- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 19, 2009

After stars Bobby Clarke and Bernie Parent skated around the rink with the Stanley Cup in tow, workmen at Philadelphia’s Spectrum toted a 30-foot red carpet and a organ onto the ice. As a hefty, 67-year-old woman stepped to a microphone and began singing “God Bless America,” thousands of fans went totally bonkers.

The date was May 19, 1974, and the Flyers’ 1-0 victory had completed a six-game triumph over the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup Finals for a rough-and-tumble team known as the “Broad Street Bullies.”

The woman was Kate Smith, then 30 or so years removed from her heyday as the nation’s favorite female songstress. For five years, her recorded rendition of the song was considered a good luck charm for the Flyers, who had become the first NHL expansion team to win the Cup.

Flyers president Lou Schienfield first ordered it to be played rather than the national anthem Dec. 11, 1969, incurring the wrath of some musical traditionalists. But most of the club’s fans loved it - and Smith herself.

Did the somewhat sappy song really bring the Flyers luck? According to the team’s Web site, Philly went 19-1-1 in the next three seasons when it was played before games and 31-38-28 when it wasn’t.

Draw your own conclusions - but it figured that Smith’s appearance in the flesh after the final victory in 1974 seemed as significant to some onlookers as the championship itself.

Stepping onto the red carpet, Kate waved passionately, and the fans screamed. She threw imaginary punches in the air, and they screamed louder. When she aimed her hand like a pistol at the disconsolate Bruins, the roar grew louder still. Then somebody struck up the organ, and Smith began to sing Irving Berlin’s patriotic tune:

“God bless America/Land that I love. Stand beside her and guide her/Thru the night with a light from above… ”

Utter bedlam. Somewhere Berlin must have been smiling.

When she finished and started off the ice, Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito of the Bruins shook her hand - hoping, no doubt, that some of that luck would rub off on a team that was a member of the NHL’s Original Six.

Unfortunately for Boston fans, it didn’t. The Flyers repeated their championship under coach Fred Shero in 1975 with Smith wailing away, then took a backseat in postseason play while the Montreal Canadiens and New York Islanders enjoyed four-year title runs. Neither Philadelphia nor Boston has snatched one since.

Smith made several visits to the world of violent hits and missing teeth. At the home opener in 1973, she started the Flyers on the way to a 2-0 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs. And naturally she sang before Game 7 of the 1975 semifinals, when the Flyers beat the Islanders 4-1 to reach the finals for the second straight year.

Smith’s last live appearance at a Flyers playoff game came in 1976, but the magic was gone. That night the Flyers lost to the Canadiens 5-3 as Montreal finished a four-game sweep in the finals.

Kate died of diabetes in 1986 at 79, but she has not been forgotten in Philly. The Flyers unveiled a statue of her outside the Spectrum in 1987. Noting that her “career” record was 77-21-4 when a recorded or live version of “God Bless America” was played before games, the team now uses a recorded version of the song before home playoff games.

Nowhere else in sports is there such emphatic evidence that a song can affect the outcome. Baseball broadcaster Harry Caray gained much attention for growling “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh-inning stretch at Wrigley Field, but the Cubs’ championship drought now stands at 101 years and counting. Since Sept. 11, it has become customary to play or perform “God Bless America” at most ballparks during the middle of the seventh, but Kate Smith was the last person to claim the song as truly her own at an athletic venue.

It remains passing strange that a tune honoring America should have so notable a history in a sport heavily populated by Canadians and other foreigners. But nobody ever objected when Kate Smith opened her mouth to let the lyrics fly.

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