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by Bill Meltzer,
philadelphiaflyers.com

The honor of being the first overall pick of the National Hockey League Entry Draft also comes with the burden of high expectations. Although he never became a prolific NHL scorer, former Flyers captain Mel Bridgman lived up to his billing in other ways.

Bridgman was one the team’s most reliable players during the transitional period of the mid-1970s to early 1980s. A model of consistency, Bridgman played nearly 1,000 games in the NHL, reaching the 20-goal mark six times, mostly as a third-line player. He was especially effective in big games, road tilts and during the playoffs.

Possessing a winning combination of grit, toughness, two-way play, leadership and intelligence, Bridgman was a clear-cut choice to succeed Bobby Clarke as Flyers captain when the Hall of Fame center became a playing assistant coach. The versatile Bridgman switched off readily between center and left wing and could anchor checking or scoring lines without missing a beat.

“He had a special determination. When Mel went after the puck, he was like a bulldog. He had his mind set. If you put a wall between him and his assignment, you would lose that wall,” recalled ex-Flyers coach Pat Quinn in The Greatest Players and Moments of the Philadelphia Flyers.

Tough as rawhide on the ice, Bridgman was a bright, articulate gentleman away from the game. Coming from a family where education was highly valued, Bridgman took college classes at Villanova University and the University of Pennsylvania during his playing career and went on to earn his Masters of Business Administration at Penn’s prestigious Wharton School of Business.

Go West, Young Man

Melvin John Bridgman was born in Trenton, Ontario, on April 28, 1955, and spent most of his early years in Thunder Bay, Ontario. When he was a teenager, his father, a meteorologist, relocated the family west after he was transferred from his job in the Ontario bureau to one located in Victoria, British Columbia.

Mel, a shy child, took a little while to adjust to his new home. A common bond he shared with his dad was their mutual love for hockey. Mel started playing youth hockey while in Thunder Bay and brought his equipment with him to Victoria, playing at the first opportunity. Bridgman’s parents supported his participation with the understanding that Mel had to keep his grades in school strong to play hockey.

“My father was a huge Canadiens fan, so the first time I played against them in Montreal (on October 18, 1975) was awesome. It was just a great thrill and it was probably the most nervous I have ever been on the ice,” Bridgman told USAHockey.com.

In 1972, at the age of 16, Mel was recruited from the Nanaimo Clippers of the British Columbia Junior Hockey League to play for the Victoria Cougars of the WCHL. Splitting time between Nanaimo (where he scored 37 goals and 87 points in 49 games in ’72-’73) and Victoria, Bridgman suited up in 8 games for Victoria during the 1971-72 and 1972-73 seasons, scoring once.

In 1973-74, the same year the Flyers won their first Stanley Cup, Bridgman emerged as one of Victoria’s top players, posting 26 goals and 39 assists for 65 points in 62 games with the Cougars. The next year, he set a league scoring record (since broken) with a remarkable 66 goals, 91 assists and 157 points to go along with 175 penalty minutes.

Although he wasn’t the swiftest of skaters and didn’t possess an overpowering shot, Bridgman’s physical play, smarts and soft hands in close to the net made up for whatever gifts he may have lacked.

Bridgman’s magnificent play in 1974-’75 helped launch Victoria from fifth place in their division to the best record in the WCHL. Over the last six games of the season, he scored an extraordinary 25 points. He continued his dominance in the playoffs, lighting the lamp 12 times in 12 games, to go along with a half-dozen helpers. Not surprisingly, scouts turned out in droves to see Bridgman play. That season, Bridgman also played for silver medal-winning Team Canada in the second-ever World Junior Championships (then an unofficial International Ice Hockey Federation tournament).

Bridgman looks back fondly on his junior career. “I learned a lot about playing the game in Victoria – going into the corners and playing in traffic without worrying about the consequences. I had good coaches and good teammates. It was a great foundation to build from, hockey wise and personally,” he said.

Go East, Young Man

On June 4, 1975, shortly after the Flyers defeated the Buffalo Sabres to win their second Stanley Cup, General Manager Keith Allen announced the team had traded forward Bill Clement, defensive prospect Don McLean and cash considerations to the struggling Washington Capitals in exchange for the first overall pick in the 1975 NHL Entry Draft.

