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Sunday hockey notes

Mike Milbury’s opinions have never been garden variety

At the end of July, if all goes according to plan, Mike Milbury and the NBC hockey team will report to their Stamford, Conn., studio.
At the end of July, if all goes according to plan, Mike Milbury and the NBC hockey team will report to their Stamford, Conn., studio.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Gl

In various posts Mike Milbury has occupied in the game, they’ve called him “Mad Mike.” Ask anyone who has crossed paths with the scrappy defenseman, the mercurial coach, the controversial general manager, or the acerbic TV figure.

In his garden, he is “Mellow Mike.” He and his family, including nine grandchildren, will soon enjoy the annual summer yield of tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, bell peppers, tomatoes, green beans, arugula, oregano, and basil from his quiet Needham backyard. All 100 percent organically fed.

When the harvest arrives, he mused, “You know what you’re eating for a few weeks.”

Milbury, 68, is an avid gardener, like lots of people in New England. A trade industry study from early last decade said about half of all American homeowners grew their own food or flowers. Boomers were the most avid, but Milbury didn’t wait until his BarcaLounger days to earn his green thumb.

Milbury broke ground while toiling in more hectic Gardens — Boston, Madison Square — and his patch, now spanning 40 feet by 30 feet, has been the summer territory of many an occupied young Milbury. All six of his children, ranging from ages 20 to 41, have spent some of their summers getting their hands grubby, before their teenage years led them to less passive activities.

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“When I was playing, I didn’t take up golf,” Milbury said. “With a host of children hanging around, it seemed unfair to be gone most of the winter and come home in the summer, take off and play golf all day long. I like it. It’s therapeutic.”

Mike Milbury tended to his garden with his granddaughter in early June.
Mike Milbury tended to his garden with his granddaughter in early June.Courtesy Mike Milbury

He may need more help soon. At the end of July, if all goes according to plan, the NBC hockey team will report to its Stamford, Conn., studio. Milbury expects the broadcast to emanate from there, with drastically reduced staffing and social distancing, though it’s possible they could travel for the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final. NESN commentator Andy Brickley said for as long as the league allows local coverage, he expects to broadcast from Watertown.

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“It might be six games a day for the first couple weeks,” Milbury said. “It’ll be nonstop hockey, that’s for sure.”

He doesn’t expect the Bruins to be lagging behind.

“I was talking with [assistant coach] Joe Sacco, and he was saying how their practices are short, and the pace is so high. This group is really good in the gym. They know how to take care of themselves. That’s a big factor.”

Milbury, like his first NHL coach, Don Cherry, is not stingy with his opinions. He is the object of Internet snark, from his time running the “Fish Sticks” Islanders and the infamous MSG shoe incident. If you’re a longtime Bruins fan, you may remember him as a hard-nosed guy from Walpole (and Brighton) who went the whole way in a Spoked-B. In the early ’80s, he also was the lone dissenting voice among players in a battle with powerful agent/NHLPA head Alan Eagleson.

“Mike was never afraid to sell himself,” Rick Middleton said, noting Milbury was one of the first whistleblowers against the later-disgraced Eagleson. “Never afraid to step into an [expletive] storm, and never afraid to open his mouth, whether he could back it up or not.”

Milbury’s refusal to embrace hockey’s statistical upgrades has made him seem out of touch with today’s hyper-speed hockey world. So it was a bit curious that he allowed his youngest, J.P., to nudge him toward Twitter.

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“I never really wanted to get on it,” Milbury said. “Somehow he thought he could monetize it down the line, which I told him was unlikely. He comes to me and says, ‘What are we going to say today?’ and we talk about it. He’ll type it up, I’ll proofread it, and my wife [Ginger, who has a background in public relations] will proofread it.”

Milbury doesn’t care to read the replies, like one would assume, but has heard some grumbling over his collection of best players he’s seen. This was a top-five list, he said, inspired by a recent feature from the Globe’s Kevin Paul Dupont. Milbury’s list led with Mario Lemieux, whom he played and coached against, over Bobby Orr.


The words Milbury used to describe No. 4: magical, innovative, courageous. But No. 66, “with his size and reach, was almost impossible to stop,” said Milbury, who was cringing on the bench for fellow defenseman Ray Bourque on Oct. 11, 1984, when Super Mario beat Bourque at the blue line and deked Pete Peeters to score on his first NHL shift. Bourque wasn’t foiled like that too often.

