There has been a shakeup among the clientele at the Sign of the Bully. Where once the Philadelphia Flyers bludgeoned the opposition into submission, now they are living up to their name. They have changed identities in a phone booth and come out skating faster than a speeding bullet.
The results are comparable. In 1976, as two-time Stanley Cup champions about to be toppled from their throne, the Flyers went 23 games without a defeat. This season after taking a 9-2 drubbing from Alanta in their second game, the Flyers have provided indications of a future coup d'etat by matching that string.
The immediate goal is Montreal's NHL record of 28, set two seasons ago by the current kings of the sport. En route, the key dates are Dec. 16 in New York (No. 27), against a Ranger team guided by the Bullies' old guru, Fred Shero, that ousted Philly from the 1979 playoffs, and Dec. 22 in Boston (No. 29), against the team that demolished the Flyers in the 1977 and 1978 playoffs.
However, Pat Quinn, the cigarsmoking genius who has resurrected the Flyers from the ashes of success, has goals far beyond an alteration in the NHL record book.
"I've never mentioned the streak to the players and I won't," Quinn said. "We're certainly aware of it from the newspapers and it would certainly be a feather in our caps to get the record. Maybe, on that 27th night or whenever -- I don't know how may games it is -- we'll be thinking about it.
"But the streak in itself is not important. It's the things we've going as a result of the snowball effect of the streak that matter. We're trying to be consistent game after game. Good clubs often have one bad night, but they don't let themselves get caught up in it and lose four or five.
"We talked of getting a quick start, so we wouldn't be behind the eightball right off the bat. We are opening a gap now and it's a good thing. Last year, we couldn't mentally prepare for the playoffs because we were fighting to finish second and had to focus on that spot.
"Our goal wasn't so high to begin with this year. I anticipated that Atlanta would be our toughest competition in the (Patrick) division. I felt we had a crack at first place, although it seemed everybody outside our group was picking us third or fourth."
One so-called expert in the Hockey News' preseason poll even tabbed the Flyers for last place, behind Washington. What all those who had downgraded the Flyers were overlooking, however, was the tremendous success of the Maine farm team, which had won American Hockey League championships in both years of its existence.
Nine former Marines are playing for Philadelphia now, including unbeaten goalie Pete Peeters. He is no Bernie Parent, but his 2.67 goals against mark places him among the league leaders. He alternates with Phil Myre, acquired from St. Louis in a propitious deal for journeyman Blake Dunlop and libility Rick Lapointe.
The departure of Lapointe and injuries to Bob Dailey and Moose Dupont provided entree for some more Mariners of little reputation -- defensemen Frank Bathe, Norm Barnes and Mike Busniuk. The three Bs have rated As for safe, competent defensive play.
Meanwhile, up front, the flying Flyers have transformed a team with largely defensive instincts into the highest-scoring club in the NHL.
There is a speedy one on each line -- Reg Leach, Ken Linseman and Rich MacLeish -- and their teammates look to them in game-breaking situations.
Leach has 22 goals and the praise of everyone in the organization, after years of hearing derogatory comments about his checking. even in 1975-76, when he set an NHL mark of 61 goals by a right wing, Leach heard little but criticism from Shero.
Now Leach, after serving two years as unwanted trade bait, does it all and last week his shorthanded score, on a penalty-killing shift with Bobby Clark, was the game winner in a 6-4 comeback victory over Minnesota.
"This year I was told that my job was just to go out and score goals," Leach said. "But it seems when you concentratre on one thing like that, the defensive part comes along by itself."
Linemate Clarke, now an assistant coach, never could understand why Shero would not be satisfied with Leach as a goal scorer and leave the checking to him.
"Reggie scored a lot of goals, but Freddie always wanted him to check more," Clarke said. "Reggie always cared -- he just got lost. Early last year (under 50-game Coach Bob McCammon), he wasn't the only one. A lot of us were lost. But Pat has gotten everybody involved and it has paid off."
