On Mother’s Day 1970, mine nearly lost her oldest child.
I remember because that was the day Bobby Orr almost killed me.
If, as seemed certain for the longest instant of my life, I’d ended up at the bottom of Connecticut’s Naugatuck River, the Bruins superstar ought to have been charged as an accessory.
That incident when fate nearly linked Orr and me forever came to mind when I saw that Boston and St. Louis were set to meet in a rematch of the 1970 Stanley Cup Final.
Whether or not you specifically remember their first series 49 years ago, you’ve surely seen an image of its dramatic conclusion, hockey’s most famous photograph.
In it, Orr, arms and legs urgently extended as if he were diving into a pool for an Olympic anchor lap, is parallel to the Boston Garden ice. A millisecond earlier he’d scored the overtime goal that won the Cup for the Bruins, their first NHL championship since 1941.
The elated hockey player’s mouth is open wide in a screech of pure delight.
At that same moment, I too was screaming — in terror.
That Sunday, May 10, I had arisen early. My penultimate year at Temple was over and I was going to hitchhike to Boston to visit a friend.
My father, who’d without prompting made me an artfully drawn sign announcing my destination, drove me to King of Prussia, Pa.
Like so many college kids then, I was a hitchhiking veteran. I’d already thumbed it home from Wisconsin and twice I’d made round trips to Ann Arbor.
That’s not to suggest those episodes were adventure-free. Once, the drunk who picked me up in Indiana slammed his car into a toll booth. Another time, an on-leave GI in Beaver Falls, Pa., shared the herbal stash he’d acquired in ‘Nam, then pulled over on a dark road and fell asleep.
But that day things went routinely. Almost immediately, I got a ride to Paramus, N.J., and after a few more hours found myself at an entrance ramp to I-84 in Connecticut.
That’s where a young driver, who said he’d been working at some factory all night, signaled me to climb in. He was going as far as Rhode Island.
It was 90 degrees that afternoon and my ride was sipping a beer, though he didn’t appear to be intoxicated. Best of all, he was listening to sports on the radio, Game 4 of the Blues-Bruins series.
He told me he played hockey and was a rabid Bruins fan, a rabid Orr fan. That was no surprise. Everyone in New England adored No. 4.
The 22-year-old defenseman had revolutionized his position and the game. That season Orr would be the NHL’s regular-season and playoff MVP. More impressive, he’d win the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defensive player and the Art Ross Trophy as its top scorer with 33 goals and 87 assists. A year later, he’d raise those totals to 37 and 112.
As the game neared its end, the driver was twitching with anticipation. His Bruins were about to end a Cup drought that stretched back beyond his birth, beyond the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The poor Blues were outclassed. They’d reached the Final in each of their three seasons, but because of the NHL’s odd postseason structure, had yet to win a game.
Original Six teams like Boston were in one division then, and the six clubs born in 1967’s expansion were in the other. There was no playoff cross-pollination until the Final.
St. Louis had been swept in its previous two Final appearances by Montreal. Now they were down, 3-0, to Boston. But in Game 4, on the Bruins’ ice, the Blues displayed some resilience. It was 3-3 late in the third period.
While not as fervently as my ride, I was pulling for Boston too. A Flyers fan, I hated the Blues. With a rugged defense, they’d figuratively beat Philadelphia like a drum. The Flyers had won only twice in their previous 18 meetings, two of which ended in 8-0 Blues victories.
When regulation ended in a tie, my disappointed driver slammed the steering wheel so hard the car shuddered. But in the first minute of overtime, Derek Sanderson slid the puck to Orr, who, while tripping on Noel Picard’s skate, pushed it past Blues goalie Glenn Hall.
From the ice-level vantage point he’d borrowed from a Boston Globe photographer, the Boston Record-American’s Ray Lussier calmly snapped one of sport’s most iconic photos.
There was nothing calm about my ride’s reaction. He screamed with joy and, as he reflexively lifted both hands off the steering wheel, one hand slammed into the unyielding roof.
As he yelped in pain, he inadvertently showered me with the beer he still clutched in his good hand. Mortified, he instinctively reached over to pat me dry. With both hands.
The fact that our suddenly un-reined car was at that moment atop a highway bridge in Waterbury, Conn., appeared to concern him a great deal less than it did me.
With no one to guide it, the vehicle veered sharply toward the guardrail. The Naugatuck River looked like my next stop. Now it was my turn to holler.
Somehow the flustered driver managed to regain control. But I still don’t remember much about the postgame show.
That evening, after one or two more lifts, I reached Boston. Cars, their horns blaring, were still parading through the narrow streets as I made my way to my friend’s apartment.
As we shook hands, I could see his nostrils flare.
“Smells like you’ve already had your share,” he said, “but would you like a beer?”
A warm Narragansett never tasted so good.