As the 1966-67 season concluded, significant change was about to happen in the National Hockey League, as it prepared to double in size from six teams to twelve. Expansion meant the end of the NHL’s Original Six era, but at the same time, something special was brewing in Boston.
After years of waiting in eager anticipation, the sad-sack Bruins and the club’s fans were rewarded with the 18-year-old hockey prodigy Robert Gordon “Bobby” Orr. The precocious blueliner arrived to remarkable fanfare in an age well before the proliferation of the internet and social media, more than living up to the hype that followed him down from Canada. Having been touted as a player who could help reverse Boston’s fortunes on ice, the rookie Orr took no time to establish himself in the NHL, going on to win the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s best first-year player. However, superb as Orr’s performance was, hockey is a team game, and he was just one man. His presence alone was not enough to secure a finish better than fifth for the first time since 1959.
The Bruins had been moribund for the entire decade of the 1960’s, finishing sixth, or last in the field five of seven years before Orr suited up for his first professional game. Prior to that, the B’s had not won a Stanley Cup championship since 1941, the season before the league’s Original Six era began in 1942-43. Long gone were the championships authored by stalwarts like Eddie Shore, Aubrey ‘Dit’ Clapper, Cecil ‘Tiny’ Thompson, Lionel Hitchman, Milt Schmidt and Frank ‘Mr. Zero’ Brimsek. An entire generation had grown up in Boston without a championship in hockey, and the pressure was on to make the team competitive again. Or, at the very least, get out of the shadow of a powerhouse they shared the Boston Garden with.
Their fall from grace in the late 1950’s coincided with the rise of the NBA’s Boston Celtics, who had only existed since 1946- three years after their last NHL title. In just a little more than 20 years since their inception, the Celtics, led by colorful and iconic figures like Red Auerbach, Bob Cousy and Bill Russell had captured a total of nine titles, and were in the process of defending their latest NBA championship won in ’66 when Orr first came to town.
The B’s general manager at the time, Leighton ‘Hap’ Emms, who was once described by long-time Boston sports reporter Clark Booth as “crotchedy” in his 1998 book celebrating 75 years of the Boston Bruins, presided over Orr’s official signing to a two-year contract that paid him $150,000, a huge sum at the time for a player who had never skated a shift in the NHL. Emms, who was elevated to the GM position in 1965 after Lynn Patrick’s departure, had not been instrumental in securing Orr’s rights at age 14. Longtime Bruins scout Wren Blair is the one who deserves the most credit for that, along with Emms’s assistant GM at the time, and one name that carried far more cachet with the organization: Milt Schmidt. Emms was partial to another young defenseman, Gilles Marotte, and felt that Orr was going to be more effective by converting to forward and playing up front.
In hindsight, it seems unimaginable that there was ever serious consideration for play any other position than on the back end, but Emms’ days with the Bruins as GM, as it turns out, were numbered.
Even as the young prodigy whose signing he presided over was making his way to Boston, the reins of the club’s management were being handed over to Schmidt, who had won two Stanley Cup championships as a player and had put together a solid tenure as head coach, before stepping down and returning in recent years to steer the team from the behind the bench.
Even though Orr’s rookie year in Boston didn’t have the desired collective effect- the B’s once again finished sixth out of six teams- for the first time in many years, things were looking up. Orr’s presence, along with an improving veteran group of players and a promising youth movement’s second wave spearheaded by Derek Sanderson, Schmidt realized that with expansion looming in the NHL, and a young, capable coach behind the bench in Harry Sinden, the window for roster change was wide open.
As Schmidt prepared to replace Emms as manager, and most of the decisions going forward now falling into his bucket of growing responsibilities, the stage was set for one of the biggest trades in NHL history.
In an old interview clip aired on the NHL Network documentary commemorating the 50th anniversary of Orr’s Cup-winning goal, 1970 Boston Bruins: Big, Bad & Bobby, Schmidt quipped with a laugh when the interviewer pointed out that the B’s had finished out of the playoffs for eight straight years:
“Well, when I was first asked to be the next general manager and I said, ‘What do I do?’ Because it wasn’t a very pleasant situation to go into.”
The end of Orr’s rookie campaign meant that the NHL’s six teams’ rosters would be frozen after the completion of the 1967 postseason to allow for the first expansion draft to make way for Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Oakland and St. Louis. General managers of more successful teams around the league where now faced with poison pill decisions: to either trade viable talent to rival teams in order to recoup assets in return, or watch players they had to leave unprotected get snatched up by the six new teams and get nothing in the process. For those managers of successful clubs, trading players and getting something…anything…was preferable to receiving nothing out of the deal.
