Let’s be clear off the top. I realize what I’m about to present here is a perfectly imperfect “best team” plucked from NHL rosters after my more than 40 years on the hockey beat.
My first Bruins road trip, with Don Cherry as coach, came during the 1977-78 season, a February tour that I picked up in Colorado, then followed to Vancouver and Los Angeles.
Reporters in those days routinely flew on the same commercial flights with the teams, and were welcomed to hop the team bus from airport to hotel. Among the things I remember most on that first trip, the intoxicating beauty of Vancouver, its Pacific hues of greens and blues splashed everywhere as the bus rolled into downtown.
I was also a Red Sox beat reporter for the Herald American, and just over a month later would be in Winter Haven, writing about the sensational acquisition of righthanded starter Dennis Eckersley, age 23, from the Indians. Winter Haven had no hues.
Gifts from the journalism heavens: daily quotes from Grapes and Eck to fill the notebook and crank through the portable Royal typewriter (sturdy carrying case stocked with sheets of carbon paper to make dupes). The Hearst Corp.paid for all of it, including the $19-a-night room at the LAX Marriott.
Before I digress further (the $8 spaghetti pie dinner at the Marriott café was tremendous), the following list includes the 12 forwards, 6 defensemen and two goalies I’ve assembled as my best team over these 40-plus years.
A couple of things to keep in mind, please:
1. Bobby Orr didn’t play in 1977-78 and called it quits after a half-dozen games the following season. He’s not on the team because I’ve narrowed the scope here to players I chronicled while on the beat.
2. Because culling down to a 20-man roster was , nearly impossible, I begged the boss to allow me one spare pick at each of the three positions.
Players listed by position, but in no particular order:
• Wayne Gretzky — To be honest, though, I didn’t buy immediately into all the hype of the spindly Great One. His performances against Boston were often muted by Steve Kasper, the pick of then-coach Gerry Cheevers to lock on to “99” and not let him leave his sight.
In the old Northlands Coliseum one night, that included Kasper standing in front of the Oilers bench, imploring Gretzky to come back on the ice.
Gretzky survived the whole thing OK: all-time record 2,857 career points. The lone equal of Orr in his ability to see the whole sheet, as if he were watching from high above the surface.
• Mario Lemieux — From Game 1, including his goal against the Bruins in his NHL debut at the old Garden, every bit the dominating center everyone figured he would be after piling up nearly 300 points at Laval in his final year of junior.
Uncanny agility and hands for someone his size (6 feet 4 inches, 200 pounds). Career total of 1,723 points. Might have challenged Gretzky if not for the onset of Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 27.
• Mark Messier — The Moose played into his early-40s, amassed 1,887 career points, and was the key factor in the Rangers finally winning the Stanley Cup in 1994 for the first time in 54 years. “Now I can die in peace” read the sign that night in the MSG stands.
Steel jaw and will to match. Overshadowed some by Gretzky during their Edmonton dynasty of the ’80s. A bigger, stronger version of Bryan Trottier, whose work at pivot helped lead the Islanders to their four Cup wins (1980-83). Glue guy to the max.
• Guy Lafleur — Aging Boomers still dream of living in the Flower’s body for one shift in the Forum, flying down the right side, no helmet, and ripping home a 40-footer to lead the Habs to another Cup.
Finished with 560 goals, 42 in his late-30s during a farewell tour with the Rangers and Nordiques out of a three-year retirement.
• Alex Ovechkin —Still on the job as perhaps the most feared shooter in the game’s history — now with 706 goals, No. 8 all time, and a chance to exceed Gretzky’s record 894. Gretzky turned the area behind the net into his office. The Great Ovie owns the high left wing circle, where he unloads one-time slappers able to penetrate the Pentagon’s walls.
Scored 27 points in 24 playoff games when the Caps finally won the Cup in 2018, and transformed himself into the ultimate Cup party animal.
• Mike Bossy — Prior to Ovechkin, no one delivered with Boss’s consistency, including nine straight seasons of 50-plus goals that began with his rookie season (1977-78) on the Island. Quickest shot release in the game: the puck was off his stickblade (and usually in the net) even before he received the pass (most of them from Bryan Trottier).
Selected 15th in the 1977 draft, one pick before the Bruins chose Dwight Foster. Only lasted that long because of doubts about his defensive play (a quaint notion by today’s standards). Finished No. 1 in that draft class with 573 career goals (No. 22 all-time) and might have piled up another 300 or more if a bad back didn’t force his retirement at age 30.