Milbury, a coach or GM for 11 years in Lemieux’s division, “threw all sorts of stuff at him — shadowing him, going right to him on the power play, but somehow he was always able to solve the puzzle.”

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Mark Messier was No. 3, over Wayne Gretzky.

“He won six Cups,” Milbury said of the Moose, “and I think if any one of those guys was in his way, he would strangle them by the throat to get to where he needed to go.”

At No. 5 was Martin Brodeur. “He was fun, he was competitive, and came up big when it mattered most,” said Milbury.

Let the debates continue.

WELCOME DIVERSION

Focusing on games would be privilege

Do I think the NHL will return to play?

I do. I am trending toward optimism that we will be watching hockey games this summer.

Do I think the NHL should return to play?

I do, but I’m a lot less sold on it being a good idea.

This was a difficult week for the United States, which continues to see its COVID-19 case numbers grow, particularly in the South and West. We are more than three months into a pandemic, and in some places the situation is worsening. The country — according to an overwhelming amount of science-and-fact-based reporting from the government and the news outlets — does not have a grip on its most serious health problem in a century, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of lives. We don’t know the lasting impact of COVID-19 on human health.

Focusing on hockey, or sports in general, at this time demands some level of ignorance of a screaming problem. There will be risk in doing most anything until we have a vaccine, and sports find compelling reasons to play the games in most any climate.

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Players and staff growing comfortable wearing both masks and blinders to engage in a 10-week Stanley Cup chase is only part of the thorny mix for the league heading into a proposed training camp opening of July 10, 120 days since the last puck drop.

As the weekend approached, the NHL had yet to announce its decision on hub cities, or come to an agreement with players on testing and safety protocols for Phases 3 (training camps) and 4 (the 24-team postseason). Intertwined with that vote, the New York Post’s Larry Brooks reported, is a reworked collective bargaining agreement, set to expire in the summer of 2022. A majority of the NHLPA’s 700-plus members would have to approve.

The major issue from the players’ side is escrow — the percentage of their salaries they withhold during the season to ensure teams and players get a 50-50 split of hockey-related revenue. As the salary cap rises, they give back more of their earnings.

In a time of financial instability everywhere, they are trying to negotiate a new plan. The basics of the potential NHL-NHLPA agreement, according to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman: a 20 percent escrow cap for next season, a 10 percent salary deferral to lower escrow, a guarantee that owners would get all their money from the 50-50 revenue split, and the cap upper limit remaining close to its current $81.5 million for the next three seasons.

Compared to their peers in other sports, the NHL’s rank and file has been tight on labor issues. An informal poll of the Bruins dressing room last fall had a number of players decrying the escrow system, but privately.

That may be changing. Rangers star Artemi Panarin stepped out of the shadows on Thursday, calling for player holdouts if there is no new labor deal in place. In a statement on Instagram, Panarin said that he was looking forward to restarting the season, but his “concerns not only about the health of the players and their families but also about the long-term prosperity of the NHL” were giving him pause. The players, he wrote, have “protected the owners’ income with escrow, including throughout this pandemic crisis, even as owners’ equity continues to grow exponentially. It is time to fix the escrow. We as players cannot report to camp to resume play without already having an agreement in place.”

Fiery player agent Allan Walsh noted after Panarin’s statement that a player in his shoes, with an $11.6 million cap hit and $14 million salary, is “rightly outraged” by the system, and wants a lower cap number to keep escrow down. But a player approaching unrestricted free agency this summer — Bruins defenseman Torey Krug is an example — wants the highest possible cap upper limit “for the most robust market for his services,” Walsh tweeted.

In that poll last fall, Brandon Carlo, the Bruins’ NHLPA player rep, was asked what he would do if he was commissioner for a day.

“From the players’ standpoint, you’d think it would be something with the salary cap, or escrow, to help out the guys, but as commissioner, you wouldn’t want to do that,” Carlo said. “If I was there for a day, I’d get rid of the salary cap. And then go back to being a player.”

Those in charge of getting this right — NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, deputy commissioner Bill Daly, NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr — will, as always, find that difficult. Any or all of the aforementioned concerns, focused narrowly or broad, could sideswipe the whole thing and leave the rinks shuttered until far beyond the first frost.

If this all goes well, and we are wrapped up in games and stars and highlights and stats come August, it will feel like a privilege.

ETC.

Middleton not waiting for call

Rick Middleton waved to fans at TD Garden when his number was retired by the Bruins in Nov. 2018.
Rick Middleton waved to fans at TD Garden when his number was retired by the Bruins in Nov. 2018.John Tlumacki

Rick Middleton was not part of this year’s Hall of Fame class. That was fine by him.

