by Mike Moffett
I really enjoyed Ken Cail’s reminiscences of the late Boston Bruins radio announcer Bob Wilson in last week’s Weirs Times. Ken’s mention of the 1971 Boston Braves ice hockey team brought back memories. Young fans today can’t imagine how professional hockey dominated New England sports headlines in the early seventies.
The notion of the Braves, an American Hockey League franchise, sharing the Boston Garden with the Bruins and the Celtics—and outdrawing the Celtics—is mind-boggling. But such was Boston in those days—the ultimate American hockey town.
The “Mayor” of that hockey town was none other than Robert Gordon “Bobby” Orr—#4. The wunderkind from Parry Sound, Ontario, thrilled Boston fans with his skating and stick-handling. The Bruins finished last, as usual, in Orr’s first year, 1966-67. But thereafter the B’s were perennial Stanley Cup contenders, winning it all in 1970 when Orr scored the clincher in overtime against the St. Louis Blues at the Garden.
Toronto’s Pat Quinn once knocked Orr out cold with an elbow to the head—in Boston. As an unconscious Orr was carried from the ice, 15,000 fans thundered “KILL QUINN! KILL QUINN!” and Quinn no doubt would have been murdered by Bruins fans had he not been escorted from the Garden by a phalanx of state troopers.
The Bruins went on to set numerous scoring records. In 1970-71 Phil Esposito scored a then-unheard-of 76 goals. Orr led the league in scoring twice, the only defenseman ever to do so. Boston won another title in 1972, besting the New York Rangers in the finals.
Bruins tickets were prize possessions—hence the success of the Braves. WSBK-Channel 38 carried Bruins games, with Fred Cusick doing the TV play-by-play, while Wilson did the radio calls. The TV ratings were stratospheric and made Channel 38 one of the most successful UHF stations in the country.
The Bruins didn’t wear helmets in those days and Channel 38 helped make all the Bruin faces recognizable to fans near and far. Not just Orr and Esposito, but Johnny Bucyk and Ken Hodge, Pie McKenzie and Derek Sanderson, Gerry Cheevers and Eddie Johnston. On and on.
Boston loved the Bruins and Bruins loved Boston. Players would drive around town and just pull into bars on a whim. After buying drinks for the house, they’d sometimes, spontaneously drop by a hospital and just visit the patients. They did this without advance publicity or cameras—the ultimate in community relations.
Bruins bumper stickers abounded, including one that said “JESUS SAVES … but Esposito scores on the rebound!”
After losing to the Philadelphia Flyers in the 1974 Cup Finals, the bloom started to fade for Boston hockey. The Braves closed up shop. Bruin stars were getting older and the competition was getting better. A new league, the World Hockey Association, drew players and energy away from the NHL. But as long as #4, Bobby Orr, kept skating, the team would be beloved.
Orr was always hampered by bad knees. One can only imagine how good he would have been had current arthroscopic procedures been available then. But he gamely played on. Until that horrific day in 1976 when he left Boston for the Chicago Black Hawks. Bruins fans were devastated. How could this happen?
There was a two-word answer: ALAN EAGLESON.
Eagleson was Orr’s agent, but was also a close friend of Black Hawk owner Bill Wirz, who wanted Orr in Chicago. Wirz made an offer that was hard for Boston to match, and Eagleson encouraged Orr to accept it, implying that the Bruins apparently weren’t that invested in Orr anymore, due to his knees. In truth, the Bruin management desperately wanted to keep Orr in Boston. Team salary structure dynamics didn’t allow Boston to match Chicago’s offer, but the team told Eagleson they could offer a percentage of team ownership to Orr—an incredible deal.
Wanted to direct Orr into Wirz’s arms, Eagleson never told Bobby about the ownership offer. Trusting his agent’s counsel, Orr went to Chicago, where he played two injury-plagued seasons before retiring in 1978.
Bruins hockey mania was never the same. Other stars retired. Esposito went to the Rangers. And while the B’s would remain competitive, they could never beat Montreal in the playoffs—until 2011, when Boston won its first Stanley Cup in almost four decades.
Several years after Orr retired, he was back in Boston, chatting with some former Bruins. He was asked why he never accepted the ownership offer, as it would have been worth many, many millions of dollars over time.
“What ownership offer?” Orr responded.
And so Orr’s devious agent, Alan Eagleson, was outed as a crook. Other malfeasance resulted in Eagleson being booted out of hockey’s Hall of Fame and into prison.
While the swashbuckling Bruins of the early seventies have all hung up their skates, their achievements and legacies remain. For those of us who couldn’t easily get to the Garden, the Channel 38 telecasts and the radio play-by-play accounts of those halcyon times are part of the sound-tracks of our lives.
R.I.P. Bob Wilson—AND Fred Cusick!
Aside from the aforementioned titles from 2011, 1972, and 1970, when was the last time the Boston Bruins won the Stanley Cup? (Answer follows)
Born Today …
That is to say, sports figures born on February 5, include home run king Hank Aaron (1934), Hall of Fame NFL quarterback Roger Staubach (1942), and Staubach’s one-time Dallas Cowboy teammate Craig Morton (1943).
“It has been quite a while since anybody from my tribe roasted a white man.” – Stan Jonathan, Boston Bruins left wing and a full-blooded Tuscarora Indian, speaking at a 1982 celebrity roast for teammate Wayne Cashman.
The Bruins swept the Detroit Red Wings 4-0 to win the 1941 Stanley Cup.
Michael Moffett is a Professor of Sports Management at NHTI, Concord’s Community College. He recently co-authored the critically-acclaimed and award-winning “FAHIM SPEAKS: A Warrior-Actor’s Odyssey from Afghanistan to Hollywood and Back” (with the Marines) — which is available through Amazon.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.