Nifty’s nifty night in Boston

Middleton retirement

(Image courtesy of

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.

81-82 Rick Middleton Home Sandow Mesh 004

Here’s the Middleton retirement ceremony highlight video- published on YouTube by the NHL:






On Rick Middleton’s No. 16 going to the rafters

81-82 Rick Middleton Home Sandow Mesh 004

The Boston Bruins announced Tuesday that Richard D. Middleton aka Rick Middleton aka ‘Nifty’ the right wing who starred for the team from 1976-88, will have his number 16 retired in a game later this November (29th- vs the NY Islanders). The longtime New Hampshire resident and Bruins Alumni fixture is deeply touched by the gesture, which comes three decades after he skated off into the sunset (more on that later).

The former Oshawa Generals star broke into the NHL with the NY Rangers, who selected him in the 1st round, 14th overall, in the 1973 NHL Amateur Draft. Middleton was also picked by the Minnesota Fighting Saints of the rival WHA that same year, going in the second round, 21st overall.

The trade is right up there with Cam Neely as one of former Bruins GM Harry Sinden’s best heists, sending the over-the-hill Ken Hodge to Broadway for the 22-year-old, who put up 90 points in two seasons with the Rangers. The catalyst for the deal was believed to be Phil Esposito, who was dealt to the Rangers the season before in a blockbuster, which sent Brad Park and Jean Ratelle to the B’s. Espo wanted his old (no pun intended) reliable right wing back, and Middleton was rumored to be a bit of a wild card off the ice…his -38 in 1975-76 certainly didn’t help.

So, Middleton headed off the Boston and after a couple of solid, if unspectacular years (by the standards of the 1970’s), he took off, posting 38, 40, 44, and 51-goal seasons from 1978-82. He peaked in 1984 with a 47-goal, 105-point year (finishing second to Barry Pederson’s 116 points) but the Boston offensive juggernaut was silenced in the opening round of the playoffs by the Montreal Canadiens and Steve Penney, who sent them out with a whimper in 3 games (no points for Nifty). The year before, Middleton had posted a playoff season for the ages (33 points in 17 games), leading the Bruins past two rounds of the playoffs including the memorable 7-game affair against Buffalo where he registered a team-record (for one series) 19 points. Unfortunately, the B’s ran into the NY Islanders dynasty in the spring of 1983. Denis Potvin, Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier, Billy Smith & Company dispatched them from the Wales Conference final in a series that never seemed that close, en route to a fourth consecutive Stanley Cup, leaving so many B’s fans to wonder…what if?

Middleton’s production steadily declined after that career 105-point campaign, due in part to age and injury, but he did preside over the historic defeat of the Montreal Canadiens in 1988, a first for any Bruins team since 1943. Middleton’s breakaway game-winner in Game 3 (2-0), to put the B’s up 2-1 in the series after splitting the games in Montreal was a fitting coda for a man who had been a part of so many heart-breaking losses to the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge during his entire Bruins tenure. He split the captaincy with Ray Bourque that year, wearing the ‘C’ for home games, until his retirement after the B’s were swept by Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers (their 4th NHL title since 1984) giving way to Bourque’s sole leadership from 1988 until his trade to Colorado in the spring of 2000.

As a child of the 70’s and 80’s, Nifty was an ubiquitous presence in my budding love of hockey and the Bruins. Although not a pure burner, his golden locks (later shiny pate as his hair thinned and ultimately gave way to a Jofa helmet late in his career) looked like they were on fire as he would bob and weave through the neutral and offensive zones, often putting on a display of stickhandling prowess at impossible angles and contortions, ending with pucks in the back of the net or sublime back-door feeds for gift-wrapped tap-ins for his lucky linemates. The Mike Krushelnyski-Pederson-Middleton line racked up 111 goals in 1983-84…a number that seems awe-inspiring some 35 years later.

Although Middleton’s scoring numbers paled in comparison to Gretzky’s (The Great One scored 100 more points than Middleton’s 105 in 83-84 just for perspective), or Mario Lemieux or Bossy to name a few, he was a veritable King Midas for the B’s, creating magic from the mundane and turning pucks into goals. But don’t take my word for it- Channel 38 once paid tribute to him with a highlight reel video now on YouTube to America’s “You Can Do Magic” and I had it recorded on VHS and must’ve watched it 1000 times…

Ignored by the Hockey Hall of Fame, 30 years after he retired, taking his number out of circulation is a welcome move for those who watched him (and maybe a good percentage of fans who didn’t, but who appreciate history). Sure- there are some who may be opposed to the honor (it is the 11th so number retired by the B’s) but that’s just a curmudgeonly nature of New Englanders at work- deep down, even the grumblers get it. After all- we’ve seen Peter Douris, Jozef Stumpel, Randy Robitaille, Ken Belanger, Marco Sturm and most recently, Kaspars Daugavins (in 2012-13), wear the digits in the intervening years. None hold the distinction and cachet Middleton did, and in the end- it’s just a number. It’s time to admit that he wore it well…better than anyone in the Black and Gold. As his 402 goals as a Bruin can attest, he could finish plays off just as easily as he set the table, and was the heir to Espo as the next pure scoring forward to put on the spoked B.

