My Friend Eddie

A farewell to the heart and soul of the Flyers -- and a friend of the Freedom Center.

Two days ago, the David Horowitz Freedom Center lost a dear friend, and I did too. Ed Snider was a visionary. In 1967 he co-founded the Philadelphia Flyers, a newly created franchise of the National Hockey League. He owned the Flyers for nearly fifty years, and under his leadership, the team was in the playoffs for 44 of them and made the Stanley Cup finals eight times.  To provide a home ice for the Flyers, Ed built the Spectrum, Philadelphia’s most famous sports and entertainment arena, and its successor the Wells Fargo Center. He was chairman of Comcast Spectacor and created the Sportsnet TV network, and many other successful enterprises. In 1988 Ed was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame, and in 1999 a Philadelphia Daily News poll voted him the greatest mover and shaker of sports in Philadelphia history, greater even than the legendary manager and owner of the Philadelphia Athletics, Connie Mack.

The most surprising thing to me about Ed Snider was that a man of his achievement and reputation was willing to become associated with the Freedom Center in the first place. Ed was Mr. Philadelphia Establishment. We were a vanguard operation immersed in political battles - an outlier whose role was pushing envelopes in defense of individual freedom. When I first met Ed in 2008, we had already paid an enormous price for engaging in these battles, and had the scars to prove it. Joining us didn’t seem to make sense.

If I had known him better I would have understood why he was willing not only to give us generous financial support but to take a position on our board and risk public identification with our efforts. For while Ed was cut in the establishment mold, he was also a man of courage and conviction. We weren’t the first such outlier that he put himself on the line for. He was one of the chief sponsors of the Russian philosopher Ayn Rand, who celebrated society’s creators and visionaries against the forces that wanted to bring them to ground. Ed funded Ayn Rand’s institute and even sponsored a college lecture tour for her, which he intended as a vehicle to expose her ideas to young people who were being indoctrinated in collectivist doctrines at the University of Pennsylvania and other schools. Ed was so impressed with Rand’s defense of creators and builders that he told his children he would not pay their college tuition unless they first read Atlas Shrugged. His life was lived at the center of entrepreneurial America, of free America, and he was determined to do what he could to defend it, and to see that his children did as well.

My favorite hockey story about Ed is the time the Flyers played the Red Army team in 1976 at the Spectrum. Jimmy Carter had just been elected president. The Soviet empire was on the offensive while at home the mood was one of retrenchment and retreat. The Red Army team had won 13 championships in a row and was on tour defeating every American professional hockey team they faced. Then they came to Philadelphia home to the Broad Street Bullies as the Flyers were known around the league because of their physical play.

In the first period, the Flyers took the game to the Russians and then Flyer defenseman Ed Van Impe decked the Red Army’s star player who lay on the ice for a full minute before he was able to get up. It was a clean hit and there was no penalty, but the Soviet coach pulled his team from the ice to protest the Flyers’ rough play and threatened not to return. Ed promptly marched down to the Red Army dressing room and in a shouting match with the President of the Soviet Hockey Federation told him that if his team did not return to the ice they wouldn’t get paid. This was more than the Russians bargained for so they returned to the ice where the Flyers clobbered them 4-1.

A few years ago, Ed gave an interview to the NY Times, in which he recalled the event. “After the game,” he said, “there was a cartoon in Pravda that showed a big giant guy with a Flyer logo with a big club beating up on the Russians, the little Russians, and I thought to myself, ‘My god, do I love that.’”

Ed Snider was a fighter, a man who deeply loved his country and cherished the institutions that made it a land of opportunity for himself and others. The only institution he owned that he put his name on was the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation a program to provide arenas, teams and training opportunities for inner city kids. He wanted that to be his legacy.

Ed was a fierce competitor in everything he did but he was also the kindest and most generous man I have known. His kindness and his generosity were heartfelt and heart-given and therefore not ostentatious, generally known only to their recipients. He has raised six wonderful creative children and they have raised fifteen creative and good-hearted individuals of their own. Through the years of our friendship I have gotten to know all of them and there is not one I would not readily adopt as my own. Family is a lengthened shadow of the man, and Ed’s family is one he was rightly proud of.

Ed’s patriarchal love and concern extended to his hockey family as well. There are many stories of Ed’s looking out for his players, setting them up when they arrived in Philadelphia, looking after them through divorces and tragedies, seeing that they were well taken care of by his organization. It made him one of the most loved owners in all of professional sports. This was brought home to me when Jeremy Roenick a star player for 18 years in the National Hockey League retired in 2009. I was by then an avid hockey fan and was struck when he announced his retirement by the way he singled out Ed to thank him for what he had done for him. Roenick was playing for the San Jose Sharks at the time. He had played for five teams, and of the 18 years he played only three were spent with the Flyers. Yet it was Ed he singled out to express his gratitude.

