Kerr's left shoulder and inserted a surgical pin to hold the shoulder joint in place. The pin came loose and the shoulder separated again. Another pin was inserted. This one became infected and had to be removed. In the meantime, Kerr's shoulder joint had become completely unstable. He worked out hard under the auspices of Flyers strength and conditioning instructor Pat Croce and, at the invitation of Mike Keenan, appeared behind the Flyers bench for a few games, rather than sitting up in the pressbox. When the second setback occurred, Kerr, fearing that he was becoming a distraction to the team, politely removed himself from the locker room and went back alone to work with Croce and eventually to start skating on his own. Finally, on March 10, 1988, Kerr took to the ice again for the Flyers. After just two games, however, stabbing pain returned in his shoulder. Once again, Kerr was forced to the sidelines, working on a revised conditioning program with Croce. Although the pain did not go away, Kerr managed to return in time to finish up the season, and even score a hat trick against the Winnipeg Jets. The Flyers lost to the Washington Capitals in the first round of the playoffs. Kerr scored a go-ahead goal in game 7 but his team was unable to hold the lead.
After the '87-88 season, Keenan was fired by Clarke as head coach and replaced by Paul Holmgren. The team slogged through a mediocre regular season (80 points, their lowest total since 1971-72) but made a surprise trip to the conference finals. Combating his bad shoulder and still-aching knees with a combination of strengthening exercises, ice, anti-inflammation medication, and aspirin, Kerr managed to dress in all but 12 games. He came within a whisker of his fifth 50 goal season, settling for "just" 48. The playoffs saw an all-too-familiar scenario play out for Tim. He stepped up his scoring even further and was a major force in the Flyers first round series victory over Washington and then matched Mario Lemieux goal for goal in the second round. In the 7th game of the Penguins series, however, Kerr's thumb was broken by a vicious slash from Jim Johnson. After notching 14 goals in 13 games, Kerr could do little to help in the Wales Conference Finals. Although he suited up and gave it his best effort, he could barely grip a stick, let alone fire a puck past Patrick Roy. The Flyers lost in 6 games and Kerr scored but one goal in the series.
Kerr took home his first and only piece of NHL hardware when he was named the 1988-89 winner of the Bill Masterton Trophy (awarded for perseverance and dedication to hockey). The quiet, unassuming goal-scoring machine with the superhuman pain tolerance finally had his moment on center stage. On the night he accepted the award, Kerr said, "This was the most satisfying season of my career. Now, I'm confident I should be able to play as long as I want."
If life were like a Hollywood movie, the script would have ended with Kerr's Masterton acceptance speech (after a Flyers Stanley Cup victory). Unfortunately, real life does not work that way. Kerr's professional career plummeted rapidly after his big comeback season and he would soon experience unspeakable tragedy in his personal life. Hampered by his ongoing injury problems and barely able to shoot the puck without pain and having sustained yet another knee injury, Kerr was out of the lineup more often than he was in for the remainder of his career.
Tim's professional travails were trivialized by the death of his wife, Kathy, who passed away from an infection ten days after delivering a baby daughter, Kimberly. She was the first child born of the marriage of Tim and Kathy. The couple was also raising Kathy's seven year old daughter from her first marriage, Jackie, and an adopted 10-month old daugher, Kayleigh. A grief-stricken Kerr, usually in firm control of his emotions, broke down and cried as he called Paul Holmgren to tell him what happened. Kerr wept for over three hours, wondering what he was going to do and how he could go on without Kathy. Holmgren reminded him that he needed to be strong for his family's sake.
The entire Flyers family stood behind Tim in the earliest stages of coping with his loss. After his teammates learned of Kathy's death, an impromptu team prayer was convened in the visitors locker room of the Pittsburgh Civic Arena and after the game, the other players wives and girlfriends assembled at the airport to console Tim. The following night, a memorial service was conducted at the Spectrum by the Rev. John Casey before the Flyers played Quebec. Pat Croce dragged Kerr to the gym the following day, trying to get Tim's mind off Kathy and the kids for a few hours. Although the emotional pain and the worries about the future remained as acute ever, Kerr was gracious and appreciative for the efforts being made on his behalf.
