The Flyers: Cursed

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Please allow me to preface this section by stating for the record that I am not an avid hockey fan.  I will, however, watch the NHL playoffs because they’re very exciting and the intensity level is high.  Even from watching just the playoffs it is clear that this team has been cursed.

Pre-curse, the Flyers were a championship machine.  They won consecutive Stanley Cups in 1974 and 1975 to go along with theee other conference championships in that decade.  Post-curse, that is, after 1985, this franchise has consistently tortured its fans with one heartbreak after another.

That’s what is so excruciating about being a Philadelphia fan: the market is large enough for our teams to spend competitively for players and coaches, and they have been so close to winning so many times, that the cumulative effect of these disappointments is unbearable.  It’s not just the losses that hurt: it’s how close we’ve come and how often.

In 1985, behind the phenomenal goalkeeping of Pelle Lindbergh, the Flyers posted the best record in the NHL and advanced to the Stanley Cup finals, won Game 1, then lost the next four games and the series.  Lindbergh’s tragic death in an automobile accident after that season is but one example of the curse’s fatal dimension, as later tragedies will show.

In 1996, behind the outstanding play of young superstar Eric Lindros, the team advanced to the Stanley Cup finals, but was then swept in embarrassing fashion by the Detroit Red Wings.  This was followed by a string of 5 straight first-round exits from the playoffs despite having highly talented and favored teams each year.

In 2000 the team was on the cusp of advancing to the Stanley Cup finals again when it held a 3-1 series lead against the New Jersey Devils.  Amazingly, the Devils captured three consecutive games to steal the series and deal another painful blow to this once proud franchise. 

In 2004 the team again advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals and won Game 6 in dramatic fashion against the Tampa Bay Lightning to force a decisive Game 7.  Of course, they lost game 7.  Losing a hockey game to a team from Florida adds insult to injury.

Another dimension of the Philly Curse is for star players to underperform.  Eric Lindros was widely hailed as the next Wayne Gretzky, but his career here will be remembered for his feuding with management, his chronic concussions and his bad attitude.  As will be seen with other Philly teams, this is not unique to the Flyers.  It’s par for the course: every time this city thinks it has found its sports saviour, it painfully discovers that no one player can undo this horrible curse.

I Am Not Alone

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Here’s a recent piece from the Philadelphia Daily News.  When psychologists have to predict what it would feel like for a team to win something, you know it’s been a rough stretch:

The Passion, the Pain

Philly fans have endured years of frustration

By DANA PENNETT O’NEIL

WITH LINCOLN Financial Field hovering in the distance, John Miller sat amid his friends. His goatee and Ace bandage both dyed Eagles green, his van with the silk-screened images of his buddies at various points in their 27-year tailgating history parked nearby, Miller tried to explain what being a Philadelphia sports fan is all about.

“I’m not pissed off,” said Miller, with green beads draped across his Eagles jersey. “I’m frustrated.”

Raise a glass and toast Mr. Miller, Philadelphia. In six words he boiled down the sentiment of a city.

As the calendar nears 2007 and the parade-less stretch closes in on 24 years (and counting), frustration has come to symbolize the Philadelphia sports fan. Like lemmings or swallows at San Capistrano, fans here come back every year renewed with hope, convinced this will be the year that some team will hoist a championship trophy while cruising down Broad Street – only to pack up their burgers, beers, pompoms and face paint in disgust a few months later.

Being a disappointed Philadelphia sports fan is no longer just a pastime. It is a birthright, an oral tradition passed from one generation to the next. You boo, kids learn at the knee of their parents and grandparents, not because you hate but because you must.

“There’s a passion to what a Philadelphia sports fan brings like no other city,” said Dr. Joel Fish, a sports psychologist and the director of Philadelphia’s Center for Sports Psychology. “We celebrate like no other city, but we also let you know when we’re disappointed. That’s rooted into the identity of the fan here.”

The joke around the city is that you can tell how the Eagles did on Sunday by the mood at the office on Monday.

Fish doesn’t necessarily buy into the theory that every sports fan is dramatically affected by his or her team’s won-lost record. He puts fans into three categories — the casual sports fan, the hard-core sports fan and the obsessed sports fan. The casual fan goes to a game with a buddy; the hard-core fan is a season ticketholder; and the obsessed fan will miss his child’s wedding if there’s a game on the same day.