The first kindness I received from Eddie was a choice seat at the 7th game of the conference quarter-finals between the Flyers and the Washington Capitals on April 22, 2008. The game was played in Washington and the Flyers won it with an overtime goal by Joffrey Lupul. That game hooked me and for the next eight years I almost never missed a Flyers game, buying the hockey package on cable and watching the games at home.

Whenever I had the opportunity to speak at a college on the east coast or hold an event in Philadelphia I would take in a Flyers game in Eddie’s box, where I got an up close look a just how competitive he was. He had been attending these games for more than 40 years yet he hung on the edge of his seat, high-fived every goal the Flyers scored and became morose when the Flyers’ lost, as though he was fifteen and it was his first hockey season. And then win or lose he would stride down to the locker room where he would personally praise his players and staff, commiserate over a loss and talk strategy about tomorrow.

Once I noticed him groaning when 20,000 raucous fans at the Wells Fargo Center booed Sidney Crosby, the Penguins’ star captain every time he touched the puck. I asked him why the groans, and he said “The boos only encourage him.” I said, why don’t you get your statisticians to see if Crosby scores more when he plays the Flyers in Pittsburgh where there are no boos. He did, and it came out a wash and he relaxed after that.

I was always diffident about taking up a seat in his box. He had so many friends, so many buddies in the business, but if I gave the slightest hint that I felt like an extra wheel or might not come to make room for someone else, he would express hurt that I would even think such a thing. In 2010, the Flyers made the playoffs on the last day of the season in a shootout with the New York Rangers. I was there at the game with him and was swept up in the euphoria that followed. It was a miracle year for the Flyers and soon they were headed into the Stanley Cup finals with the Chicago Blackhawks. By then I was a seasoned hockey fan and saw it as the chance of a lifetime to witness the contest for what they call the greatest prize in sports. With my usual diffidence I asked Eddie if there was room for me at the game, and of course he said yes, although his box was packed to the rafters. And it was the same when he flew me and his friends in his Gulfstream to Chicago, and then back to Philly where we lost on a fluke goal in game six, one of those moments he never seemed to get over.

When I was in Philadelphia I would often stay at his house and take long walks with him, and when he was at his home in Montecito – the most beautiful estate I had ever seen – I would drive the forty minutes up the coastline highway to see him. We talked politics a lot. He was always curious about my latest book or article, or my take on the battles with the collectivists, which he understood we were losing. He wanted to write a book with me called “The Suicide of the West.” I told him it had already been written by James Burnham more than fifty years ago. He persisted but by then I had come to feel the tide was irreversible and had no appetite for it. Our schools were gone to a left that did not believe in America and the freedoms that had created giants like Eddie, and who were determined to dismantle the institutions and values that had made it what it was. Maybe I was just exhausted by having written so much to little avail, but I put him off and hoped that he didn’t take it personally. In retrospect, I regret my decision. Even if we had accomplished nothing, I would have had more time with him. Still my greater fear was disappointing him, and so I let it rest.

What I did want to interest him in was a series of books I had begun after I was diagnosed with a prostate cancer in 2001. These were in the form of memoirs and philosophical reflections addressing the issue of mortality and growing old. Eddie did not believe in God or an afterlife, and though I leaned in that direction I remained an agnostic, committed to holding onto to the fact that we do not know. This option prevented me from inserting a hope to lighten the burden of what I had written.

I wanted Eddie to read these books (eventually there were four of them) first because he had lived such a different life from me – he was so much a doer and not a professional worrier about the meaning of life - and I wanted to hear his thoughts on these matters. And second, because this was my most lyrical writing, my best efforts in the craft I had chosen, the best work I had done, and I wanted him to see it. So I sent him a copy of The End of Time, the first of the series, which I had written after my prostate cancer had been diagnosed. In it, I wrote about the anguished philosopher Pascal, and his vision of a dark at the center of the world, and then his redemption through faith; I wrote about my prostate cancer, and about 9/11 and the cult of death that was enveloping us; I wrote about my romance with my wife April and the light that she had brought into my world. Then I contemplated the prospect of life ending without an epilogue and with everything we had done and been and achieved vanishing without a trace.

