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Bruins, Blackhawks take NHL back to Original Six days

First meeting of two of league’s legendary rival in Final since 1979

Francesca D’Ottavi for the Boston Globe

Fresh on the job as Bruins coach, Don Cherry at first wasn’t sure what to make of the heated shenanigans that evening at Chicago Stadium. It was only a preseason game, yet there was legendary Boston defenseman Bobby Orr, typically with emotions in control, trading nasty high sticks with Stan Mikita, the Black Hawks’ iconic centerman, four-time NHL scoring leader, and future Hall of Famer.

From his spot behind the bench that autumn night in 1974, Cherry quickly construed that the bad blood traced back a way, as it so often did then in Original Six rivalries. Boston and Chicago began jousting in the 1920s in this professional hate society of stitches, broken bones, and cross-checks. A half-century or so of sweat, blood, and fisticuffs remained the connecting points between the storied franchises, as central to their relationship as skates cut from leather, sticks chipped from Canadian hardwood, and goalie pads stuffed with horsehair.

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“There was some bad feeling,’’ Cherry recollected years later in the book, “Don Cherry’s Hockey Stories and Stuff’’ written with longtime Toronto hockey scribe Al Strachan. “There must have been bad feelings before.’’

Much of the long-simmering animus between the clubs has evaporated now in the days of the 30-team NHL. On Wednesday night, Boston and Chicago will meet in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, and it is a very different, far more professional league than the one the two clubs began to shape when they opened for business (Boston in ’24, Chicago ’26) in post-World War I America under the NHL’s shield logo.

Still identified as a brawling, blood-and-guts league in the days of Orr and Mikita, the NHL today of Zdeno Chara and Jonathan Toews is a faster, more skilled, and some would say more physically punishing enterprise. Full-scale brawls have been legislated out of the game, individual fights have become increasingly rare, especially in the postseason.

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Instead, when the puck is dropped just after 8 p.m., the emphasis will be on explosive skating, bone-rattling checks, acrobatic goaltending, and frenetic back-and-forth play.

This is the first time two Original Six clubs have clashed in the Cup Final since the Canadiens clinched the title with a 4-1 win over the Rangers on May 21, 1979. The Bruins and Blackhawks, for all their history — including six playoff series (1927 through ’78) — have never battled for the championship.

In the years that have followed that Habs victory in ’79, the NHL has expanded by 50 percent, from 20 teams to 30, and most players have become millionaires (average pay $2 million per season). Mere months after that Habs victory, 18-year-old superstar-to-be Ray Bourque entered the Boston lineup, signing a three-year deal that would pay him a total $300,000 through the spring of ’82. Tyler Seguin, now wrapping up his third NHL season and currently Boston’s third-line right wing, this autumn begins a six-year contract that will bring him $34.5 million.

The night Orr and Mikita clashed, the combined payrolls under the control of Cherry and Chicago coach Billy Reay probably didn’t reach $4 million. In part because of the Bruins’ wild popularity with the phenomenal Orr, the rival World Hockey Association was born in the fall of ’72, which started to escalate pay at warp speed as NHL players bolted for the upstart, free-spending league.

According to Cherry’s book, when Mikita was questioned postgame about the on-ice dust-up with Orr, Mikita blurted to reporters, “Cherry doesn’t run that club, Bobby Orr runs that club.’’

Then along came Joe Giuliotti, beat man for the Boston Herald American, seeking comment from the rookie Boston bench boss. “Political correctness” was a relatively new term in America, and it certainly was yet to penetrate the rinks belonging to the NHL’s 15 American-based teams.

“Stan Mikita has got a big mouth,’’ Cherry told Giuliotti, “and somebody is going to send him back to Czechoslovakia in a pine box.’’

Clearly, this was not your daddy’s Prius hybrid NHL.

“Oh, you got that right,’’ said Nate Greenberg, who began working with the Bruins a couple of seasons prior to Cherry’s arrival and spent more than 30 years with them in a variety of media-related front office capacities. “Stan Mikita in a pine box — imagine saying that today? My word. How’s that for a heated rivalry?!’’

Even by mid-’70s NHL standards, the comment was a bit much. Cherry the next day received a call from league president Clarence Campbell, who made sure he understood the inappropriateness of his words.

A contrite Cherry said he understood, leading Campbell to sign off by saying, “And in the future, use your head for more than a hat rack.’’

In 1970, a big, bad blowout

Of the six times Chicago and Boston have met in the playoffs (the Bruins 5-1 in those series), the most memorable matchup came at the height of the Big Bad Bruins era, in 1970, the Boston roster chock-full of stars such as Orr, Derek Sanderson, Phil Esposito, Gerry Cheevers, and the irascible Johnny “Pie” McKenzie (the Li’l Ball o’ Hate of his day).

For all of Boston’s offensive might, Chicago finished in first place. Both clubs collected 99 points, but the Black Hawks (the name change to Blackhawks came years later) filched first place based on more wins (45-40). The league had 12 teams, and the playoffs consisted of three rounds of best-of-seven series.

