Getting To Know Dave Leonardi, “The Sign Man”

In another Orange Update Exclusive Interview, we sit down with one of the most famous fans in Philadelphia Flyers history: Dave Leonardi, the “Sign Man”. 

If you’ve ever been to a Flyers game or even watched them on television, you know who Dave is. He is the famous fan sitting behind the opposing team’s goal for the 1st and 3rd periods that holds up those notorious black on white signs, supporting Flyers players and heckling opponents. Many people don’t know Dave’s true story; how he came to be and how he solidified his place in Flyers history.

Dave has been a season ticket holder since the early days of the Flyers, and he has been such an integral part of this team’s history. His legacy was created back in the days of the Broad Street Bullies, and has continued to the current team today. Read on to learn about Dave and his journey as an icon through Flyers history:

How many years have you been the Sign Man?

Since 1972-73. It was the first year that I obtained season tickets. We lost to Montreal in the semi-finals that year. The next season, 1973-74, tickets were impossible to get, so I was lucky to be a year ahead. That also meant that I had a year to develop signs for our guys and signs to annoy the opposition.

 What was your very first Flyers sign?

It was for Don Saleski, and simply read “BIRD.” Then “RICK THE QUICK” for Rick MacLeish, then “KELLY POWER” for Bob Kelly, then “NEXT GOALIE” and so on.

What inspired you to make all of these signs and take them to every game?

Being in the second row and being so close to the glass, I quickly realized that I could not yell at the visiting team from my new seats. With the Spectrum original glass, the front row people had about a one-inch space to yell through, and they always did. Someone suggested that we bring signs for Don Saleski, who in 1972, looked amazingly like Big Bird. So I brought paper and markers and was the only one who took them home and brought them back. As time passed, I realized that the signs could be “louder” then yelling, since more fans, players and refs, could see them.

 Major inspiration came from the fans and Gene Hart as well. There was no regular TV broadcast of games, only Gene on radio. Since there was no video replay board, fans would bring transistor radios (big in the 60s and 70s) and listen to the games while at the Spectrum. Some Flyer fans would walk by me in the concourse and tell me Gene Hart mentioned on radio that a “man with a sign” displayed one that read, for example, “TKO SCHULTZ.” Others would remark they thought that a sign was timely. So I would try to think of something else to add for the next game. As the Broad St. Bullies prevailed, the signs increased.

 What was your first game being recognized as the Sign Man? How were you given that title? Was it given to you by Gene Hart?

As Gene kept noticing more signs in 1972-73, he shortened the mention of me to “Sign Man,” so the first game I was noticed was probably in November or December of 1972. Also, NBC was broadcasting Sunday afternoon games and came to Philly in early 1974 as the Flyers were becoming very exciting to watch. One of their announcers, Brian McFarlane, called me into the nearby Zamboni Tunnel during the game and did a 30 second live interview on the national broadcast. I think everyone in Philly was watching

How was the switch from the Spectrum to now, the Wells Fargo Center? Did you get the same seats?

Luckily, yes. They were also in the second row, behind the goal the Flyers attacked in the first and third periods. It was strange at first. I moved from four seats on the opposition goalie’s left to four seats to the goalie’s right. The nearby Zamboni tunnel moved to the opposite end. But the positives outweighed the strangeness. My seats are now on the aisle and nearby in the concourse there is a bar and great roast beef sandwiches.

We know you bring a briefcase full of individually labeled signs to every game. How did that come about? When did it start? How many signs do you bring to games?

At first I used signs that were half the size of what I use now. There were only nine or ten of them and I arranged them like flips cards. As fans gave me ideas and I needed to put more words on the signs, I realized that I needed larger paper. I folded the sheets and made a case using cardboard, duct tape and contact paper. The case I have now, the third one I have made, can hold about 100 signs. I usually bring more than 80 to a game, more during the playoffs.

I travelled with the team in December of 1979 when they were on their 35-game unbeaten streak. I went to road wins 31, 32 and 33 in Hartford, Winnipeg (now Phoenix) and Denver (then the Rockies now the Devils.) I brought about 15 signs to each game and made a smaller case to use.

What is your personal favorite sign?

I have several, mostly the signs that signify an eminent Flyers’ victory, like “START THE BUS” or “NEXT GOALIE”. For the playoffs, I also like my end-of-series sign for the opposition, “SHAKE HANDS & LEAVE.”

Do you have any particular Spectrum memories you would like to share with us?

Sure, on a website that describes arenas, I am mentioned along with Kate Smith as part of the scene that gave it the Spectrum its character. It was great to be mentioned and be included in the same sentence as Kate. (See: hockey.ballparks.com) Then, searching the Hockey Hall of Fame website, I came across a page, “Legends of Hockey Time Capsule – The 70’s.” In their list of 10 notable characters I am listed along with (former coach now flamboyant announcer) Don Cherry, Tiger Williams and former Flyer Bill “Cowboy” Flett, among others. (See: Legends of Hockey)

As I remarked in my Spectrum Memory, little compares to being in the locker room after the Flyers won the Cup in 1974. I was the only one with a movie camera and as everyone drank from the Cup, I had a friend take me drinking from it. That was very special. But my biggest and best Spectrum memory is the great reception that Flyer fans gave to my wife, Lorie, and me on our arrival to the Spectrum on our wedding night in 1982. I am very grateful that the Flyers posted it on their website.

Has any player ever acknowledged one of your signs? Flyers, opponent, referee?

Yes, too many to list. A few of the stories are noted in some of the links below. And Joe Watson, Stanley Cup defenseman in 1974 and 1975, commented on the Soviet game in the CBC link below. I came prepared for a hard-fought game, but never expected the Soviets to walk out. When they did, the TV producers spiced things up when I used the “CHICKEN” sign and “TELL IT TO THE CZAR” and then the one that was my favorite, “BRING ON THE MARTIANS.” I made some signs in Russian which I think the Soviet players noticed.

