Follow along with live updates from the 2023 Winter Classic
More than a half-century into their tussles, on and off the ice, the Bruins and Penguins meet again on Monday afternoon for the NHL’s Winter Classic, this time in that lyric little bandbox of a hockey rink that is Fenway Park.
The rivalry with the Penguins, though not as storied as that with, say, the Canadiens and Rangers, twice seriously changed the Bruins roster and altered the course of franchise history.
In the 1991 Eastern Conference final, there was the ugly knee-to-thigh check near center ice by Penguins defenseman Ulf Samuelsson that ultimately forced Cam Neely, only 25 when injured, to call it quits less than five years later. The damage from Samuelsson’s nasty check proved to be too debilitating for Neely, the legendary power forward who is now the team’s president.
Then in March 2010, Pittsburgh forward Matt Cooke clobbered Marc Savard with a vicious blindside hit to the head, knocking the skilled center cold. Savard, age 32 when injured, didn’t play again after his 25 games the following season and made his retirement official in 2018. He couldn’t shake lingering concussion issues.
It was off the ice, though, in the thick of the 1979-80 NHL season, that the two franchises were pitted in perhaps their most contentious confrontation.
As would happen with Neely and Savard, the Bruins were left holding the short end of the stick.
After a dozen years of using blue and white as their official uniform colors, the Penguins abruptly chose in January 1980 to adopt, lo and behold, black and gold as their trademark colors. In ‘79, the Steelers won the Super Bowl and the Pirates captured the World Series. Penguins ownership figured adopting the colors worn by the city’s football and baseball teams might summon some championship mojo.
A chafed Harry Sinden, then the Bruins general manager, told Globe columnist Will McDonough that he would have none of it.
“No way that we’re giving permission,” said the irascible Sinden, who oversaw a franchise that, like him, loved nothing more than a good fight. “Those colors are part of our tradition and heritage.”
Then-team president Paul Mooney fired off a formal letter of complaint to NHL president John Ziegler. The black-and-gold battle flag was staked firmly along the side of Causeway Street.
We know how it went: Penguins won, Bruins lost.
On Jan. 30, 1980, the Penguins dashed on to their home ice decked out in their official new black-and-gold uniforms. The only solace for the Bruins was in the box score that first night in new threads: Blues 4, Penguins 3.
The Penguins’ fortunes indeed were about to change, but not until June 1984, when they drafted franchise center Mario Lemieux with the No. 1 pick.
It was a former Bruins goalie, Eddie Johnston, then the Penguins GM, who drafted Mario Magnifique. Legendary Boston sports anchor Bob Lobel might have said, “Why can’t we get guys like that!” Lemieux’s name is on the Cup five times with the Penguins — twice as a player and three times as an owner. In his small way, the affable Johnston helped make it happen.
With the two franchises set to renew their battle, now for a first time al fresco, it’s an ideal time to revisit some of the other connecting points, both in hockey and baseball, between the proud cities.
Norwood High’s Richie Hebner, long ago a Roberto Clemente teammate and a key contributor to the Pirates’ World Series title in 1971, was considered by many NHL scouts to be on par with Needham schoolboy star Robbie Ftorek and turned down an offer to sign with the Bruins.
The “Hacker” went on to play 1,908 games in the Bigs and never revisited then-Boston GM Milt Schmidt’s offer to be a Bruin.
Art Ross is the only coach to direct the Bruins to two Cup wins (1929, ‘39). The most recent Bruins coach to chalk up two Cup titles is Mike Sullivan, dismissed as the Bruins bench boss when Peter Chiarelli became GM in 2006. Sullivan, who grew up in Marshfield and played four seasons at Boston University, led the Penguins to Cup titles in 2016 and ‘17. He’ll be behind their bench Monday.
Feeling the need to add some roster sizzle to fill their new Garden, the Bruins on Aug. 2, 1995, swung big in a swap with the Penguins, acquiring homeboys Kevin Stevens and Shawn McEachern for Glen Murray and Bryan Smolinski. Massachusetts born and raised, Stevens (Boston College) and McEachern (Boston University) both were star college players prior to turning pro.
The deal was a humongous bust. Stevens arrived with substance abuse issues and was dealt for Rick Tocchet at midseason. The fleet McEachern, though fairly effective, was dished to the Senators in June.
Roger Marino, who grew up in a Revere triple-decker and became one of EMC’s founding partners, purchased the Penguins for $40 million in 1997, an event that ranked a distant second to the unmitigated joy he experienced in dumping them from his portfolio just over four years later.
Under Marino’s ownership, the Penguins couldn’t stop hemorrhaging money, with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and his Board of Governors then still years away from forcing the 2004-’05 lockout that reset the NHL’s financial compass. Had Marino been able to stomach the ride, he would have clawed back all his losses just a year ago when the Fenway Sports Group purchased the Penguins for a figure reported to be some $900 million.
Fenway Park opened in 1912, amid the advent of steel-and-cement ballpark construction. Older ballparks, built for decades out of wood, were instantly passé.
American-made steel gave the new stadia, like Forbes Field in Pittsburgh (constructed in 1909 for $1 million), the look of elegance, strength, and permanence. It’s possible that some of Fenway’s century-plus aged bones were forged in Pittsburgh’s US Steel mills in the early teens.
Contacted last week via e-mail, Sox executive vice president and chief operating officer Jonathan Gilula could not say for certain if Pittsburgh delivered the goods for John I. Taylor’s cozy new ballpark on Jersey Street.
“Pittsburgh would be a good educated guess,” noted Gilula. “Will do some digging and let you know if able to confirm.”
The stage is set. Faceoff on Fenway’s lawn will be shortly after 2 p.m. on Monday. The only sure bet is it’ll be another win for the black and gold.
Read more about the 2023 Winter Classic
- Your guide to the 2023 Winter Classic at Fenway Park
- If the Bruins played baseball, who would be in the lineup?
- The NHL is about to move into Fenway Park. Here’s a look at how it will set up for the Winter Classic.
- A Bobby Orr appearance will highlight the festivities for Monday’s Winter Classic at Fenway Park
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.