If the Bruins can take the time to honor for a player who grew up and matured in Boston as a model of consistency and was the face of the franchise at least up front for the better part of a decade, then why not?

It’s about time.


In his own words: Milt Schmidt addendum

In the birthday tribute post to Mr. Milton C. Schmidt, I referenced an article I wrote on him where I had the opportunity to speak at length with him about his NHL career and the game of hockey.

I went through my archives and found the draft I submitted to my editors at New England Hockey Journal 15 years ago, so here it is- unedited and in it’s original format. Enjoy!

Milt Schmidt- Boston’s Captain Emeritus

On February 10, 1942- the entire globe was plunged into the throes of the Second World War, but for one last magical night, the Boston Bruins’ famed “Kraut Line” dazzled spectators in the confines of the Boston Garden, treating them to an 8-1 thrashing of their hated rivals, the Montreal Canadiens, while giving the fans in attendance a final look at the team’s most prolific scoring unit of that time. Milt Schmidt, a strapping soon-to-be 24-year old, was the line’s centerpiece and one of the National Hockey League’s premier talents. Wingers Woody Dumart and Bobby Bauer flanked Schmidt, and on that evening, the trio, also known as the “Kitchener Kids,” because they all came from the same part of Ontario, erupted for eight points in the rout. At the end of the game, both teammates and opponents carried them off the Garden ice on their shoulders, where the three friends left hockey for service in the Royal Canadian Air Force. It was a defining moment in Schmidt’s career, a mere snapshot of many glorious occasions he presided over both in uniform as a player, and as a member of the team’s management as coach and GM.


Milton Conrad Schmidt was born in Kitchener, Ontario on March 5, 1918 and wasted little time becoming a standout hockey player in his hometown. A 16-year old Schmidt caught the eye of Frank Selke, who was manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs back then, and Selke approached Leafs owner Conn Smythe about signing the talented center and adding him to an already impressive stable of players. Much to Selke’s chagrin, Smythe balked at the thought of bringing Schmidt on board.


“Mr. Selke had seen me playing in Ontario at the Maple Leaf Gardens and liked me very much, so he had Mr. Smythe come down and take a look at me and he (Smythe) immediately said that I was too small,” Schmidt, now 83 and living in Boston, told the New England Hockey Journal recently. “That opened the door for me to end up in Boston, but a few years later, I saw a quote from Mr. Smythe and he said, ‘Frank Selke didn’t tell me that Milt Schmidt was only 16!’”


Toronto’s loss was Boston’s gain, and the team successfully courted Schmidt at the urging of his boyhood chums, Bauer and Dumart. Coach and General Manager Art Ross inked Schmidt to his first contract, valued at $3,000. Schmidt’s debut late in the 1936-37 season was nothing spectacular statistically (2 goals in 26 games), but in short order, he and his friends got a feel for the speed and rhythm of big league hockey and the dynamic Kraut Line arrived to the cheers of Bruins fans everywhere.


“The first thing you have to realize about our line is that we were all very close friends,” said Schmidt of Dumart, who was also from Kitchener, and Bauer, who hailed from nearby Waterloo, Ontario. “We played junior hockey together and were as close as three friends could be. I might add that in Woody’s first year in the pros, he played as a defenceman. Mr. Ross made a forward out of him, and when I turned pro in ’36, we were put together on the same line. It was a natural chemistry.”


The Kraut Line didn’t limit their closeness to game situations, either. According to Schmidt, they were inseparable off the ice as well. “We roomed together at Ma Snow’s in Brookline, and that gave us the opportunity to talk after games. We used to stay up sometimes until one o’clock in the morning, discussing the game that night- what went well, what didn’t go well and so on.”


To Schmidt, what made the line so special was that each player brought something a little different to the table. “Bobby was very brainy,” he said. “He wasn’t the biggest guy around, but he was a great defensive player and was so smart. He could beat you a variety of ways. Then there was Woody…he had a real heavy shot for that day. In fact, one thing I clearly remember about his shot when I first came up from junior hockey, was that in practice, (Cecil) ‘Tiny’ Thompson, our goaltender, would just step aside and let Woody’s shot go straight into the net!


“Myself, I would say I was a little bit of everything. I was an aggressive player, but I was fair. I guess you could say that I had a little bit of something that helped me to be successful, but the credit belongs to all of us. We all helped to make each other that much better over the years that we played together.”


