MIAMI -- Bob Clarke came home to Philadelphia last night, to the city where his legendary career unfolded, to the home ice of the team that retired his number, hired and fired him as a general manager, brought him back from the hinterlands as a highly paid executive with a nebulous role and allowed him to leave to build a hockey team from nothing.
Apparently, he's doing a good job. The Florida Panthers, a first-year team in the NHL, are in third place in the Atlantic Division, two positions ahead of Clarke's old team, the Flyers, against whom they played last night at The Spectrum. And the Panthers, under general manager Clarke, have built their impressive expansion team record -- they've won 23 games, lost 19 and tied 10 -- with contributions from three castoffs from the Flyers organization: Scott Mellanby, Andrei Lomakin and Gord Murphy.
Clarke has been within earshot of Flyers fans for nearly half his life. He knows how they think, and he knows how they talk. With the Panthers in playoff contention, and the Flyers in a funk, Clarke could imagine what he would hear at The Spectrum.
"Hey, Bobby, c'mon home -- we need ya."
And how, Clarke was asked the other day, would he respond to such a plea? "I don't know," Clarke said. "I have no idea. I was the guy who was managing when we didn't make the playoffs."
That's the word he used -- "we" -- but one shouldn't read too much into that. When he signed with the Panthers, Clarke sold his home in Moorestown, N.J., a house he built for his wife and four children, and bought a house in Plantation, Fla., a short drive from the Miami Arena, where the Panthers play. He says he likes the climate here. [What's not to like? It's been sunny and warm here for the past week.] "I've got a good job," he said. "I'm happy."
When Clarke made his exodus, the official line from the Flyers front office was: "If Bobby's happy, we're happy." Flyers fans, however, have no contract obligation to diplomacy. Clarke's "happiness?" That is not the issue. The question is: Will he come back?
"That would be unfair to discuss," the Hall of Fame center said. "I don't think that there's any reason to start rumors."
For Clarke to come back, of course, there would have to be an opening for him, and there aren't any. Ed Snider, the Flyers owner, recently gave Russ Farwell, the team's general manager, a public endorsement, albeit a lukewarm one.
That would leave only one potential post for the 44-year-old Clarke -- team president -- a position held by Snider's son, Jay, who has given no indication that he's interested in giving up the job. On the other hand, Jay Snider's business interests in the Far East, and with Spectacor, take up more of his time.
The Panthers team president is Bill Torrey, a courtly, bow-tie wearing man with a long and distinguished record of accomplishment. Some have speculated that he and Clarke, as lifelong hockey men with strong opinions, butt heads. That, Clarke said, is not the case.
"Bill has won Stanley Cups, he knows the game better than most of us who are managing," Clarke said. "Anybody who thinks he can do it all by himself is kidding himself. We use Bill all the time."
And then there is Clarke's boss' boss, team owner H. Wayne Huizenga, one of the richest persons in the United States, the owner of the Blockbuster Video chain and the Florida Marlins and an owner of the Miami Dolphins. Huizenga is hell-bent on creating successful sporting franchises, and he would be expected to do whatever is necessary to keep Clarke with the Panthers for years to come, provided that the line on the team's growth chart continues its upward path.