When Bernie Parent came to the Collingswood Book Festival last year to promote his new biography, Unmasked, a host of Flyers supporters huddled under a tent for a Q&A with the beloved goaltender.
The first question he fielded was about the injustices of the NHL lockout. The final one was served up for him to bash enigmatic goalie Ilya Bryzgalov—and the silver-haired Hall-of-Famer navigated both with characteristic ease.
You could say he has grown accustomed to having the goodwill of an entire city in his back pocket for the past 40 years, but Unmasked tells the story of just how much Parent's carefree attitude was tested along the way.
'You have to become a chameleon'
From the age of 17, when he left his family home in Montreal with a single suitcase and a shaky grasp of English, Parent has lived a life of adjustments.
"The challenge was always to get better," he said. "Then you turn around one day and it’s all over."
At every level, the stakes got higher. Whether it was building himself into a successful NHL goalie in the shadow of his boyhood idol, Jacques Plante—through whose bushes he admits to peeping as a child—or taking a chance on the fledgling World Hockey Association when the upstart competitor wrote him the biggest check he'd ever seen, nothing was guaranteed.
It certainly didn't feel like he was on a road paved for champions when he was drafted by the expansion Philadelphia Flyers in the late 1960s.
"When I first got introduced in Philly in ’67, I remember there were a couple of people," he said. "Then you look back at seven years later after winning the Stanley Cup there and there were 2 million people there."
The immortal Game 6 benediction of Fred Shero—"Win today and we walk together forever"—is as axiomatic as it gets in sports. But it wasn't an insurance policy. The spotlight dimmed, quite literally, when an on-ice eye injury plunged Parent into blackness.
Throughout the agonizing days until his vision returned, Parent wondered whether he'd ever be able to earn enough to keep his family in the lifestyle to which they had become accustomed, "and I didn’t have any answers," he said.
"Without a purpose in life, you go in circles and it’s not fun," he said. "It takes time, and the Flyers were very good about helping me to put the right people in my life, and to slowly but surely adjust my thinking.
"Finally I realized the question wasn’t how much I could make, it was what can I do now that my career is over."
Stepping out on the tightrope
"Playing is just a microcosm of life," says former Flyer Bill Clement, Parent's teammate on those championship teams.
"If you’re not willing to change or to try something new, or to try something different, it’s going to be very difficult to grow."
And Clement should know. The silky smooth commentator has made a living—several livings—rebounding from surprises.
For starters, he was traded away from the team just eight days after winning back-to-back Stanley Cups. (In fact, Clement is the only NHLer to play for three different teams on three consecutive nights, he notes in his memoir, Everyday Leadership.)
He's picked himself up after two divorces, confidence-rattling stints in the doghouses of some hardcase coaches, personal bankruptcy, bad business deals—you name it, Clement's endured it.
What makes his self-published story such a fascinating tale of success is that it thoroughly documents those moments of doubt that even those who have closely followed his career might never have known, had he not chosen to disclose them.
"One of the reasons I wrote the book is because I look like a guy who’s been very successful in multiple walks of life, and it wasn’t that easy," Clement said. "I’m a regular guy that in many cases ended up in the public eye."
Some of those not-so-public moments in Clement's life demanded readjusting on the fly, he said, "but I can also say that when I had to readjust and my life changed, that I kind of reset."
"The only you really own in this world outright is your credibility," he said. "That’s what you have to protect and nurture and make sure it’s sound. It takes two seconds to damage your credibility and years to build it up."
Back into the fold
There are skeptics who will look at the NHL the same way. For a league that's had four work stoppages—one of them terminal—in the past 20 years, anyone evaluating the business of hockey will question the sense in killing half of a season when league-wide revenues and irreplaceable momentum were seemingly at their peak in the summer of 2012.
But like any good broadcaster, Clement can tell you that nothing is scripted. Just as he's seen thousands of scenarios play out from his perch in the booth, there are a thousand ways the shortened NHL season could break in 2013.
"It’s almost become a way of life in today’s world to expect things like [the lockout]," Clement said. "I think we’ve become desensitized or accustomed to it. It’s what big business does, and we have to sit back and wait."
For the fans who were so frustrated as the negotiations worked themselves through agonizing false starts, theatrical grandstanding and eventually professional mediation, Clement said that at least one important lesson emerged.
"The vast majority of people really understand that investing time and emotion and energy in something over which you have no control is complete futility," he said.
And yet Clement knows full well the passion that makes hockey fans—Flyers fans in particular—cherish their sports heroes. The capital that the organization built in the civic outreach of its early years enabled Clement and Parent to have success for years after their playing careers ended.
"In general, Philadelphians bond with their athletes as much or if not more than any other city," Clement said. "When an athlete knocks on your door, that door opens because there is so much respect."
Or, as Parent mused: "We have a beautiful game and people love it.
"I’m just like everybody else," Parent said. "I’m anxious for the game to start again because I really miss it. I love all other sports, but when it comes to hockey, it’s a beautiful sport."