Defenseman Joe Watson was an original Philadelphia Flyer in the team's first-ever game on Oct. 11, 1967. He participated in the first Flyers Wives Fight for Lives Carnival on Feb. 1, 1977. And on Sunday, he was part of the Flyers' alumni group greeting fans and signing autographs at the 34th Carnival, as wide-eyed as he was back in '77.
"This event has just grown and grown," he said, as a record 10,000 fans filed into the Wells Fargo Center. "I remember the first year we raised about $75,000, and I thought maybe in the next couple of years we'd take it up to $100,000 or so. But to know that the Carnival has raised so much, and the people of Philadelphia have been so supportive, really makes me feel great. Fans tell me they save all year to come here."
More than $23 million had been raised in previous Carnivals prior to Sunday. When all of the proceeds are counted, this year's event alone could approach or exceed $1 million.
As Joe and his fellow ex-players signed autographs, some members of the current team posed for pictures with adoring fans. Others squared off against fans in Wii boxing matches, or played goalie while youngsters took shots against them. A couple of players even got soaked in a dunk tank.
Mary Ann Saleski, wife of former Flyer Don, and Senior VP of the Comcast-Spectacor Foundation, is the glue who holds the entire Carnival together. Doreen Holmgren, wife of Flyers General Manager Paul, said it's a year-round team effort to pull off an event of this magnitude.
"It's a wonderful feeling to know that all of the money raised at the Carnival goes back to the Philadelphia area," she said. "To see all of the good is so rewarding. Our fan base is incredible and they're the ones who really make this happen."
Dozens of charities have benefited from the Carnival, including the Barry Ashbee Research Laboratories at Hahnemann University Hospital, the original beneficiary. Ashbee, a former Flyer defenseman and assistant coach, died of leukemia shortly after the first Carnival. He and Joe Watson were long-time teammates and friends.
"Barry was a good teammate and a great player," Joe said. "He gave a lot back to the community, and this Carnival is a great way to remember him."