Schmidt won numerous individual accolades over the course of his playing career, all of it spent in a Boston Bruins hockey sweater. He led the NHL in scoring in 1940 (22 goals and 52 points in 48 games), was named the league’s most valuable player in 1951, and was a First-Team All-Star three times. Schmidt was also a winner, helping the Bruins to a pair of Stanley Cup victories as a player in 1939 and 1941, and two more as the team’s General Manager in 1970 and 1972.


More than sixty- two years after his Bruins won the franchise’s second Stanley Cup to cap the 1938-39 season, Schmidt still clearly remembers that evening, the night that the Boston fans brought the great Eddie Shore, in the twilight of his storied career, back onto the Garden ice with a stirring tribute.


“We had so many great players on the team that year,” he said. “Eddie Shore, ‘Dit’ Clapper, Bill Cowley– all great players. After the final game, Eddie Shore skated off the ice and the fans gave such a huge ovation. They absolutely would not let the President of the NHL present us that Stanley Cup unless Shore came out with the rest of the team. So, someone had to go into the dressing room and retrieve him. When Shore appeared, the ovation he received from the Garden crowd was like no other I have ever heard; it gave me goosepimples just being there and hearing it. Maybe the one night I can remember that even approaches it, was when Bobby Orr’s number four was retired. Anyway, in those days, we didn’t skate around the ice with the Cup and raise it over our heads like they do today. Back then, there was a table set up and the trophy was placed on it and the league president would come out and present it to the winning team.”


Schmidt recalls the similarities between the teams he won the Stanley Cup with as a player, and the Big, Bad Bruins clubs that won it all in 1970 and 1972 with him at the helm as GM by saying, “I like to compare the 1970 Bruins to the team we had in ’38-’39- they had a little bit of everything, including number four, and I don’t think I have to tell you who that is! They were such a great club- they could play Sunday School hockey, but if you wanted to go into the backstreets and have a brawl, well they could do that too. And they did a fine job of it!”


If Schmidt’s accomplishment as a player, which earned him induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1961 weren’t enough, he added to his aura in Boston with a successful tenure as Bruins GM from 1967 to 1972. It was Schmidt’s great trade with the Chicago Blackhawks, one that brought Phil Esposito, Ken Hodge and Fred Stanfield to Boston, which firmly placed the Bruins back in contention as the NHL’s true powerhouse team in the late 60’s and early 70’s. As he engineered that deal with Chicago’s GM Tommy Ivan, Schmidt really had no inkling of how truly one-sided the trade would turn out to be for Boston. It helped to define the term, “blockbuster.”


“I had no idea how well it would turn out for us,” Schmidt said. “But at the time I made the trade, I knew that we couldn’t help but improve the team by making it. Freddie Stanfield was an instructor at my hockey school in Penland Falls, Ontario, 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 pressbox. 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!”


Consummating the deal was easier said than done, however. Schmidt continues: “Tommy (Ivan) 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. It took quite a long time to get all the names in the transaction straight, but even then, I had no idea how well it would turn out. 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’s long tenure in Boston has made him privy to generations of fans that have supported the team, from the Boston Garden years, to the current residence in the cavernous FleetCenter. Through it all, the fans haven’t really changed, according to Schmidt.


“Bostonians are great hockey fans,” he said. “And they do know their hockey! They’ve always treated me well, that much is certain, and they have always supported the team. They’ve proven that in recent years by still coming out to the games despite a lack of success. So much has changed since I started playing in 1936…back then, there were only three ice rinks in the area to my knowledge. But the fans in Boston have always been both knowledgeable and very loyal. It makes for a great combination.”


Despite the fact that Schmidt lost three of the best years of his playing career to the war effort, he returned to Boston to complete ten more seasons with the Black and Gold. Although he didn’t win any more championships as a player, he continued to lead by example as the team’s captain as well as its heart and soul. In one of the proudest moments in franchise history, Bobby Bauer came out of retirement to play one last game with the Kraut Line. On that night, March 18, 1952, five years after Bauer had hung up his skates, the trio confounded the Chicago Blackhawks on the Garden ice en route to a 4-0 win in front of the hometown faithful. Schmidt scored the 200th goal of his career, assisted by both linemates, placing an exclamation point on the legacy of that unit.


Schmidt’s career numbers as a player (776GP, 229G, 346A, 575PTS) may seem modest in comparison to the modern era players who play 80 or more games in a season, but to him, the statistics matter very little when you measure the success and happiness he had while a member of the Bruins. Few are more qualified than Schmidt to try and define in words the tradition that is Boston Bruins hockey:


“I think that the best Bruins players have always been hard working, but aggressive. Combine that spirit with ability, and you have the kind of guy that true Bostonians love and appreciate, along with the color of that hockey sweater. You know, I never really ever heard about guys wanting out of Boston, and I think that has as much to do with the city and the fans than anything else.”


Those fans wishing to understand Milt Schmidt’s place in Bruins lore need merely glance up into the rafters at the FleetCenter where his number 15 proudly hangs, a testament of his dedication to those very ideals he describes.