I sent a copy to him and waited, and the next time we talked I asked him what he thought of it. “I felt like jumping off a bridge,” he said. I immediately felt badly that I had sent it to him. There he was basking in the sun of the Aegean aboard a two-hundred foot sailboat, and I had sent this spoiler to ruin his day. But the more I thought about it the more I realized, this was Eddie’s zest for life. Though he was already close to eighty, he was still living life to the full, playing tennis in a competitive league, training every day, sailing to the most beautiful places, and ready for the next 80. He was the epitome of the man of action – on to the next adventure. He did not live in his head the way I did, but in the world. I admired that, even if I did not have the DNA to do it.

Eddie was also – and to the end – a classy gentleman and an incurable romantic. In his 80th year, he rented a chic boutique restaurant in Montecito, filled it with a musical cast posing as customers and brought his girlfriend to an ostensible lunch. When she was seated the “customers” burst into a Bruno Mars song:

It's a beautiful night,
We're looking for something dumb to do.
Hey baby,
I think I wanna marry you.

That was his proposal, and marry they did, in the most spectacular and lavish wedding I’d ever attended, with Lionel Ritchie and his band to entertain. It’s hard not to love Eddie. He took her all over the world, including to an Andrea Bocelli concert in Portofino, to which they had been invited by Eddie’s Friend David Foster who was the musical director of the event. When they returned to Eddie’s Montecito mansion I said to them, “You live in a Make A Wish Foundation,” and they did.  Live life to the fullest. That was Eddie’s creed.

But life unfortunately is not the fairy tale that Eddie and all of us try to make it. Two years later he was diagnosed with a bladder cancer, and began a series of consultations with the best doctors in the world, flights to the best hospitals, and experiments with the latest therapies in a doomed effort to try to stem the implacable onslaught of the disease. I knew he had been diagnosed with the cancer, probably through one of his children. In general, Eddie is a private person and does not easily discuss let alone broadcast his trials, and especially their details. So I have to tell the rest of this story from my perspective.

In the spring of 2015 I began passing blood clots in my urine. The local urologist I was seeing diagnosed it – mistakenly as it turned out - as a bladder cancer. I was not happy with this doctor for other reasons and was looking for an alternative when I remembered how Eddie had scolded me for not calling on him for help in finding a doctor after I had a hip operation that went bad. I didn’t like calling on him for favors because I thought lots of people would be doing that, and I didn’t want to add to his burdens. But I did want to avoid a repetition of his wrath. So I called and told him we were now linked in our illnesses. Before I knew it, I was talking to the top urologist at U.C.L.A., a friend of Eddie’s, and being rescheduled for an exploratory procedure under my new surgeon, Dr. Karim Chamie. 

Dr. Chamie quickly diagnosed my problem as a neuro-endocrine cancer, a mutation of my original prostate disease. The new cancer was very aggressive and I was immediately scheduled for surgery to remove my bladder, which the cancer had invaded and part of my colon. I didn’t think twice about the surgery because I had a long-standing obligation to my wife, April, to stay in this world, which I couldn’t fulfill obviously if I was dead.

The operation lasted 12 hours, to which I of course was oblivious, but every second of which April had to sit through. While I was under, and unbeknownst to me until later, April received a call from Eddie. It was one of several he made while I was on the table. He was very concerned about the operation and wanted to hear from her as soon as she knew I was all right. He asked her what he could do to help. He said he wanted to provide her with homecare nurses to help her take care of me. He said he loved us both and asked her again to call him when I was in recovery. April was so touched by this that she broke down in tears. I am misty just writing about it.

Eddie continued to call April when I was in my hospital room to encourage her and find out how I was progressing. I had tubes up my nose and down my throat and heavy doses of painkillers administered through IV tubes, which made it difficult for me to speak. And then one day he called me on my line and said he loved me and we were going to “tie one on” when I got out and “paint the town red." I was elated. I had never been through the kind of ordeal I was going through, in constant pain, unable to sleep, not knowing if my new organs were going to kick in and if they didn’t whether I was going to die right then and there.

The biggest factor in recovery I discovered was attitude, the conviction that this is not the end of the line, even though it feels like it is, that you are actually going to emerge one day, be free of the wires and tubes, get up and breathe the air, and become a semblance of yourself. Knowing Eddie was out there pulling for me, knowing he was thinking about me and about what help he could give to my wife, made a difference so huge I still cannot put my head around it.

