Monday, April 11, 2016

Ed Snider, 1933-2016

I was working on my Trip Guide for the 2016 edition of "How to Be a Met Fan In Philadelphia," when a bigger Philadelphia story hit the wires.

No, not the basketball team at Villanova University winning the National Championship, as big as that was, particularly with them having avoided talk of their massive choke against North Carolina by winning on a buzzer-beater anyway.

Props to Ed Snider for living as long as he did, and for supporting a great city, and for never calling himself "Duke Snider."

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Edward Malcolm Snider was born on January 6, 1933 in Washington, D.C. He graduated from the University of Maryland, ran a record company, and, in 1964, along with his brother-in-law Earl Foreman, a lawyer, and their friend Jerry Wolman, a trucking company head, bought the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles.

Shortly thereafter, the National Hockey League decided to expand beyond the 6 teams it had settled on since 1942: The Montreal Canadiens, the Toronto Maple Leafs, the New York Rangers, the Boston Bruins, the Detroit Red Wings and the Chicago Blackhawks.

Snider thought Philadelphia should get one of the new teams, and began planning a new arena, for both this hockey team and the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers, who were then playing at the Convention Hall of the Philadelphia Civic Center, adjacent to the campus of the University of Pennsylvania.

On February 8, 1966, Snider got his wish: The NHL granted him a conditional franchise. On June 5, 1967, the Philadelphia Flyers were officially admitted to the NHL, along with the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Minnesota North Stars, the St. Louis Blues, the Los Angeles Kings, and an Oakland-based team then named the California Seals.

On September 30, 1967, The Spectrum opened, hosting not a hockey game, not a basketball game, but a concert: The Quaker City Jazz Festival. (While there were certainly men older than he was promoting rock music, Ed Snider, then 34 years old, was not a rock and roll fan.)

On October 11, 1967, the Flyers made their regular-season debut, losing to the Seals 5-1 at the Oakland Coliseum Arena. On October 18, 1967, the defending NBA Champion 76ers made their Spectrum debut, beating the Los Angeles Lakers 103-87. The next day, October 19, 1967, the Flyers made their home debut, beating the Pittsburgh Penguins 1-0.

The NHL put all 6 expansion teams in the Western Division, and the Flyers won it. But they struggled after that, until the 1971-72 season, in which they developed their rough-and-tumble, sometimes dirty, image as the Broad Street Bullies. The following season, Captain Bobby Clarke developed into the NHL MVP.

Starting on December 11, 1969, Snider had used a record of Kate Smith singing "God Bless America" before selected games, in place of the actual National Anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner," and it nearly always worked. For October 11, 1973, the opener of what became an epic season, Snider invited Smith, a fellow Washington, D.C. native, to sing it in person. She was 67 years old and had not been a hockey fan before, but she did it, it worked again (the Flyers beat the Maple Leafs 2-0), and she loved it.

The Flyers reached the Stanley Cup Finals, and Clarke's overtime goal beat the Boston Bruins in Game 2 at the Boston Garden, a place where the Flyers had only won once before. On May 19, 1974, before Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals against the Boston Bruins at The Spectrum, Smith sang "God Bless America" live again. As a classy gesture, but also possibly as jinx protection, Bruin superstars Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito skated up to her, and gave her a bouquet of flowers. It didn't work: Rick MacLeish's tip-in gave the Flyers a 1-0 win, and they became the 1st of the expansion teams to win the Stanley Cup, the 1st aside from the "Original Six" to do so since the Montreal Maroons 39 years earlier, beating the Boston Bruins in 6 games. The win made the Flyers 37-3-1 when Smith sang or her recording was played.

The Flyers repeated as Champions in 1975, clinching in Game 6 in Buffalo against the Sabres. In 1976, the Flyers were the only NHL team to defeat the Soviet Union's Central Red Army team on its North American tour. Perhaps "beat" is a better term: Ed Van Impe, one of the dirtiest of the Broad Street Bullies, high-sticked Valery Kharlamov, the Red Army's best offensive player, and coach Viktor Tikhonov took his team off the ice. Snider told the Soviet general manager that if his team didn't play, they wouldn't be paid. They became capitalists real fast: The game was resumed, and the Flyers won.

The Flyers made it 3 straight trips to the Stanley Cup Finals, and the slogan became "Hat Trick in '76." But the Montreal Canadiens were ready to start a dynasty of their own, and they swept the Flyers in 4 straight, beginning a run of 4 straight Cups. The Flyers have never won another Cup: They are 0-6 in Finals since 1975, losing to the Habs in 1976, the New York Islanders in 1980, the Edmonton Oilers in 1985 and 1987, the Detroit Red Wings in 1997, and the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010.