Brian Propp asked me for my “SNAP, CRACKLE, PROPP” sign even though it was beaten up from constant use. He asked me to sign it for him, and I gladly did. Tough guy Ed “Boxcar” Hospodar also requested his sign. It had two different sides that read, “BOXCAR ON TRACK” and “VISITOR DERAILED!”

Some goalies move around more than others. Some just stand in the goal crease and rarely move. I try to be ready if they turn towards me as they get their water bottle. Pittsburgh Penguin goalie Marc-Andre Fleury always turns and nods his head at the signs. I noticed a few years back that during the TV time outs he skates three times to his right and when he returns on the third time, he does a complete spin. So I made “SPIN LIKE A BALLERINA” and another “CAN WE GET A PIROUETTE?” He will nod “yes” and then do his spin. Someone posted it on YouTube; here’s that link: Fleury Pirouettes

Another athlete who noticed the signs is former L.A. Dodger pitching ace, and now ESPN baseball announcer, Orel Hershiser. A graduate of Cherry Hill HS East, he was a Flyers’ fan when we were winning the cups in the 70s and has often mentioned me while in Philly and talking about the Spectrum during his ESPN broadcasts of Phillies’ games.

Do you have any special moments that you have experienced since being the Sign Man?

As mentioned before, traveling with the team in December 1979 during their unbeaten streak, flights, busses, hotels, everything, which was great. Pat Quinn and later Mike Keenan allowed me to ride the team bus with them the three or four other times. I always sat next to Gene Hart, since I was afraid I might plop down in some player’s “lucky seat.” In Denver, after win 32, I was in the hotel atrium on an upper level and I heard a group entering the lobby singing “Alouette, gentille Alouette, Alouette, je te plumerai.” I looked down and it was Moose Dupont and Bob Kelly leading about ten of the guys walking in. I thought “wow, here are the toughest guys on the toughest team in the NHL and they’re all singing a children’s song in French.” I later learned that the next line in the song “Je te plumerai la tête” means “I shall pluck your head!” So maybe it was appropriate.

There have been so many special moments since I began in 1972, a great story with former L.A. King Mark Hardy, also being awakened by Bobby Orr. Outstanding columnist Bill Fleishmann wrote an excellent article detailing those stories, and more, for the Flyers website. His piece can be found at: Fleishmann’s Article.

Since 2003, I have received media credentials to cover the American Century Championship in Lake Tahoe for my publication’s website, www.skiernews.com. Among the many NHL stars that play in the celebrity golf event, I have had the opportunity to meet and talk to Wayne Gretzky, Brett Hull, Jeremy Roenick, Mario Lemieux and Grant Fuhr – all who remember the signs. In July 2008, Gretzky told me he watched me when he was growing up and was a Maple Leafs fan. The Flyers had three great playoff series with Toronto in the mid ‘70s and Hockey Night in Canada always used shots of the signs.

The Great One reinforced his comment when he delivered his Spectrum Memory in 2008, and said “Who could forget from Bobby Clarke to Moose Dupont to Bernie Parent to the Sign Man and Kate Smith, what great memories…” (See: Gretzky’s Spectrum Memories) The next summer, back at the Tahoe event, I thanked him for remembering me from when he was growing up and not the hard time I gave him when he played, especially when he was a NY Ranger. (See photo on: Golf Outing Photos)

I have been interviewed by Gene Hart and Don Earle (the “other” Flyer broadcaster) many times during the Broad Street Bully years. After a taped interview with Gene for a pre-game show, he asked me if I could drive his other guest back to his hotel. It was goaltending legend, Hall of Famer and Bernie Parent’s idol, Jacques Plante. He was such a great guy and was extremely friendly every time I saw him after that.

In December of 2008, Steve Coates invited me to tape a “Coatsey’s Corner” segment. We did it in a spare locker room in the arena. Coatsey wanted me to display many of my signs along the benches in the room. We set it up and it was worked very well:

 

 

In June 2010, during the Cup Finals, two really nice features were broadcast, one in Philly on NBC10, excellently put together by their great reporter Tim Furlong. (See: NBC Article) The other was produced by Canada’s outstanding sports feature reporter Tom Harrington. It was broadcast on the CBC network as part of their nightly 6 p.m. hour-long national newscast. (See: CBC Broadcast)

So, is your official nickname, the “Sign Man”?

Yes, and in recent years some fans refer to me as “Sign Guy.” It’s interchangeable. I just have been very lucky. Lucky that I was assigned seats in such a great location, lucky that the team that I chose to support had an owner, and now chairman, Ed Snider, who insists on having a winning organization. We have had so many exciting moments from the “Broad Street Bullies” to bringing in Kate Smith, winning the Cups, beating the Soviets, the unbeaten streak, Ron Hextall scoring goals, the five-overtime playoff win, the phenomenal 0-3 comeback in 2010 in the Boston series and in game 7 to advance and, as of 2010, appearing in more Stanley Cup Finals than any other team since we first won the Cup in 1974 (eight times, 1974, ’75, ’76, 1980, ’85, ’87, 1997 and 2010).

I always hope my signs are reflecting what other Flyer fans are thinking, and as I like to say, “I’m just having fun with 19,000 friends.”

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Well there you have it. That is Dave Leonardi, his story, and his legacy in this organization. The Orange Update would like to extend our deepest thanks to Dave for taking the time to sit down and answer our questions. It is an honor to be able to meet and interview such an important part of Philadelphia Flyers history.

We hope you enjoyed the interview, and stay tuned to The Orange Update for more exclusive interviews, and remember, we’re “Your Source For Everything Flyers”.

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