Three weeks after the operation I was in my bed at home and Eddie was on the phone telling me I had to get all-day nurses and he would pay for them. And when I resisted, that I had to get them for April if not for myself. It was very hard for me to accept his gift, but he made it even harder to reject it. He was so insistent, and he was the last person in the world I would want to feel badly because I couldn’t handle the love he was showing me. I had already collapsed twice from dehydration and April had to call 911 to take me to the emergency room. The minute I relented and accepted his offer I felt a great weight lifted from me and above all from April, and a surge of energy pushing me on the path to recovery.

My first visitor at home was Eddie. He came down from Montecito and we sat out on the terrace April and I had built and sipped sodas and talked about the sorry state of the world, and bathed in the warmth of each other’s company. I could see the toll the cancer had taken on him, and that he was in pain. We agreed that we were foxhole buddies facing the greatest battle of our lives.  “We’re tough. We’re going to beat it,” he said. But the two of us knew this was bravado and only one of us had a chance. April had already told him Dr. Chamie felt that he had removed all my cancer, and that I was so to speak a free man again. Eddie was not so lucky. His cancer had metastasized and was in his bones. I had asked Dr. Chamie how much time Eddie had. “Four to six months” was his reply. That would be February or March I thought, as a knot formed in my gut. My greatest misery during my entire recovery was this knowledge of my friend’s fate that wouldn’t go away. And I knew that Eddie knew it too. He was too smart, had too many good doctors not to know.

The hours that I spent with him that day are among the fondest memories I have. Although we spoke many times on the phone after that, it was the last time I would see him alive.

Over the years, I had developed the habit of texting or emailing him comments after the Flyer games. Now I came to see this as a weapon in our fight to keep him alive. Attitude was critical. You had to keep looking ahead and not give in. That was how you were going to survive. The Flyers gave us a big assist in this effort. They had a poor first half of the season and were well behind in the race to earn a playoff spot. Part of the problem was a new coach and a new system, which always takes time to adjust to. There is no sport that is as much a team sport as hockey, where all twenty players have to be in rhythm and in sync for it to work. Fortunately the new coach was a good coach and the system began to kick in. But it was a long run to a playoff spot and the NHL had no pushover teams. I remember worrying at one point after a Flyers’ loss that Eddie would be depressed, and taking out my frustration on the team in a text I sent to him. But Eddie texted back dispelling my despair and saying we had a good shot. As so many times before when I relooked at the game we had lost and took into account his assessments of the players, I saw that he was right. There was time for us to do it, and we had the players that could make it happen. And sure enough we began to win, and win.

But even as the Flyers were gaining ground on their rivals, Eddie was losing his battle with the disease. The pain was getting worse and worse and there was little his doctors could do to relieve it. In February we had an email exchange that went like this:

DH: Terrible to lose a game on a bad call like that. I hope you’re doing better than when we last talked. I think about you every day buddy.

ES: Really miss you. Feeling rotten.

DH: So sorry to hear this. Wish I were a believer so I could pray for your recovery. In my heart I am praying anyway.

ES:  Can’t think of anyone I’d rather have pray for me.

The Flyers were a bit like Zenyatta, the Queen of racehorses. They would often start slow or fall behind and then in the last seconds of the game or in the overtime pluck victory from the jaws of defeat. On March 28, there was a game like that against the Winnipeg Jets, in which we fell behind, caught up, and then in the last 7 seconds of overtime our captain Claude Giroux shot the winning goal into the Winnipeg net. I was literally trembling with excitement with this turn of events and emailed Eddie:

DH: Holy cow! I hope you got to see it. The heart attack kids did it again!

ES: I did. Bad day.

My heart sank.  I don’t know whether it was the brevity of the response or the failure to express any elation, but I just knew in my heart that this was the end. Two days later, I wrote what was my last letter to him. I had talked to his son Jay and knew the kind of pain he was in, that he was mostly in bed, and heavily medicated and that he could see the end. Earlier, when we were still talking on the phone, he had said more than once that he wanted to see me and would try to arrange it when he could. I didn’t want him to worry about this, and began my email with that. “This disease is horrible and I understand why it won’t be possible for me to come up. I am glad that your wonderful family is there. I want you to know that I love you and miss you. You are the classiest and most generous guy I ever met. You have been an inspiration to me in fighting my own illness. Thank you for being such a great guy and for being my friend.”

The Flyer players loved Ed Snider and were fighting for a playoff spot for him, and said so to the press. They had visited him in Montecito when he was still able to sit up and walk. He was, as hockey commissioner Gary Bettman said, “the heart and soul of the Flyers.” On the last day of the season the Flyers beat their archrivals the Pittsburgh Penguins and won a playoff spot. Two days later, their creator and leader - my friend Eddie - was gone.

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