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Matt Porter

Harry Sinden on the game Bobby Orr took flight and other thoughts on the Bruins

Sinden recalled how Orr soared into hockey immortality a half-century ago.

Harry Sinden, then Bruins head coach, converses with a young Bobby Orr during the 1966-67 season.
Harry Sinden, then Bruins head coach, converses with a young Bobby Orr during the 1966-67 season.

Harry Sinden joined the Bruins organization during the Kennedy Administration. In the later decades of nearly 60 years with the team, he was a general manager and president and of late, a senior adviser.

On May 10, 1970, he was behind the bench. When Sinden recalls Bobby Orr soaring into hockey immortality, he becomes a coach all over again.

He has seen Orr and Derek Sanderson’s give-and-go “a million times since then, in my head,” but he does not first think of the familiar sequence we’ve all seen a million times on screens: the feed Sanderson made to the front of the net, the shot Orr tucked behind Glenn Hall, the flight Orr took after he was upended by Noel Picard.

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Fifty years later, Sinden thinks of Eddie Westfall.

“What I was worried about was not so much what great play Derek and Bobby were going to make,” said Sinden, who turns 88 in September. “It was who was going to cover up for Bobby when he went in.”

That was Westfall, the right winger, who saw Orr breaking and dutifully cycled back to the right point, ready to thwart a potential St. Louis breakout in the first minute of overtime. Sinden, moments before Orr made history, was able to relax.

“The next thing you know,” he said, “we’re all out on the ice and all hell broke loose.”

Sinden, who teleconferenced with Boston reporters Monday in advance of Sunday’s 50th anniversary of Orr’s goal, has been arguably the largest and most vocal figure in the Hub of Hockey this half-century. When asked to describe his tenure in Black and Gold, he was direct.

“The only word I can think of is wonderful,” he said.

Sinden arrived as head coach in 1966-67, the same season Orr and Gerry Cheevers debuted and then-general manager Milt Schmidt robbed Chicago of Phil Esposito, Ken Hodge and Fred Stanfield. Along with Derek Sanderson next year (“One of the great rookies ever to break into this league,” noted Sinden), to go with the existing core of John “Pie” McKenzie and once-and-future captain Johnny Bucyk, the Bruins’ golden era had begun.

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Harry Sinden congratulates Bobby Orr after a 1969 playoff win.
Harry Sinden congratulates Bobby Orr after a 1969 playoff win.UPI

“It created a nucleus of a future great team, and it’s been going on ever since. I used to live in fear we might lose the attitude or the personality of that group of players,” he said. “But then along came Terry O’Reilly and Cam Neely.”

Sinden, who had the Bruins in the playoffs for an NHL-record 29 consecutive years, regrets the lean years of the late ‘90s, when he was nearing the end of his run as GM, and the lack of Stanley Cups between the Big, Bad B’s and the 2011 squad. But he sees similar traits across the eras.

“I just think what the team and players establish as an example for the way you have to play in Boston, has never gone away,” he said. “The fans won’t let it go away. You guys [media) certainly won’t let it go away. They’ve bought into it big-time. It has a lot to do with [President] Cam [Neely] and [GM] Don [Sweeney] and [coach] Bruce [Cassidy].

“We had a couple players who were really good players who we got in drafts or trades, and they were good goal-scorers, but I never thought of them as Bruins, and I couldn’t. But as long as we can keep that alive, we’re going to be challenging for the Stanley Cup forever.”

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Other thoughts from Sinden:

▪ Any similarity between Orr’s Bruins and the way they play now?

“Very, very comparable,” he said. “And every bit as good.”

In Sinden’s mind, this is one of the best-checking Bruins teams in history. The stats bear that out. The Bruins have ranked near or at the top of the league in key defensive and puck-possession stats over the last decade. Sinden likes how the Bruins’ third and fourth lines “carry just as much load” as the top scoring units.

Harry Sinden likes the look of the 2019-2020 Bruins.
Harry Sinden likes the look of the 2019-2020 Bruins.Barry Chin

“We used to score a lot of goals back in the years we’re talking about, but we always had one of the best goals-against averages, too,” he said. “In today’s game, it’s particularly important.”

▪ Sinden had high praise for Bucyk, who has been with the Bruins going on 63 years.

“He was one of the three great left wingers of his era, with only Bobby Hull and Frank Mahovlich ahead of him, but not by much,” Sinden said of Bucyk, who played here for 21 years (1957-78) and spent two decades as a color commentator before moving onto other roles. He is currently a team ambassador.

Bucyk delivered many of his 545 goals, still a franchise record, from close range.

“He knew how to stop at the edge of the crease and take the pass and score like no one I knew before him, and like no one since,” Sinden said. “I see [Brad] Marchand do it today in much the same manner.”

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▪ Sinden referenced the ill-fated 2015 draft, when the B’s took Jakub Zboril, Jake DeBrusk and Zach Senyshyn with successive picks in the middle of the first round, while professing his trust in the current Bruins leadership.

“They came in here with a few problems,” Sinden said of the current leadership. “Don Sweeney’s first draft, he had never seen any of the players play. He spent all his time in Providence. He had nothing to do with the three draft [picks] we had in the first round. He had never really seen them play at all. He had to live with who they are. We came out of it pretty good, but we’ve done better since.”

▪ He spoke of how badly he wanted Neely back in the organization, after the passionate No. 8 retired for good in 1998.

Harry Sinden sits with Jeremy Jacobs Cam Neely during a 2015 practice.
Harry Sinden sits with Jeremy Jacobs Cam Neely during a 2015 practice.John Tlumacki

“No one — no one — that I dealt with in all my years was so in love with the game of hockey as Cam Neely. He took a terrific blow to one of the spectacular careers that could have been, and was, and took a few years off and just could not stay away from it,” Sinden said.

“We always had a great relationship. We fought a lot — certainly not on the ice, because you wouldn’t be talking to me today — over certain things. He wanted to be back in the game. He wanted to do what he always wanted to do, which is be involved in hockey.”

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They couldn’t “give him some title like head of Northwest scouting or something stupid." He had to be a high-level executive.

The 1986 trade Sinden made with Vancouver “worked out good, but those trades are always lucky or not lucky,” he mused. “But his presence in this city has been spectacular.”

▪ He praised Cassidy for being a players’ coach who is in charge, and for leading the Bruins back from the danger of missing the playoffs for a third year in a row.

“The job that he was doing in Providence was never unnoticed by Don and Cam, and certainly never by me,” Sinden said. “I thought we had a gem here . . . I can’t say enough about him.”

▪ He said he counts no greater career victory than the 1970 Cup, considering it as even greater than the 1972 Team Canada Summit Series win over the Soviet Union.

▪ One interesting cross-generational comparison: Sinden likened late defenseman Gary Doak to shot-blocking center Gregory Campbell: “He really would sacrifice himself to win a hockey game.”