Playing alongside Leach and Clarke is rookie Brian Propp, second to Leach in scoring with 13 goals and 18 assists. Although Propp collected 94 goals and 100 assists last year as a junior at Brandon, he was still available when the Flyers made the 14th selection in the August entry draft.
"We had no idea he would be available when our turn came around," said General Manager Keith Allen whose scouts are aided by the Dallas Cowboys' computer. "But there was never a doubt in our minds that, if he was available, he would be our selection."
Propp, the son of a minister, says little besides "I don't talk much," "Yes" and "No." 'owener, Leach, who owns a potent shot himself, described Propp's chief asset: "The kid is murder from 20 feet. I don't want to be in front of it, not at that distance. It's like a bullet, an acurate bullet." i
The emphasis on scoring, disciplined play and thoughful hockey has left a few Flyers wondering what to do with their hands.
Team captain Mel Bridgman, who served 387 minutes in penalties the last two years, has toned down his act a bit and manages to joke about it. Bridgman was a juior rabble rouser at Victoria, near Vancouver, where the Flyers have engaged in notable combat over the last years. Invited to a banquet there during a recent road trip, Bridgman had these comments on the club's new image:
"This must be the first time any of the Flyers made a public appearance here that wasn't in court. I can't get used to this new law-and-order image. Now I've got nobody to beat up but the wife and kids."
The Flyers reached the ultimate of gentlemanliness on a visit to Edmonton, when Peeters, leaving the ice on a delayed penalty, was decked by the Oilers' aid, which schocked even Lumley, who admitted he was expecting retaliation.
Quinn quietly informed his players that there were exceptions to his avoid-cheap penalties stance. That was all that some shackeled sluggers needed to hear and the Flyers' 90-minute assessment during Thursday's game here with Los Angeles, as Bridgman, Bathe and Paul Holmgren were ejected, sent Philadelphia into the league lead in penalties.
Still, the 517-minute figure in 25 games is not comparable to the gory days of the mid-1970s, when the Flyers were approaching 2,000 minutes with their record violations and profiting from the officials' reluctance to call every foul. Quinn insists there will be no return to those tactics, which he recalls well as a member of the fighting opposition in Atlanta.
"The Bully Flyers sold tickets and in other cities people came to see their own guys beat up," Quinn said. "But we've gotten away from that. Those people want to watch a hockey game, not a brawl."
Where Philadelphia fans are concerned, that statement is open to dispute. Still, there is a certainty that folks are anxious to see the current Flyers, following a gear of modest disaffection. Since all Sepectrum games have been sold out for seven years, the best yardstick for measuring interest is the upcoming games in Washington.
During the first four seasons of the Capitals existence, an average of 9,000 Flyer fans came to Washington for each game, none of which drew less than 17,000. Last year, despite ads in Philadelphia newspapers, there was no interest here and the two games at Capital Centre combined did not lure 20,000.
Last week, Capital Centre salesman Mike Martaus carted a box of tickets to the Spectrum and, following a brief mention of his presence on the message board, was overwhelmed.
"I was just grabbing money and passing out reservation slips," Martaus said. "I must have sold 600 in just a few minutes. And that was for a game in mid-January. If the Flyers keep winning, we've got to sell out for that one."
Despite some threats to their streak, the Flyers have kept on winning. Even in the Montreal Forum, where they trailed, 2-1, after two periods, the Flyers unleashed a 19-5 shot barrage in the third and earned their first road victory over the Canadians in five years, 5-3.
A similar whirlwind attack wiped out a 3-0 Los Angeles lead here Thursday night. the Flyers scored six times in the second peroid while piling up a 24-3 margin in 17 minutes wiped out a two-goal lead by the Kings. Minnesota, two up in the Spectrum last week, was victimized by an 18-3 shot assult in just 14 minutes.
"They finally read your scouting report," a visitor told Joe Watson after the Nothe Stars' victory bid had been squelched.
"My reports have been very little to do with it," Watson said. "Its just hard work, that's all."