With the NHL in uncharted territory in terms of facing expansion and the personnel gymnastics that would precede the draft and follow, a flurry of moves began to populate the news wire, and in Chicago, Blackhawks GM Tommy Ivan found himself on the horns of a dilemma. What he would do next would change the fortunes of one franchise, while dooming another, his own, to another 40-plus year Stanley Cup drought. Ivan felt that with expansion closing in, he faced a decision about resolving a growing internal power struggle between his coach and a key player. With old six-team status quo about to be dissolved forever, Ivan may have believed he was out of time.
While Orr had ignited the imaginations, hopes and dreams of Boston hockey fans, halfway across the country, a spark had lit the fire of a different sort in the Windy City. Another Bobby- Bobby Hull– and his Blackhawks, including linemate Phil Esposito, had just come up short in the 1967 playoffs, and one of the main scapegoats was Esposito. That spring, he played six scoreless games as Hull’s center and earned the ire of his head coach, Billy Reay.
Despite his prodigious size/strength, intelligence and offensive skills, the burly center was constantly knocked for his heavy boots, and Esposito even admitted decades later that he created friction with Reay, even getting caught on multiple occasions imitating his coach, often with Hull as the instigator. The locker room antics aside, the bigger issue that Reay and even Ivan, had with Esposito was his lack of production when it mattered most, and with three consecutive 50-plus point seasons after becoming a full-timer in 1964, the bill for all of the promise and potential he showed with the St. Louis Braves and in his first three NHL seasons had come due. The Blackhawks had some tough calls to make with expansion about to happen, and the waiting over, it was time to reach out to the one team that Ivan had been talking to and might be willing to take on the growing headache that was his extremely talented but underachieving center.
Back in Boston, Emms had made the decision to resign as GM of the Bruins after presiding over two seasons his clubs had gone a combined 38-86-16. Schmidt was named as his successor, and no man had more hockey credibility than No. 15, who won a pair of Cups as a player, and had served as head coach in two different stints- from 1954-61, then going back behind the Boston bench after Phil Watson’s one season, to helm the B’s again from 62-66. He gave way to Sinden, hired before Orr’s first year, and in the final days before the NHL roster freeze on May 16, was technically still Emms’ assistant GM in name, but had been put in charge of making all personnel moves for the Bruins going forward.
“There was a kind of just loser’s mentality,” Sinden said of the state of the Bruins when Schmidt took over in the NHL Network documentary. “It was nobody’s fault, really. It just kind of creeps in…we lacked identity. But we ended up in ’67 with three players that gave us that identity.”
Emms and Schmidt had been trying to make a trade work with Ivan for several months, but he wasn’t quite prepared for the phone call he received from the Blackhawks GM on the day before the freeze was to go in effect.
“Tommy called me from Key Biscayne, Florida at about three o’clock in the afternoon and we finalized the trade at eight o’clock that evening,” Schmidt told the New England Hockey Journal in an interview he did in 2001. At the crux of the call were a trio of names Schmidt did not believe were available, but the moment he heard them, Ivan had Schmidt’s complete and undivided attention.
On the table were three forwards who had been on that Blackhawks team that fell to the Leafs: Esposito along with wingers Ken Hodge and Fred Stanfield.
In return, Ivan wanted the promising Marotte, an Emms favorite who was Orr’s blue line partner with the Bruins. Center Pit Martin and goaltending prospect Jack Norris were the other two players that were eventually determined would go back to Chicago.
Marotte was a rugged defender who had played for the Victoriaville Bruins and Niagara Falls Flyers of the OHA before turning pro with Boston in 1965. He could skate and provide an element of offense not typical of blueliners at the time, while bringing a physical edge to his game despite a lack of natural height. He was shorter, but stocky and strong- it isn’t tough to envision why Boston was high on his future, and why the Blackhawks made him the centerpiece of the B’s return.
“At the time I made the trade, I knew that we couldn’t help but improve the team by making it,” Schmidt said. “Freddie Stanfield was an instructor at my hockey school in Penland Falls, Ont., and I was very impressed with him. He had so much ability, but whenever we played against Chicago, he was always sitting up in their press box. Kenny Hodge was suiting up for the games when we’d play them, but he spent most of the time at the end of the bench watching. Finally, I had heard that Phil Esposito didn’t get along very well with coach Billy Reay, so from my perspective, we were going to improve our team with any one of those guys, not to mention all three of them.”