Kerr dedicated himself to caring for his three young daughters and, at the same time, trying to battle through the emotional wounds by getting back onto the ice and playing hockey. Kerr's performance on the ice, hindered even further by the tearing of the last remaining healthy cartilage he had in his knee, was not quite up to his past standards. But even the most cynical of Flyers fans did not hold it against him. It was incredible that Kerr was still able to play at all, given all his physical and emotional pain.
Kerr was only able to play in 27 games during the 1990-91 season, scoring 10 times. Flyers General Manager, Russ Farwell, who had replaced Clarke after the '89-'90 campaign, was faced with an extremely tough decision. The NHL expansion draft was coming up and the Flyers, which had just missed the playoffs for the second straight year, were in dire need of rebuilding. Kerr, now 31 years old with two chronic bad knees, a shoulder than could separate at any moment and a $500,000 contract for the next season was a prime candidate to be exposed to the draft. As a hockey decision, it made sense. On a human and public relations level, though, any decision that would result in Kerr being cut loose would be seen as an act of supreme disloyalty to one of the bravest and most productive players to ever join the team. Farwell decided that he had no choice but to make Kerr available to the draft. Not surprisingly, the move was extremely unpopular among Flyers fans. The public relations black eye was exacerbated by Farwell's nonchalant justification of his decision. If ever anyone doubted that hockey is a brutal business where loyalty means little if it stands in the way of organizational planning, Kerr's last days as a Flyer would put an end to anyone's idealistic notions.
Kerr was selected by San Jose in the expansion draft and then immediately dealt to the New York Rangers for Brian Noonan. Tim Kerr was now, of all things, a member of the hated Blueshirts. Kerr's first reaction was one of anger toward Farwell. At a press conference called by the Rangers, he said, "To put me in the draft and think I'm not going to be picked is ludicrous. Whether Russ Farwell is not a very smart man or he couldn't figure that out, I don't know. I felt like I put my life on the line for the Flyers when I went on the ice." Kerr soon calmed down and added, "I can say that Jay Snider went beyond the call for me. I've had some really bad hands dealt to me in the last few years, but you've got to get up every day and not dwell on the bad things. This is not the end I wanted, but you've got to get up every day and keep going."
Kerr played the 1991-92 season with the Rangers, getting into just 32 games and scoring 7 goals (plus 8 games with 1 goal in the playoffs). He finished up his NHL career with the Hartford Whalers the following season, failing to score in 22 games of limited action. At the age of 33, Kerr ended his career with 370 goals in 655 regular season games and 40 goals in 81 playoff tilts. He had 17 career hat tricks. If Kerr had been able to stay healthier during his career, he certainly would have joined the ranks of the NHL's all-time leading goal scorers. As it was, he will be remembered as one of the premier snipers of the 1980s. In 1994, Kerr was elected to the Flyers Hall of Fame.
Today, Kerr still lives in Avalon, New Jersey. He has remarried and has five children. He appears on the ice in some Flyers Alumni games and comes to the occasional Flyers or Phantoms game with his children. He is the CEO of Tim Kerr's Powerplay Realty. He is also the director of the non-profit Tim Kerr Charities. Their efforts include the "Powerplay for Life" program, which raises money for charity every time the Flyers score Tim's old specialty a powerplay goal. To learn more about Tim Kerr Charities, you can visit its website at http://www.avalonpowerplay.com/timkerr.htm.
Without a doubt, Tim Kerr is one of the most inspirational people to ever wear a Flyers jersey. Nothing was ever handed to him in his career. He earned everything the hard way and paid the price without complaint or bitterness. Kerr defines the true meaning of "champion" in the sport of hockey- and the game of life.