“I don’t look at it,” said the former Bruin, who put up 988 points in 1,005 games. “Someone will call and say, ‘I can’t believe you didn’t get in again!’ ”

While Hall selection committee chair Lanny McDonald was making calls, Nifty was collecting a bit of coin signing autographs and making a “ceremonial first purchase” at the reopening of the Curaleaf cannabis dispensary in Ware.

Middleton, 66, says he doesn’t “smoke the ganja … I prefer to be awake these days,” but says CBD oil helps the arthritis in his neck, back, and knees. “I’m not sure it works wonders, but I do feel a relief.”

Mogilny has earned his place

Every year, some outstanding figures in the game wait for a Hall of Fame call that never comes.

It’s foolish that Alexander Mogilny, eligible since 2009, hasn’t received one.

The Hall’s secretive selection process doesn’t tell us why Mogilny, 51, isn’t in via his playing career. He scored 473 goals and 1,032 points in 990 games with Buffalo, Vancouver, New Jersey, and Toronto. At his peak — 76 goals in 77 games in 1992-93, with another 50-goal season soon after — he was among the most feared snipers in the league.

Team success? He’s one of 29 in the Triple Gold Club, having won a World Junior Championship and Olympic gold with the Soviets and the Stanley Cup with the Devils in 2000.

Impact on the sport? Before the Berlin Wall fell, Mogilny defected from the USSR, risking his and his family’s safety. He was the first NHL-drafted player to defect, setting an example for his countrymen.

He was the first Russian to be an NHL captain, first European to lead the NHL in goals (with Teemu Selanne in 1992-93), first Russian All-Star (1992). His 127 points in 1992-93 stood as the record for Russian players until Nikita Kucherov put up 128 last season.

“Alex was faster than all of us,” Sergei Fedorov said when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2015. “He’s better than all of us.”

Loose pucks

Other Hal of Fame thoughts: No argument with Jarome Iginla, Marian Hossa,or Doug Wilson. Not as convinced of Kevin Lowe’s merits, though it’s a good step to recognize defensive defensemen, and Ken Holland has a distinguished career as an executive. Kim St. Pierre is a fine choice on the women’s side, though it shouldn’t be much longer for Harvard alum Jennifer Botterill, the only two-time winner of the Patty Kazmaier Award (best women’s NCAA player) with three Olympic golds for Canada … Friday marked five years to the day since the Bruins drafted Jakub Zboril, Jake DeBrusk, and Zach Senyshyn with picks 13, 14, and 15 of the first round. The next three picks were Mathew Barzal, Kyle Connor, and Thomas Chabot. That’s a Jets winger with 31, 34, and 38 goals in his first three seasons sandwiched between the best player on the Islanders and the franchise cornerstone of the Senators. Drafting is as inexact as trading, but it didn’t seem like rookie GM Don Sweeney was striking gold that day in Sunrise. Zboril was 12th on NHL Central Scouting’s final 2015 list of North American skaters, while DeBrusk was 19th and Senyshyn was 38th. Barzal was 11th, Connor 13th, and Chabot 16th … If the yet-to-be-named Seattle team doesn’t wind up wearing green uniforms, and an eco-celebratory name (Evergreens?), it’ll be out of step with Thursday’s news that e-commerce giant Amazon bought the naming rights to what it will call Climate Pledge Arena. With plans for zero waste, locally sourced food, electric power, and ice made with reclaimed rainwater, it will be a “regular reminder of the urgent need for climate action,” said Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, reportedly the richest person in the world (net worth: $113 billion as of mid-March, according to Forbes Magazine) … Fun read from ESPN’s Chris Peters on the Battle Creek Rumble Bees, who went 1-45-2 (that’s correct) in the Federal Prospects Hockey League, the lowest rung on the pro ladder. Not even leading scorer Ryan Alves (12-18—30 in 46 games), a seven-year pro from North Dartmouth, could save them. The Bees played 48 games, with no forfeits, and were outscored, 304-94 … Suffice to say, Mike Milbury wouldn’t side with Artemi Panarin and Co. “Players shouldn’t have any beef right now,” Milbury said. “If you’re an entry-level player and you stick in the league the better part of a decade, you’re done. You have total financial independence. None of the people of my generation were even close to that. In the course of my 13-year career, if you added it up, I don’t think I made a million bucks.”


Matt Porter can be reached at matthew.porter@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyports