As the decade of the 1970s drew to a close, the United States struggled through a sluggish economy, long gas lines, and growing tensions in the Middle East with ominous warning clouds gathering over Iran and Afghanistan. 1979 also marked the year in which the Boston Bruins held the most important and impactful draft in the team’s history.
Even if the fruits of the ’79 entry draft (the first year of the name change after having previously been known as the NHL amateur draft since 1963) did not result in a Stanley Cup championship in Boston, each of the seven players the B’s drafted saw NHL action. In fact, the elements of that wildly successful class of players ensured that the B’s remained contenders throughout the entire decade of the 1980s and first half of the 1990s, with a pair of Stanley Cup final appearances in 1988 and 1990, as well as three more trips to the conference final series between 1983-1992.
The fact that the 1979 NHL draft class as a whole is considered to be the greatest of all (though 2003 will challenge that assertion when all is said and done) underscores the importance of Bruins GM Harry Sinden and his scouting staff’s tremendous haul, the centerpiece of which was a defenseman who would go on to be a first-ballot Hockey Hall of Fame player and one of the greatest offensive producers in NHL history with 1,579 points in 1,612 career games with the Bruins and Colorado Avalanche: Raymond Bourque.
The Bruins could have called it a day alone with the selection of Bourque, but they went on to add a pair of 200+ NHL goal scorers in Keith Crowder and Mike Krushelnyski, while landing one of the powerhouse Brandon Wheat Kings’ biggest stars in Brad McCrimmon, who would go on to be one of the top stay-at-home defensemen, with more than 1,200 career big league games under his belt.
Although this group was unable to secure hockey’s ultimate prize for Boston, the B’s Class of ’79 is rivaled only by the 1980 and 2006 team drafts as the most critical in franchise history.
I recently posted this to the Bruins sub-Reddit- and thought it deserved a place on my blog.
Took a swing at the Boston Bruins historical draft choices, analyzing the team’s selections since the NHL implemented a rudimentary draft system 56 years ago. Bear in mind that in the pre-1969 years, the draft was different- starting in 1963 thru 1978 it was called the amateur draft before changing to the NHL Entry Draft in 1979 when the teams were allowed to draft 18-year-olds. With fewer teams in the 60’s, 70’s & 80’s, selections outside of 10-20 were 2nd round or later, but for purpose of exercise, I’m going to look at picks 1-30 and call it like I see it.
I’m bucking convention by starting out with 1st overall and work up to 30- in a lot of cases, the early selections for the B’s have not been kind, but in full context- most of the time the team was picking 3-7, it came in the days before the current draft system. And because the B’s had made the playoffs from 1968-97, unless they owned bad teams’ 1st rounders, they rarely got a chance to pick inside the top-10 during that time frame.
1- Best: Joe Thornton, 1997: 1st ballot HHOFer- nuf ced; Trading him opened the door for Zdeno Chara and Marc Savard to join the B’s in 2006, but he’s been everything Jumbo Joe was projected to be as a teen titan with the Soo Greyhounds in 1997. He just turned 40 in July, which, given the shaggy, golden-locked kid who showed up in Boston 22 years ago at not quite 18, seems impossible to square with the grizzled graybeard who has been with the San Jose Sharks for nearly a decade and a half.
Worst: Barry Gibbs, 1966: Journeyman defenseman. He at least played in the NHL to the tune of 796 career games, most of them not with the Bruins. However, Gibbs leads the No. 1 overall bust hit parade not because of what he did, but because of the player who was selected right behind him at No. 2 in ’66 by the NY Rangers. Wait for it…Brad Park. Can you imagine Bobby Orr and Brad Park together on the Boston blue line? It actually happened for a handful of games right before Orr left for the Windy City, but had they been able to play together in their primes, we’re talking at least 2 more Stanley Cups in that era. Yikes. (H/T to Reddit user Timeless_Watch for pointing this out- I moved Kluzak down to HM)
HM: Gord Kluzak, 1982: Oh what could have been? What if…B’s had drafted Brian Bellows or Scott Stevens there instead of Kluzak? Kluzak had knee injuries in junior hockey days and then got blown up in his 2nd NHL season- without the technology to repair knees that we have today, it doomed him to being day-to-day for the rest of his career and an early retirement. He should have been a long-tenured NHL defenseman, but it didn’t happen for him, and unfortunately, he’s more of a footnote in Bruins lore, which is unfortunate.
I was 16 and in Florida visiting my grandparents with about a month left before my junior year in high school. I walked into the house that afternoon after a visit down to New Smyrna Beach, and my grandfather, a big baseball and football fan but who didn’t know (or give) a whit about hockey, greeted me with the last news I ever expected to hear.
“Hey, Kirk- did you hear that Wayne Gadsby just got traded?”
I must’ve stared at him blankly, because he followed up with: “You know? That hockey player from Canada?”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the largest percentage of hockey players in the NHL were from Canada, but my brain was beginning to process what he’d just said.
“Wayne Gretzky got traded?” I said.
“Yes! Gretzky…that’s the one! They’ve been talking about it a lot on the TV and radio…”
He started to tell me what he knew about the deal…Los Angeles Kings…cash and young players…but his words were like the teacher in Charlie Brown (Wah-WAH-Wah-Wah-Wah.) My mind was racing: Gretzky, the Edmonton Oilers’ four-time Stanley Cup captain and face of hockey, the only player in the history of the game to score more than 200 points in a season not once, not twice, not three times but FOUR times…had been dealt in the prime of his life at 27 years old. My goodness, I thought as the realization hit me- if my grandfather Merlin in Florida is talking about this trade- how enormous of an impact is Gretzky to Tinseltown going to have on the NHL and hockey?
The truth is…in my teenage mind, I couldn’t even begin to comprehend it.
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 morepoints 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?