They also infamously lost to the New Jersey Devils in the 1995 Eastern Conference Finals thanks to Claude Lemieux's 65-foot wobbler goal in the last minute of Game 5 at The Spectrum in 1995, and blew a 3-games-to-1 lead over the Devils in the 2000 Conference Finals, losing Games 5 and 7 at the new arena, with Scott Stevens leveling Eric Lindros in Game 7. The Flyers were a 1st seed in 2002, and lost to the 8th seed, the Ottawa Senators.

It has now been 42 years since the Flyers went all the way. Being Jewish, Snider knew that even the ancient Israelites got out of the wilderness after 40 years. Even Connie Mack, who broke up the Athletics during the Great Depression, and whose A's were then so bad for so long, only lasted 24 years as a Philadelphia sports team owner since his last World Championship.

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Snider assumed control of The Spectrum in 1971, and in 1974, he founded Spectacor, as a holding company to run the business affairs of both the Flyers and The Spectrum. In 1996, shortly after selling a majority stake in Spectacor to Comcast, a new arena opened, not because The Spectrum was (yet) considered inadequate to changing times, but because it was overbooked: It was the busiest arena in the country. The new arena has gone through 5 different names, as one bank with naming rights has been bought out by another, and is now known as the Wells Fargo Center.

The 76ers played their last game at The Spectrum on April 19, 1996, losing 112-92 to the Orlando Magic. The Flyers played their Spectrum finale on May 12, 1996, losing Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals to the Florida Panthers, 2-1 in overtime. The Flyers made their debut at the new arena on October 5, 1996, losing 3-1 to the Panthers. The 76ers did so on November 1, losing 111-103 to the Milwaukee Bucks.

Today, Comcast Spectacor owns several sports venues. Just within a reasonable drive of Center City Philadelphia, it owns the followers: The Wells Fargo Center, Temple University's Liacouras Center, Talen Energy Stadium in Chester (home of MLS' Philadelphia Union), the Sun National Bank Center in Trenton, Atlantic City's Boardwalk Hall (formerly Convention Hall) and the Atlantic City Convention Center, and the PPL Center in Allentown. It also owns and runs University of Phoenix Stadium in  (home of the Arizona Cardinals), Children's Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas (home of MLS' Sporting Kansas City), the XL Center (formerly known as the Hartford Civic Center), AutoZone Park in Memphis, and the home courts of the basketball teams of Ohio State, Cleveland State, the University of Massachusetts, the University of Central Florida, the University of Miami and Saint Louis University. It also owns the companies that do the ticket operations and the concessions for all these venues. And it owns the Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa in Atlantic City.

As the Flyers and Sixers were transitioning to the new arena in 1996, Spectacor bought the Sixers, for whom Snider had been landlord. He was now their owner, and remained so until selling Comcast Spectacor's share in them to Joshua Harris in 2011. The Sixers reached the NBA Finals under Snider's ownership in 2001, but lost to the Lakers, and haven't won an NBA title since 1983.

Snider also founded Comcast SportsNet, which broadcasts most of the Flyers', 76ers' and Phillies' games.

He wasn't all good -- and I'm not just talking about the Flyers and their on-ice, sometimes in-stands behavior. In 1985, Snider was one of the founding contributors of the Ayn Rand Institute, established to promote Rand's philosophy of Objectivism -- essentially, enlightened selfishness. (Newsflash: Selfishness is inherently unenlightened.) In 1990, a split in the ARI led to a new organization, now known as The Atlas Society, and Snider was again a founding member.

He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame and the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame. He was married 4 times, had 6 children (one of whom, Jay, had helped him run the Flyers, but no longer does), and lived to see 15 grandchildren.

Ed Snider had been battling cancer for 2 years, and thought he had beaten it last year, but it returned, and he died this morning, at the age of 83.

Although Barron Hilton, founding owner of the San Diego Chargers (and grandfather of Paris Hilton) is still alive (at 88, he is the last surviving member of "The Foolish Club," the 8 men who founded the American Football League in 1959), with Snider's death, the longest continuously-operating current owner of an NHL team is now Jeremy Jacobs, who has run the Bruins through his Delaware North Corporation since 1975. (Bill Bidwill, part-owner of the NFL's St. Louis/Arizona Cardinals since 1962 and sole owner since 1972, was already the longest-tenured owner in all of North American major league sports.)

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