• Pavel Datsyuk — Painful to leave fellow Winged Wheel Steve Yzerman off the list, but Datsyuk’s mesmerizing puckhandling and distribution made him the “Magic Man” in Motown.
Smart. Crafty. Virtually impossible to corner and contain A different era and position, but similar to Bruins winger Rick “Nifty” Middleton for his ability to remain calm, keep possession and keep creating. Uncanny ability to play at a faster pace but somehow make it look like he was slowing down the game. Turns 42 in July and is planning to play at least one more season in the KHL.
• Pavel Bure — Here on the East Coast, we weren’t up late enough most nights when the Russian Rocket was dazzling ‘em in Vancouver with back-to-back 60-goal seasons by age 23. He also had three more seasons of 50-plus.
One of the rare players with a skill level so high that fans would stand up for his offensive dashes, particularly in Vancouver with a power play designed for him sometimes to trail into the zone late as the shooter. Explosive speed from a standing start. Knee injuries and operations but his career short at age 32. Still piled up 779 points in 702 games.
• Cam Neely — The game’s first power forward, a role he crafted soon after arriving here in ’86, on his 21st birthday, in the trade that sent Barry Pederson to the Canucks.
Quickly won over the Hub of Hockey’s masses with both hands, used for scoring goals (three times 50-plus) and beating on willing sparring partners (fewer each year).
Strong, dynamic skater with a surprising amount of touch in his hands. A cheap check from Pittsburgh’s Ulf Samuelsson in the ’91 postseason began to unravel his career, forcing his retirement in ’96 at age 31.
• Brett Hull — Like his old man Bobby, an innate sense of how to drive home pucks (741 total upon his retirement in ’06). Yet went about his business differently than his father, who connected for 610 goals in his 15 years with the Blackhawks.
Pops delivered on speed and power as the Golden Jet. Brett, who made his mark in St Louis, was more of a hunter/opportunist, with an uncanny knack for slipping coverage in the offensive zone, popping up out of nowhere, and then using Bossy-like release to drive home passes.
• Martin St. Louis — The former Vermont star (class of ’97) was never drafted and played two-plus seasons in the minors before departing Calgary as a free agent and signing with Tampa.
Considered too short at 5-8 to be an effective NHL player, he went on to win a Cup in Tampa and build 1,033 point into his Hall of Fame dossier. Extremely durable with uber drive and work ethic. Four seasons of 90-plus points, including a career-high 102 in 2006-07.
• Teemu Selanne — The lone son of Suomi to make the cut, the Finnish Flash was only 22 when he broke in with a league-record 76 goals in his rookie season (1992-93) with the Winnipeg Jets. Great wheels. Great shot. Fearsome drive to the net.
Played 21 NHL seasons, collected 684 goals/1,457 points and won his Cup in Anaheim (‘07) alongside soulmate Paul Kariya.
• Extra forward: Peter Stastny — Snuck out of then Czechoslovakia with brothers Anton and Marian to join the newbie Nordiques and piled up 100 points or more in seven of his first eight seasons.
Intelligent, tough and gracious, he played 10 seasons with the Nords before moving on to New Jersey and later St. Louis.
• Ray Bourque — Took him until career game No. 1,826, but the ex-Bruins captain finally lifted the Cup as a Coloradan. Called it quits weeks later in 2001 and still owns the record for most points (1,579) by an NHL defenseman — all but 73 of those earned here in his 21 seasons wearing Black and Gold.
Was still on the board when the Bruins picked No. 8 in ’79, a draft that ultimately delivered six other 1,000-point scorers to the NHL. Only Messier (1,887) surpassed him.
Harry Sinden, the GM who drafted him out of the Quebec League, later said he would put Orr on the ice if he needed a goal in the last minute of a game, and would opt for Bourque if he had to protect a one-goal lead.
Five Norris Trophies as league’s best defenseman (to Orr’s eight). Big engine. Rock solid.
• Nicklas Lidstrom — Second only to Orr as a seven-time Norris winner and the backline centerpiece to the four Cups the Red Wings won (‘97, ’98, ’02, ’08) with Scotty Bowman behind the bench.
Arguably the best Swedish player ever to make it to the NHL And, yes, it killed me not to include Peter Forsberg among my 13 forwards. Killed me again not to include Borje Salming with backliners.
Off-the-charts hockey IQ, smooth and effective skater, near-perfect puck management. Lasted until the third round (No. 53) in the ’89 draft, arrived in Detroit in ’91, and then rarely missed a game or a beat.
