(Image courtesy of NHL.com)
It took a shootout and winning goal on the fourth iteration from rookie Ryan Donato to secure a 2-1 victory for the Bruins against the NY Islanders (Brad Marchand tallied Boston’s lone regulation goal) but the home team closed out a special night in which one of the franchise’s greats had his number 16 officially retired.
Richard D. “Rick” Middleton, known around the Boston Garden as “Nifty” from 1976-88, saw his digits raised to the rafters in a nice pre-game ceremony. The former Oshawa Generals great and first-round draft pick of the NY Rangers was acquired in one of longtime B’s GM Harry Sinden’s heists, sending veteran Ken Hodge to Broadway to rejoin his pal Phil Esposito for the electrifying but inconsistent Middleton, who was still figuring out how to be a pro hockey player in the Big Apple.
It didn’t take Middleton long to figure it out, and he became one of Boston’s true hockey stars in the late 70’s and 80’s. Although often lost in the mix when it comes to Bruins greats over the years, Nifty would end up making three trips to the Stanley Cup finals during his Bruins tenure, and he was a member of the 1979 B’s squad that experienced devastation and heartbreak in Montreal in the infamous “too many men on the ice” game 7. He’s the most recent Bruin to win a Lady Byng Memorial Trophy as the NHL’s most gentlemanly player, earned after the 1981-82 season.
In the early 80’s Middleton was the linchpin at forward for some very good Bruins teams, but they unfortunately ran into the NY Islanders dynasty.
What could have been a storybook ending for Middleton’s NHL career ended in a sweep by the Edmonton Oilers in the 1988 Stanley Cup final, but on the way, Nifty exorcised some Canadiens demons by being on the first B’s team to beat the Habs since World War Two was ongoing. Middleton’s breakaway game-winning goal in Game 3 at the Garden may be one of his most iconic moments in Boston; although he wore a Jofa helmet and no longer had the long golden locks that flowed behind his helmetless head when he got up to speed for so many seasons, the “old man” still had it and scored one of the most symbolic goals of his career.
Middleton didn’t make it into the Hockey Hall of Fame and in all honesty- he likely never will. But, for a lad growing up watching the Bruins, there was something magical about him. People can grumble about the team retiring his number if they want, but for those of us who saw him in his prime, elevating his play year after year in the midst of the Firewagon Hockey era of the late 70’s and 80’s, Nifty belongs in the rafters.
Thanks to Tuukka Rask’s excellent play in net, and Donato’s slick deke and tuck of the puck inside the post for the winning score- a move that no doubt made Mr. Middleton smile- one nifty, nifty night (to coin a phrase from Jack Edwards) ended the way it should have: 2 more points in the bank and one of Boston’s classiest and more unappreciated stars honored the right way.
Here’s the Middleton retirement ceremony highlight video- published on YouTube by the NHL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BOCyB2wj6b4