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On Second Thought

Hockey bloodlines intersected on that magic day at the Garden 50 years ago

Charlestown's John Grzelcyk started working at Boston Garden more than 40 years ago. Now his son Matt works there as well — as a defenseman for the Bruins.
Charlestown's John Grzelcyk started working at Boston Garden more than 40 years ago. Now his son Matt works there as well — as a defenseman for the Bruins.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

The three pals from Charlestown, all of whom one day would see their sons make it to the NHL, were squeezed cheek to jowl at the Garden 50 years ago when Bobby Orr scored the goal.

Tom Fitzgerald, John Grzelcyk, and Jack Tkachuk, the latter recently home from Vietnam, were together in a corner up behind the Boston net, sitting virtually cross-legged on the linoleum floor in one of those dark, quirky hovels in the old building that offered too sketchy a view for the box office to cut a ticket.

“Back there behind Section 46 — great view, actually, “ recalled Grzelcyk, whose son, Matt, is now a steady contributor on the Bruins back line. “But you had to stoop down low or sit. We had these short little photographer’s stools. If you stood up, you couldn’t even see the ice.”

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Only 40 seconds into overtime, the three Townies looked to the far end of the ice and watched as Orr, 22, converted what stands today as the last Stanley Cup-winning goal scored by the Bruins in Boston and one of the most memorable strikes in NHL history.

The bold Orr pinched low from his defensive spot and filched the puck away from Larry Keenan with a block along the right wall. He then relayed to Derek Sanderson, back to the wall behind the goal line, and made tracks for the net. Sanderson returned the relay, Orr shoveled the puck between goalie Glenn Hall’s pads, and the jubilant Boston phenom was sent airborne by defenseman Noel Picard’s pitchfork lift.

It was May 10, 1970, shortly after 5 p.m. on a blistering hot Mother’s Day. Fifty years ago next Sunday. Maybe you’ve seen the famous “Flying Bobby” picture shot by Record American photographer Ray Lussier? If not, let me be the first to welcome you back from Yasgur’s farm.

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Stick raised in his right hand, Orr came down with a bellyflop, slid into the left circle, and was instantly mobbed by his teammates. The Garden shook as if a thousand trains had collided full force down below in North Station. Amid the bedlam, NHL president Clarence Campbell quickly handed the Cup to John Bucyk and the town was rocking.

“We celebrated like crazy,” recalled Grzelcyk, now 70 years old and the senior member of the Garden’s bull gang. “Causeway Street was one big party for about the next 3-4 hours.”

The iconic image of Bobby Orr's goal, as captured by Ray Lussier.
The iconic image of Bobby Orr's goal, as captured by Ray Lussier.RAY LUSSIER/BOSTON RECORD AMERICAN/HERALD AMERICAN via AP

Grzelcyk and his buddies from across the bridge were not counted in the sellout figure of 14,835. All three of them then part-time bull gang members, picking up $7.25 apiece whenever the Garden floor needed a changeover, they were tucked in that corner strictly as spectators.

“That was the deal back then,” recalled Grzelcyk, who became a full-time bull gang member some 10 years after the Orr goal. “You could make a few bucks if you worked after the game. If not, you could come in to watch the Bruins, the Celtics, wrestling, whatever. They just waved you through the security shack.”

The Bruins of that era, Grzelcyk rightly recalled, were “rock stars.” The building was packed for every game, beginning soon after Orr arrived in the fall of 1966.

“Up until then, the only real attraction was Teddy Green,” recalled Grzelcyk. “I don’t think he ever got enough credit. Good defenseman and he could fight, and he fought a lot. Then Bobby came and that was it.”

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Orr changed it all. In a hurry. A seat to a Bruins game, even if literally on the floor behind the stadium seats, was gold. Rabid fans lined up overnight on Causeway Street, the line stretching toward the North End and around North Washington Street, to buy the few available tickets.

“There were none of these big ticket agencies,” noted Grzelcyk. “You wanted to go, you had to go to the box office. I’d come to work in the morning, and the line would go forever — people covered themselves with cardboard boxes if it was raining.”

Fitzgerald, a career longshoreman who died some five years ago, watched his son, Tom, turn into a reliable forward who played nearly 1,100 NHL games, the last 71 with the 2005-06 Bruins. The younger Tom Fitz today is the interim general manager of the New Jersey Devils. His sons, Ryan and Casey, both of whom played at Boston College, were drafted by the Bruins and Sabres, respectively, and have been toiling in the AHL.

Tkachuk’s son, Keith, played a year at Boston University and then collected 1,065 points during his 18 seasons as a sometimes dominant NHL winger, his résumé including back-to-back 50-goal seasons. Grandsons Matthew (Calgary) and Brady (Ottawa) each are enjoying ample NHL success.

Three guys sitting on the Garden floor 50 years ago, all watching history unfold, became fathers of three NHLers. Possibly as many as four grandsons (at last count) ultimately will have played in the league.

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Note to parents across North America who aspire to see their boys make it to the big time: Forget pushing your kid through a $10,000 travel team; better to find yourself a spot on the bull gang.

“It is something, I guess, but honestly, we don’t think of it like that,” said the younger Tom Fitzgerald, back home now in North Reading while his Devils remain on COVID-19 hiatus. “It is just what it is — we played hockey growing up.

"I was the first. Then Keith. Then Grizzy got drafted. Matthew and Casey got drafted. Then Brady got drafted. We just play hockey. I don’t think of it as a big deal. I think it’s because it’s our life.”

The party 50 years ago, recalled Grzelcyk, didn’t end that night on Causeway Street. When the din grew quiet in front of the Garden, he and buddies Fitz and Tkachuk went west to the bars in Brighton and toasted the finest, most charismatic bunch of hockey players the town had ever seen.

Everyone spoke Black and Gold. It was a Bruins town, and an Orr town, a Sanderson town, an Esposito and Cheevers and Bucyk town.

There was never a time like it, and there never has been a singular moment to match overtime, Orr to Sanderson and back to Orr, the Garden clock forever frozen at 19:20 and Bobby flying through the air.

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Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at kevin.dupont@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.