All along, the Broad Street Bullies champions honed in on a single player – Mel Bridgman. “The only thing he might lack is confidence,” Flyers scout Jerry Melnyk said in the Flyers 1975-76 yearbook. “But that will come.”

Bridgman became the first British Columbia resident to be selected first overall in the NHL draft, as well as the first Philadelphia Flyer to earn that distinction.

“Being picked by the Stanley Cup champions surprised me,” he said. “I thought I was going (with the third pick) to the California Seals.”

The prestige associated with being the first pick of the 1975 draft means more to Bridgman now than it did as a young player.

“When you are in the middle of a career, you don’t think too much about it because you’re enjoying the game so much,” he reflected to USA Hockey. “But when you consider the number of teams and players we had then, maybe 40 to 50 new players entered the league every year. To be considered one of the best, it just means more to me as the years pass.”

The Flyers had competition for Bridgman’s services. The Denver Spurs of the rival World Hockey Association selected the Victoria center with the fourth overall pick of the 1975 WHA Draft. Although Spurs owner Ivan Mullenix publicly pledged to make Bridgman an offer he couldn’t refuse, the 20-year-old center quickly chose the defending Stanley Cup champions over the fledgling Denver franchise. He signed a five-year contract with the Flyers, worth $500,000.

Bridgman made a wise decision to spurn the Spurs. The first-year team struggled badly at the gate, briefly moved to Ottawa, Ontario (where they were rechristened the Ottawa Civics) and then folded mid-season in their first year after just 41 games played. Meanwhile, Bridgman got acclimated to life in the National Hockey League. Playing for the Flyers, who were loaded with forward talent on the top two lines, the rookie was allowed to learn his craft in the background of stars like Bobby Clarke, Bill Barber, Reggie Leach and Rick MacLeish.

At first, Bridgman’s introverted nature was mistaken for aloofness by some of his Philadelphia teammates. He arrived at training camp feeling homesick and, not wanting to step on any of the veterans’ toes, he rarely made eye contact or spoke unless spoken to.

“Mel was very shy and withdrawn. He was pretty nervous and unsure of himself. The veterans on the team really kidded him a lot,” former teammate Ross Lonsberry said in Greatest Players and Moments. “Bridgman did a lot of growing up between that rookie training camp and the [1976] playoffs. He came out of his shell and became one of us.”

Recognizing that Bridgman needed to feel like he belonged in the NHL, Flyers captain Clarke took the rookie under his wing. For a full week, Clarke asked Bridgman to tag along with him.

“I spent a lot of time with Bobby that week,” Bridgman said in the 1975-76 Yearbook. “Everywhere he went, I went along with him. I even went with him when he was attending to some personal business. The way he looked after me made me feel a little more at ease.”

Earning His Wings

While Bridgman’s teammates saw that he lacked self-confidence, the news would have come as a surprise to the Flyers opponents. It didn’t take Bridgman long to earn his wings as a full-fledged member of the Broad Street Bullies.

On opening night of the 1975-76 season, Bridgman made his NHL debut against the Capitals, playing left wing on a line with Orest Kindrachuk and Don “Big Bird” Saleski. Late in the second period, with the Flyers leading 3-2, Saleski worked the puck back to defenseman Joe Watson.

The elder Watson brother sent the puck at the net, where Bridgman was camped out in front of goaltender Michel Belhumeur. A split second later, Mel Bridgman scored his first NHL goal. He ended up with four shots on goal in a game won by the Flyers.

Two nights later, Bridgman duplicated the feat in a 9-5 road victory against the Minnesota North Stars. This time, in the midst of a four-goal first period by the Flyers, he followed up on a Saleski scoring chance to bang the puck home past North Stars goalie Paul Harrison.

On October 30, 1975, Bridgman and the Flyers traveled to Toronto to take on the Maple Leafs. In the first installment of a nasty season series that gave way to a playoff war, the Broad Street Bullies humiliated the Leafs by a 6-2 score in a game marked by 129 penalty minutes whistled by referee Dave Newell and a slew of fights and stick infractions. In the process, the Flyers outshot the Leafs 47 to 21.

The game was tied 1-1 after the first period. Seven minutes into the second period, Bridgman scored a powerplay goal to put the Flyers up 2-1. Barely two minutes later, Barber extended the lead to 3-1.

FULL STORY
 
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