• Denis Potvin — Captain of the Islander dynasty that won four straight Cup titles and nearly claimed a fifth, dumped in the ’84 Cup Final by Gretzky’s powerhouse Oilers. The blue and orange balloons rained down from the Northlands Coliseum ceiling with Potvin on his knees near center ice when it ended in Game 5 — an abrupt finish for the Isles after winning 19 straight playoff series.
Similar thick, sturdy build as Bourque and the two delivered at near identical point percentage rate (Potvin at .992 per game, Bourque at .980), though Potvin yielded to the wear and tear on his body at age 34 and 15 seasons. Played with a touch of snarl, too, including six seasons of 100 PIMs or more — a man can withstand only so many insults from Ranger fans.
• Scott Stevens — By far the toughest customer and hardest hitter among my blueline crew, though he went too far with his late blindside hit on Anaheim’s Kariya in the 2003 Cup Final. A mistake by Kariya to cut into Stevens’s crosshairs, but an unnecessary, late and near-devastating slam — Stevens likely would be tossed for the series by today’s officiating standards.
By and large, though, he was the anchor piece to the Devils’ three Cup wins (‘95, ’00, ’03), along with the smooth-skating force of fellow backliner Scott Niedermayer.
Never won a Norris, but was awarded the Smythe (playoff MVP) for his dominating role in the ’00 Cup run.
• Larry Robinson — Among the taller defensemen of his era, the 6-4 Big Bird played on six Cup winners with the Habs, twice won the Norris and was playoff MVP in ’78 in the Habs’ glorious run of four Cups that marked the end of their dynasty.
Played 17 seasons in Montreal and his total offensive output, while impressive (20 years/958 points), might have been even more substantial if the Habs truly had needed it. They only really needed him for his defense, but he gave them a whole lot more.
Finished out with three solid years with the Kings (all with Gretzky on board) and then spent eight years coaching in LA and Jersey, and picked up another Cup ring behind the Devils bench in 2000.
• Al MacInnis — Split his 19 seasons almost down the middle between Calgary and St. Louis and was equally valuable to both franchises.
Owned a heavy, blistering slapshot, the most powerful of the bunch I’ve picked here. That shot helped him pile up 1,274 career points, third all-time for blueliners behind Bourque and Paul Coffey.
Won his one Cup in ’89, his sixth season in Calgary, and was the playoff MVP, the post-season’s leader in assists (24) and points (31).
• Extra defenseman: Brad Park — The entire hockey world was duly mesmerized by Orr, but man, could the Rangers star play. Five times finished as runner-up in Norris balloting: three times to Orr and twice to Potvin.
Puck control at the point was masterful, a blend of patience, skill and body positioning, all the more accentuated in his years in Boston when he was working on a smaller Garden ice surface and struggling with knee woes. Could shoot it, pass it, hold it … and hold it some more. Played 161 postseason games and “Parkie” never got his name on the Cup. Just not right.
• Dominik Hasek — An agile magician, other than Gil Perreault, the Dominator was the best thing that ever happened to the Sabres.
Among the game’s most creative stoppers, his signature move was flashing both pads high into the air to stop pucks while flat on his back — a move not possible in the era of the heavy horsehair pads.
Said some crazy things at times, but won the Vezina Trophy six times while in Buffalo, then moved on and won a pair of Cups in Detroit (first in ’02, then in a return tour in ’08).
Finished with 25 wins or more in nine seasons and owned the league’s best save percentage in six consecutive seasons with the Sabres.
• Ken Dryden — Bruins fans of a certain age still groan at the mere mention of his name because of efforts in the Montreal net during the ’71 playoffs that short-circuited the Black and Gold’s hope of a back-to-back Cup.
Making it all the worse for Bruins fans: Dryden originally was a Boston draft pick (1964), only to be dealt to the Habs that same summer — a transaction that even the erudite Dryden was unaware of at the time.
After Cornell, enrolled at McGill Law School in Montreal upon launching his pro career and ultimately won six Cups with the Habs before his abrupt, unexpected retirement after only his seventh NHL regular season.
• Reserve tender: Billy Smith — Battlin’ Billy backstopped the Isles to their four consecutive Cups and was never bashful when it came to smacking his oversized paddle across opponents’ legs, ankles, and back sides.
Often surly, especially on game days, he shared duties for years with Chico Resch during the regular season and then was coach Al Arbour’s workhorse in the playoffs, going 57-13 in those four successful Cup runs.