Fish’s nonscientific survey based on a lifetime living in the city classifies roughly 30 percent of Philadelphia folks in the first group, 60 in the second and a strong 10 percent in the latter.

Philly fans, stuck in the shadows of New York City both civically and athletically, would like something to crow about.

“I’m sick of being the ugly stepchild,” said T-Bone, a diehard Eagles fan from Cinnaminson, N.J.

There’s no doubt, though, that people here are championship starved. Don’t tell them about the hopeless Cubbies and their Billy Goat curse. The Cubs might not won a World Series since 1908, but the Bulls, the Bears and the White Sox have all won more recently than Philly teams. And don’t bring up the finally redeemed Red Sox contingent that, while suffering its baseball drought, got to drink from the cup of plenty thanks to the Celtics and the Patriots.

If you want to know pain, come to Philly, where the last time a professional trophy was hoisted high into the air was 1983, but in between fans have been teased mercilessly with near misses.

“There’s no comparison,” said Joe from Manheim (not sports-obsessed Joe). “This is 10 times worse.”

The burning question, though, is what happens when someone actually wins here? Losing has become such a fabric of this city’s identity, what will fans do if they actually get to celebrate?

Fish said whatever team wins next will be perhaps more beloved than the 1983 Sixers, the 1980 Phillies and the 1973-74 and 1974-75 Flyers.

That team will not only represent winning, but a cosmic release of frustration.

“I was there when the Flyers and the Phillies won,” Fish said. “My friends don’t believe me, but there were 2 million people there. This time, there will be 4 million. This will be a release of 23 years of pent-up passion and frustration. It will be a celebration unlike any other city. Ask any athlete who’s won here and they’ll tell you, Philly is a tough place to play, but it’s a great place to win.”

Such a Promising Beginning

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When I was born in 1980, the Philadelphia Phillies won the World Series.  Throughout my childhood I had a red baseball bat signed by each member of that championship team resting in the corner of my bedroom.  In 1983, the Philadelphia 76ers won the NBA championship.  In 1985, Villanova won the NCAA basketball championship in one of the greatest underdog wins in sports history.  Little did I know that, at just five years of age, my best Philadelphia sports memories were already behind me.  Particularly sad for me is that I have no memory whatsoever of these victories.

What I do know quite well, unfortunately, is pain.  Disappointment.  Heartbreak.  Frustration.  Anger.  These are the emotions of a Philadelphia sports fan.

I remember attending Game 6 of the Phillies National League Championship Series in 1993, when they clinched the title and advanced to the World Series.  I also remember watching Joe Carter gallop excitedly around the bases after blasting the game-winning home run for the Toronto Blue Jays in that World Series.

I remember the Flyers advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1997 only to be swept in four games by the Detroit Red Wings.

I remember the 76ers advancing to the NBA Finals in 2001 and being demolished in 5 games by the Los Angeles Lakers, whose star player, Kobe Bryant, is from Philadelphia. 

And the Eagles… oh, the Eagles, Philadelphi’a most beloved team of all.  Where to start?  They advanced to the conference championship game 3 years in a row- in 2001, 2002, and 2003- only to lose each time.  Then they broke through in the following year and advanced to the Super Bowl… and lost that game as well.  Should I mention Terrell Owens?  No- that’s another disaster in itself.

The situation became so bleak that Philadelphia fans adopted local college St. Joseph’s University’s basketball team as its own and became passionate about them as they earned a number 1 seed in the NCAA tournament in 2004 following an undefeated regular season.  Predictably the team lost, in heartbreaking fashion, to Oklahoma State University in the regional finals.

Similarly, later in 2004 the town pinned its hopes on local race horse Smarty Jones, which won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, putting it on the brink of capturing horseracing’s most coveted prize, the Triple Crown.  Of course, the horse faded in the final stretch and was overtaken by a 36-to-1 longshot, Birdstone. 

The cumulative suffering these events have caused has led me to conclude that the city is cursed- perhaps Villanova’s unbelievable run in 1985 used up a generation’s worth of luck.  Don’t believe me?  More to come…

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