Fifty years ago today, Bobby Orr scored 40 seconds into overtime in Game 4 against the Blues at Boston Garden to clinch the Bruins’ first Stanley Cup in 29 years.
Two months ago today, the Cup-contending 2019-20 Bruins played their last game before the coronavirus pandemic, a 2-0 victory over the Flyers in Philadelphia.
Those two Bruins teams have more in common than you might think.
Some similarities are obvious and measurable. Both teams had tremendous special teams. Both teams effectively used a goaltending tandem, with a defined plan for who’d be the go-to guy during playoffs. Both teams had a No. 1 line that was all but unstoppable. Both teams were led by energetic, forward-thinking coaches who brought little to no relevant NHL experience to the bench.
Certain intangibles are also common, though, and they may actually be more important.
Nearly every Cup contender, after all, rides top-notch special teams, goaltending, coaching, and best players who perform like best players. But will that team’s general manager make the hard, unpopular decisions necessary to improve the team? Will the coach hurt a few feelings, or bruise an ego or two, to set what the lineup he feels has the best chance to win? Will players surrender long-held roles for the greater good?
And finally, there’s this: Does an opponent know what to expect when they play the Bruins, and is it more intimidating than inviting?
If you look at the current team — No. 1 when the NHL paused a 2019-20 season it still hopes to complete, and one year removed from a near-miss in the 2019 Cup final — every answer is yes.
General manager Don Sweeney (like current team president Cam Neely, a former Bruin player who returned to the organization) has traded the likes of Milan Lucic and Dougie Hamilton for draft picks, prospects and salary cap space, and added goalie Jaroslav Halak to help preserve, but also push Tuukka Rask — who has responded with two excellent seasons.
Sweeney fired 2011 Cup-winning coach Claude Julien and installed assistant Bruce Cassidy, who hadn’t been an NHL head coach since 2003-04 or been on an NHL bench since 2005-06. Cassidy got the B’s to play a faster, forward-moving game that resulted, over time, in reduced or deleted roles for popular veterans like Matt Beleskey, Adam McQuaid and David Backes. He has consistently preached the concept of internal competition, and trusted a leadership group of Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci and others to convince teammates that it makes the team better.
This all began in the late 1960s, when Harry Sinden — with no NHL games played or coached — was hired as head coach, and clearly benefited from the addition of the incomparable Orr in 1966-67, and a massive influx of talent a year later when GM Milt Schmidt shipped three veterans to Chicago for Phil Esposito, Ken Hodge and Fred Stanfield. The B’s also added rookie Derek Sanderson in 1967-68; Sinden put him on the power play.
But Sinden also switched the ‘C’ on John Bucyk’s jersey for an ‘A,’ reasoning that “the success of the team wasn’t very much at the time (eight straight seasons without a playoff berth), and we might be better off to begin again ... I took the role of captain away from (Bucyk), and made three assistant captains.”
Bucyk, however, rolled with it, figuring that “the important thing was trying to get together, so we could win games.” Sanderson, who could easily have been a No. 2 center, accepted a third-line role in which he was to emphasize defense and penalty-killing. No. 1 center Esposito had to swallow hard when Sinden decided to start Sanderson’s line, and not his, when Game 4 of the 1970 Cup Final went to OT — and Sanderson teased him about it.
As with the current Bruins, and as was just witnessed during a Zoom conference with the 2011 Cup winners — there was a camaraderie on those late 1960s and early 1970s teams that was hard to match.
“There was no one there you didn’t like. It’s hard to believe, but there’s 20-some guys, and everybody liked everybody,” Sanderson said. “Everybody knew if you were in a mood or had an attitude, and they’d shake you up.
“We had a great team of guys that cared about each other, and we had a rule: No one would be in a fight alone. If you got into a fight, the closest Bruin jumped the other guy.”
That sort of play has been legislated out of the game, so you’ll have to watch tonight’s NHL Network special “1970 Bruins: Big, Bad and Bobby” at 8 p.m. to see and hear what it was like.
And if we witness any more hockey this season, you may see and hear echoes of those teams from the current version. Sinden dreamed big when he got his first NHL job in 1966, believing “it was time for some identity to be established, an attitude and personality to be established.” As GM, team president and now an adviser to owner Jeremy Jacobs, Sinden is proud to still see it.
“I used to live in fear that the personality of that 1970 team, the attitude of the 1970 team, and the style of the 1970 team, would go away once we lost some of the players,” Sinden said. “But that didn’t happen. It carried over, and we had many teams that played with the same spirit and the same idea as that team.
“It’s just a great team attitude, and I think it’s been passed on from that 1970 team through the 2020 team.”