The Flyers and Homer Simpson: Treehouse of Horror and beyond
In their athletic afterlife, the 1975-76 Philadelphia Flyers served two minutes in the box.
The jury box, that is, or most accurately the goggle-box. And it was technically two minutes and five seconds for those keeping diligent time.
It happened on the Fox network 25 years ago this Sunday. As The Simpsons was well into its stride, the revolutionary animated series renewed the “Treehouse of Horror” Halloween episode for its fourth edition.
On Oct. 28, 1993, the anything-goes, non-canonical special led off with “The Devil and Homer Simpson.” Long story short, Homer characteristically offers his soul in exchange for a doughnut. He completes the pact with Satan himself, who ironically is devout Christian neighbor Ned Flanders, before daughter Lisa appeals the terms.
Flanders grants Homer a trial, but pushes defense attorney Lionel Hutz out of the jury selection. To round out the case’s dozen referees, he taps one of the NHL’s most penalized bunches of all time. After enlisting six unrelated notorious or controversial figures in American history, he introduces the other half as “the starting line of the 1976 Philadelphia Flyers.”
Based on its name, “The Jury of the Damned” is supposed to be made of deceased sinners. To that point, Richard Nixon objects to his selection, on the grounds that “I’m not dead yet.” Although, he is just as quick to acquiesce when Flanders reminds him, “I did you a favor.”
Why, then, is there no nitpicking when the six Flyers are summoned? Like Nixon, every player who saw regular action for Philadelphia in 1976 was still alive in 1993.
Perhaps, upon leaving the ice, the Jekyll-and-Hyde effect took hold and made them stereotypically polite Canadians. And since they are in uniform 17 years later, maybe their exit from life as professional hockey players counts. Or maybe, since they are collectively introduced, the 1975-76 season counts as a bygone entity.
Those possibilities nothwithstanding, they are summoned all the same. Their appearance has long since stood out in the eyes of Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Rob Tornoe, among others.
In January 2016, Tornoe recalled the reference when The Simpsons ribbed the Flyers’ co-tenant, the NBA’s 76ers. His most intriguing observation is that the Flyers alumni “were the only jury members who frightened the Simpsons.”
Another big surprise, all things considered. Granted, the goalie wears a Voorhees-style mask and they are all brandishing sticks and skates. But odds are their blades dulled on contact with the living-room floor.
Conversely, fellow juror Lizzie Borden wields her blood-soaked axe while John Dillinger totes his shotgun. Maybe the family is holding its yelps for when everyone was introduced. Or perhaps their reaction to the Flyers is the only one “caught on camera.”
But back to the threads. What are we to make of the egregious departure from the team’s distinctive orange-and-black get-up?
The football-esque short sleeves are the least of the jerseys’ inaccuracies. They are a medium shade of blue with the team nickname horizontally inscribed in lieu of the Flying P.
Perhaps that is part of the sextet’s sentence. The shade of blue is reminiscent of the intrastate rival Pittsburgh Penguins’ original look.
A fellow expansion franchise from 1967, the Pens kept those colors before copying the Pirates’ and Steelers’ black-and-gold scheme in January 1980. By that point, more than half of the 1976 Flyers had dispersed.
Several other Philadelphia foes still boast blue as their primary color. In 1976, the New York Islanders and New York Rangers (aka the Broadway Blueshirts) constituted half of the Patrick Division, which the Broad Street Bullies dominated. For what it’s worth, Greg Daniels and Dan McGrath, the co-writers of “The Devil and Homer Simpson,” hail from Brooklyn.
Meanwhile, the Flyers vanquished the Toronto Maple Leafs in the opening round of that year’s playoffs. The previous spring, they had topped the blue-and-gold Buffalo Sabres to clinch their second straight Stanley Cup. They had reached that round by sweeping the Leafs and repressing the Islanders in seven games.
In 1976, they fell one series victory shy of a three-peat, falling to the bleu-blanc-et-rouge Montreal Canadiens. But as Mike Commito of Vice Sports recalled in dense detail, the preceding conquest was anything but clean.
In December 2016, Commito brought up the “Treehouse of Horror” segment in a recap of Simpsons hockey references. In his write-up, he notes how the sextet is introduced as a group, with no individuals mentioned by name. Nonetheless, he speculates, “you could make the case that the second player from the left was a loose representation of Dave ‘the Hammer’ Schultz.
“The moustache is an obvious reference, but if any actual Flyer were to be depicted in this sketch it would unquestionably be Schultz. Not only did he lead the team in penalty minutes in the 1975-76 season, but from 1971-72 through to 1975-76 no other player in the league accumulated more penalty minutes than Schultz. Over that span he racked up 1,386 minutes worth of infractions.”
A substantial percentage of those minutes came via glove-dropping duels. That could explain the Flyers’ inclusion in one of The Simpsons’ later “real-life” storylines.
Six years after “The Devil and Homer Simpson,” the family takes in a movie titled The Poke of Zorro. From what little we see, the title character defeats his rivals with absurd facility by either carving his first initial or giving the glove-slap duel dare. The latter trick works on his final foe, who timorously declines and surrenders.
On that ending note, in the closing credits, the film’s producers cite “the Philadelphia Flyers” as one of the seven entities they “would like to thank.” Sans context, the most logical explanation is that the filmmakers learned how to teach combative choreography with the help of the Broad Street Bullies or their descendents.
Assuming that is the case, the Flyers have a secondhand role in inspiring Homer’s ill-advised new habit. His own tendency to wield an unworn glove sets off the plot of “E-I-E-I-(Annoyed Grunt).” (Phonetically, that’s “E-I-E-I-D’oh!”)
But at least the 1976 Flyers did him a favor first, if only in a non-canonical nightmare. They were key cogs in bailing him out from the greatest doughnut-oriented controversy since that of Jim Schoenfeld.