The Bruins and Hawks met in the semis, pitting the Esposito brothers, Phil the sniper for Boston and Tony the goalie for Chicago. Beyond the heated fraternal matchup, the series packed extra drama because Phil had been the centerpiece of Boston’s franchise-changing trade with Chicago in May 1967, when Boston general manager Milt Schmidt acquired Esposito, Ken Hodge, and Fred Stanfield for Pit Martin, Jack Norris, and Gilles Marotte.

“Try to find another trade in sports history — here in Boston or internationally — that’s a better deal than that,’’ mused Richard Johnson, curator of The Sports Museum that is housed in TD Garden. “Not going to happen.’’ A few dissenting voices in the Bronx notwithstanding, of course.

Perhaps setting the stage for that Orr-Mikita joust years later, the Bruins smoked the Hawks in four straight, by a humbling 20-10 goal advantage.

In the midst of the series, the irrepressible Cheevers, who later coached the Bruins, chatted with Globe sportswriter Bud Collins about a deep bruise on his shoulder inflicted by a steaming slap shot from Dennis Hull, Bobby’s lesser-acclaimed brother. Not uncommon for the day, Cheevers puffed on a cigarette as he talked with Collins in a corner of the Bruins dressing room.

Hull’s shot had stung Cheevers, dropping him to the ice, and he needed a few moments to recover. Collins wanted to know what he thought.

“I was lying there,’’ Cheevers recounted between drags, “wishing the hell I’d been able to skate good enough when I was a kid to play some other position.’’

Prior to Game 3, Cheevers said he slept to 11 a.m., then made his way to the Garden, where he and Esposito spent a chunk of the afternoon watching TV in the dressing room. They first watched “Hollywood Squares,’’ the popular game show, and then a movie, “Rocky Mountain,’’ starring Errol Flynn.

“He got killed this afternoon,’’ said Cheevers, a self-professed Flynn fan, “but he came back to make more movies.’’

All this from a man who told Collins he defined goaltending as “99 percent luck and 1 percent praying.’’

Cheevers was in net for all four wins, outplaying Esposito’s kid brother. He was also on duty four wins later when Orr and Sanderson traded passes for No. 4’s Cup-clinching goal over St. Louis, the play that sent Orr flying through the air, having secured Boston’s first Cup in 29 seasons.

“Everyone remembers the Cup and, of course, the Orr picture,’’ said Johnson, “but it was that sweep over Chicago, as improbable as one can imagine, that really distinguished those Bruins.

“You look at that Chicago lineup and it really might be the best one never to win a Stanley Cup — the Hulls, Mikita, Tony O . . . the names go on and on.

“In my mind, it was that sweep that took the Bruins from being a great team to a legendary team.’’

Lessons from history

When the Bruins and Hawks came into the league, the term “Original Six” had yet to be coined. In 1924, the Bruins and Montreal Maroons were part of a league expansion from four to six clubs, joining Hamilton, Toronto, Ottawa, and the other team from Montreal known as the Canadiens.

Two years later, when Chicago was added, the league membership soared to 10 clubs, five in each of two divisions. Ottawa, Toronto, the New York Americans, and the two Montreal clubs made up the Canadian Division, while the Rangers, Bruins, Black Hawks, Pittsburgh, and Detroit made up the American Division.

The Bruins’ first trip to the playoffs came in 1927 when they faced the Black Hawks, led in their inaugural season by Dick Irvin, the league’s No. 2 scorer with 18 goals and 36 points.

The Original Six members we know today — Boston, Toronto, Montreal, New York, Chicago, and Detroit — were the six clubs still standing after World War II.

Prior to the conflict, which took some players out of the league for the duration, NHL membership had slipped to seven, down from 10 in the late ’20s. By ’42-43, only the Original Six were left standing, with Chicago still the farthest point west and Boston the farthest east.

The six-team league played a 50-game schedule, with the clubs facing one another 10 times each. Those same clubs remained the league’s only members through the 1966-67 season, maxing out at a 70-game schedule in which clubs faced each other 14 times a year.

This season, because of a lockout that reduced the season from 82 to 48 games, the Bruins and Blackhawks did not meet. Western and Eastern Conference teams did not face one another in the regular season. But now they’re together again, for the first time in the postseason since 1978, with Cherry’s words resonating from decades past.

“There must have been bad feelings before.’’

***

How the Bruins have fared all-time against Original Six foes:

Bruins vs. CanadiensTotal gamesRecordWin pct.
Regular season721270-340-103-8.446
Postseason17068-102-0.400
Bruins vs. Maple LeafsTotal gamesRecordWin pct.
Regular season649287-256-98-8.518
Postseason6934-34-1.500
Bruins vs. BlackhawksTotal gamesRecordWin pct.
Regular season578261-235-79-3.520
Postseason2216-5-1.750
Bruins vs. RangersTotal gamesRecordWin pct.
Regular season631285-240-97-9.529
Postseason4726-19-2.574
Bruins vs. Red WingsTotal gamesRecordWin pct.
Regular season579235-246-95-3.488
Postseason3319-14-0.576

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com.
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