In Schmidt’s eyes, there was no need to try and wheedle anything else out of Ivan in the deal, given what all three players represented as upgrades for the 67-68 Bruins. However, if pulling the trigger on the trade was obvious from his perspective, it wasn’t so simple. He was not yet the Boston GM- Emms was, so there was a formal chain that required consultation and approval before the transaction could go through on Boston’s end. In a Boston Globe story Schmidt participated in during the 2013 Stanley Cup Final about three years before passing away, he shed further light on what happened next:
Emms didn’t want to give up Marotte and advised (but didn’t direct Schmidt) against it. Taking note and perhaps feeling a little unsure of the outcome given the outgoing GM’s resistance, the next call Schmidt made was to Bruins ownership.
“I called Weston Adams Sr., who was sick in bed at the time,” he told Globe reporter Christopher L. Gasper. “I told him about the names. Finally, he said, ‘Milt, if you think this is going to help our hockey club, go ahead and do it.’
“That’s all I needed. If he would have said no, that was it.”
Although in Schmidt’s words it took a long time to get all the names in the transaction straight, the deal was done that evening and Boston’s transformation from doormat to future champion shifted into high gear.
“Even then, I had no idea how well it would turn out,” Schmidt said when the trade went through. “It was just one of those things where I felt that we couldn’t help but improve no matter what, so I went through with it.”
Schmidt and Boston would not have to wait long for results.
After helping the team to 37 wins in the first year after the trade, that victory total was up 20 from Orr’s rookie campaign when the B’s managed just 17. Esposito led the team in scoring that first post-expansion season with 84 points, shattering his previous career high of 60, while veteran Johnny Bucyk tacked on 21 more points to the previous season’s totals to finish second on the club with 69. Boston’s top six scorers (which included both Stanfield and Hodge) all topped the 50-point plateau, while NHL top rookie Sanderson (following Orr as the second consecutive Bruin to win the Calder Trophy) just missed the cut with 49. For perspective, Bucyk’s 48 points led the entire team in ‘66-67.
A four-game sweep at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens in April of 1968 put a damper on things and ended what had been the best regular season in a decade, but Hodge and Esposito finished 1-2 in postseason scoring for the B’s.
“I didn’t know (Esposito) was that good,” Sanderson would say on the Spittin’ Chiclets podcast 53 years after the trade that brought him to Boston. “And everybody said he was a bad skater. Well, he was a great skater. He would take two strides to my three, and he was a big, 230-pound guy and had a tremendous pair of hands. And he could stick his butt out in front of you and you couldn’t get around him.”
Just like that, Boston’s hockey team emerged from long, cold winter’s hibernation, and with the new blood coursing through its veins, served notice to the rest of the NHL with a tremendous roar.
In Esposito’s first five seasons as a Bruin, the team posted 37, 42, 40, 57 and 54 wins. His scoring totals increased exponentially with each passing season, reaching the zenith in 1971 with a then league-record 76 goals and 152 points (both of which still stand as franchise single season marks). As the city of Boston and hockey fans everywhere got to see Esposito and Orr’s development go supernova, the duo served as the catalysts for Boston’s hockey renaissance and a golden age that inspired an entire region to take to the ponds and rinks.
“We make a trade- you three guys from Chicago, and that was it,” Orr said to NHL Network.
“When Bobby showed up, then Phil showed up, you knew it- it was going to happen soon,” Cheevers replied to Orr, talking about the pressure of having to win a championship in Boston. “But now, we gotta do it.”
Three years later- May 10, 1970- Orr soared through the air in sudden death and the Big, Bad Bruins dynasty was validated.
Esposito became the NHL’s top scoring machine until Wayne Gretzky came along and broke his scoring records a decade later. Hodge became a 50-goal, 100-point winger for the B’s- he’s even the answer to an interesting trivia question: who was the first non-Canadian-born player to score 50 goals in the NHL? (Hodge was born in Birmingham, England). Stanfield, a top playmaking left winger, scored 20 or more goals in each of his six seasons with the B’s, including 50+ assists campaigns from 1971-73.
As for Marotte, he went on to play over 800 NHL games in his career and was a solid defensive defenseman, but lasted just three seasons in Chicago. Martin had the biggest impact for Chicago, spending the next decade in the Windy City and putting up a career-best 29-goal, 90-point season in 1973. Norris played just 10 games for the ‘Hawks (3 wins) and played 25 games for the Kings in 1971 before finishing his career in the WHA, becoming an eternal footnote in NHL history.
“We became a very good team because of that trade,” said Orr. “I mean, put three guys like that in your lineup…oh my God!”
Five years and two Stanley Cup championships later, Esposito, Hodge and Stanfield’s legacy became in the words of author Phil Schlenker in his book Let’s Talk Hockey: 50 Wonderful Debates the “most lopsided trade in NHL history. ”