If it’s not the greatest trade in Boston sports history, it’s on the short, short list.
It’s impossible to watch the Bruins and Blackhawks meet in the Stanley Cup Final and not think about the eternal thank you card hockey fans in the Hub should send to Chicago for ushering in the most memorable and enjoyable era of hockey in Boston sports history. There are no Big, Bad Bruins if the Blackhawks don’t make a big, bad trade.
On May 15, 1967, the then-Black Hawks traded forwards Phil Esposito, Ken Hodge, and Fred Stanfield to the Bruins for defenseman Gilles Marotte, center Pit Martin, and goalie Jack Norris in an offseason deal made right before NHL rosters were frozen for the coming expansion draft that would double the league to 12 teams.
The season before the trade, the Bruins had missed the playoffs for the eighth straight time, but debuted a dynamic defenseman named Bobby Orr. The rest is history, a golden era for the Black and Gold that included Stanley Cups in 1970 and 1972 and eternal idolatry.
The Big, Bad Bruins wouldn’t have been possible without Milt Schmidt committing the hockey version of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist.
Technically, Schmidt was still assistant general manager at the time because Hap Emms’s resignation wasn’t effective for another month.
But it was Schmidt who took the call from then Black Hawks GM Tommy Ivan, an otherwise shrewd talented evaluator who is in the Hockey Hall of Fame, and orchestrated a black-mark deal for the Black Hawks.
Schmidt is now 95 years old and living in Westwood at the Fox Hill Village retirement community. He still follows the Bruins.
“I follow close,” he said. “I’ve never ever seen a club play defensively like the Bruins.”
Orr is immortalized as the patron saint of the Spoked-B. But Schmidt, who centered the famous Kraut Line in his playing days, is Mr. Bruin.
He is the only man in Bruins history to serve as player, team captain, coach, and general manager. He won two Cups as a player and was the team’s GM for the 1970 and 1972 Cups. He is a Hockey Hall of Famer. He executed the most important trade in Bruins history.
Schmidt took time out from his bridge game to reminisce on the transformative deal.
The phone rang in Schmidt’s office the last day before the roster freeze, and it was Ivan calling from Key Biscayne, Fla., trying to make a deal.
“I said, ‘Tommy, Hap Emms and I have been after you for months, and we haven’t been successful,’ ” Schmidt said. “He said, ‘Listen to me now.’ ”
Schmidt did. Ivan was calling with names Chicago hadn’t offered before: Esposito, Hodge, Stanfield.
Schmidt called Emms, who advised his successor not to do the deal. Emms coveted Marotte. Undaunted, Schmidt called Bruins president Weston Adams Sr.
“I called Weston Adams Sr., who was sick in bed at the time,” recalled Schmidt. “I told him about the names. Finally, he said, ‘Milt, if you think this is going to help our hockey club, go ahead and do it.’
“That’s all I needed. If he would have said no, that was it.”
Francis Rosa’s 1967 Globe story on the trade had pictures of each of the men involved in the deal with a description. The one under Esposito said “playmaker.”
He had been that centering Bobby Hull’s line in Chicago. But in Boston, Esposito became a goal scorer of such high repute he inspired the famous — and sacrilegious — bumper stickers that read, “Jesus saves. Esposito scores on the rebound.”
“He was one guy, when Tommy Ivan mentioned his name, I almost fell through the floor,” said Schmidt. “He was never mentioned before.
“Ivan said, ‘He can’t get along with Billy Reay, our coach, and he’s causing a little problem there.’ I said, ‘I think I can put up with that problem.’
“All I can say is thank goodness for Billy Reay.”
Esposito led the league in goals for six straight seasons from 1969-70 to 1974-75, topping out at 76 in 1970-71. That was the year the Bruins won a franchise-record 57 games, but got Drydened in the playoffs.
Espo won the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s leading scorer five times in six seasons from 1968-69 to 1973-74. He won two Hart Trophies as Most Valuable Player. From the 1968-69 season to the 1973-74 season, Orr and Esposito won five of the six league MVPs between them.
Hodge scored 40 or more goals three times for the Bruins, including 50 during the 1973-74 season.
If you ever want to stump your friends with a Bruins trivia question, ask them to name the all-time leading, non-North American-born scorer in club history. The answer is the Birmingham, England-born Hodge, who tallied 289 goals as a Bruin in nine seasons.
Stanfield became the second-line center and point man on Boston’s power play. In parts of three seasons, he had scored 10 goals total for Chicago. He collected 20 goals or more all six seasons he wore the Spoked-B.
“The summer before, I had Stanfield in a hockey camp in Fenelon Falls, Ontario,” said Schmidt. “I could tell then how he could handle the puck, and how he could skate.
“Every time we went to Chicago, he was sitting high up in the press box. He wasn’t even dressed, but I knew how he could skate and handle the puck and shoot it.”
Martin was actually a pretty good player for Chicago. He made four All-Star teams. He scored 30 goals three times. He had a 90-point season in 1973, when Chicago lost the Stanley Cup Final to the Montreal Canadiens.
But he was no Espo.
The trade worked out better for Boston than Schmidt or anyone else could have ever imagined.
“By far,” said Schmidt. “I never realized it was going to work out that way.”
There have been other great Boston sports trades, but Schmidt’s grand theft dynasty created a cultural touchstone of a team that still resonates with fans nearly five decades after the swap.
Chicago gave the Bruins two Cups. What’s one more?Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.