Back in 1974, Cowboy Bill Flett was on top of the universe. He was a tough-as-nails right-winger with the Stanley Cup Champion Philadelphia Flyers. He fought many battles in his hockey career, and won most of them.
However Cowboy fought the biggest battle in his life, and lost. Bill Flett died on July 12, 1999.
It started out back in 1993 when a severe ulcer attack almost claimed his life. Years of voracious drinking caught up with Flett, who soon sought the help of Edmonton Oiler GM Glen Sather and owner Peter Pocklington. They helped Flett check into a Betty Ford clinic and cleaned up his act.
Despite not touching a drink in over 6 years, Flett was about to pay yet again for his previous drinking habits. In May 1999, Cowboy went to a hospital with what he thought was a severe case of heartburn.
"Which I couldn't understand, getting heartburn because I don't have a heart,'' joked Flett.
Although he says he hadn't touched anything stronger than non-alcoholic beer in recent years, Flett's previous lifestyle of hard partying and heavy drinking finally caught up with him. He was informed by doctors that he had become so violently ill, he could have died had he not immediately gone to a hospital.
It turned out to be a gall bladder attack. Two operations later, his condition was considered to be stable, but he was in dire need of an immediate liver transplant.
"The gall bladder problem has caused liver failure, which is the stupid thing to me. If I had drank ... but I haven't even snuck one," sighed Flett. "Nothing stronger than non-alcoholic beer."
Eighteen days later, Bill got the needed liver transplant. However complications from the surgery took Flett's life at the age of 55.
Bill Flett was born in Vermillion, Alberta in July 1943. Before long Bill began to play hockey. Bill's father, C.M. Flett, played professional hockey in Los Angeles and Spokane in the old Western League and with Baltimore of the Eastern League.
Bill inherited his father's love of hockey, but he also took a liking to rodeos as a kid.
"They have rodeos for kids, and I started riding as a teen-ager, " Bill said. "All the guys played football, hockey, and baseball together during the school year and rode in rodeos together in the summer. We tried wrestling steers, riding broncos, and roping calves from quarter horses."
It now becomes obvious how the nickname "Cowboy" came about. If you ever met the man off the ice it was pretty obvious too. He wore typical cowboy attire including his trademark black hat with a feather in it. Add to that his common cowboy boots, jeans and thick black beard, and Bill Flett looked like he should be fighting cattle, not NHL tough guys. Bill even wore his cowboy boots on the golf course, and later in life wore spurs on his skates for old timer hockey charity games.
For much of the mid-1960s Flett was a much traveled minor leaguer who benefited greatly from NHL expansion in 1967. After graduating from the SJHL's Melville Millionaires, Bill traveled through several minor league cities. Making stops in Rochester, Charlotte, Tulsa, Denver and Victoria before landing with the expansion Los Angeles Kings in 1967-68.
Cowboy played 4 and 1/2 seasons in Hollywood, proving to be an early fan favorite in the non-traditional hockey market. He showed a good offensive upside too, scoring 26 and 24 goals in his first two seasons in L.A. However his production slowly fell as the Kings aged, and was traded to Philadelphia in 1972.
It was a great move for Flett. In his first full season in Philly, Flett scored a career high 43 goals and 74 points while playing often on a line with superb playmaker Bobby Clarke. The next year, 1973-74, Flett's production fell to just 17 goals as he was moved to another line, yet he helped the Flyers win their first Stanley Cup. In game 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals against the Boston Bruins, Flett assisted on two of Bobby Clarke's goals including the game winner. This was the first time in six and half years that the Flyers beat the Bruins in the Boston Garden. The Flyers gained home ice advantage and went on to win the Stanley Cup. The team's first and the NHL's first expansion team to win Lord Stanley's Cup.
Flett didn't have long to celebrate the victory. The Flyers moved Flett to Toronto shortly after the season was over. Flett, who was originally property of the Toronto Maple Leafs, only played one season in Toronto before joining the Atlanta Flames for two years. He later joined the WHA Edmonton OIlers where he regained his scoring touch in 2 1/2 seasons in the WHA.
Flett returned to the NHL when the Oilers joined the NHL in 1979. However he appeared in only 20 games as he suffered badly broken ribs. He decided to retire and accept general manager Glen Sather's offer to become a scout.
Flett scored 202 goals and 215 assists in 689 NHL games. He also added 103 goals in 195 WHA games. Not bad for a man who once said that if he didn't make the NHL in 4 seasons he'd return to Alberta and become a full time rancher.
"I believe cowboys are the toughest athletes in the world," Bill once said. "A cowboy has no guarantees, no contracts. He pays all his own expenses, all his own entry fees. He rides healthy and rides hurt. Rodeo cowboys have a pain tolerance that is hard to believe. I thought hockey players were tough until I rodeoed."
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