The old Boston Garden, where Wayne Cashman once cast his very long and gnarly shadow, was still its grungy, smelly, loveable-hateable old self when “Cash” played his final days and nights as a Bruin in the spring of 1983.
Cashman was back on Causeway Street Saturday night, part of the legendary Big Bad Bruins gang that was feted in an on-ice ceremony before the 2023-24 Bruins smacked a 5-2 loss on the Canadiens at the new Garden.
“I don’t think I could go 4 feet outside the building,” mused a smiling Cashman, now 78 years old, after he was asked if he still recognized the city that he and his pals once held in the palms of their leather gloves. “I’d be lost.”
For the most part, change is good. The old West End is hip and happening now, with the elevated rail track, that rusted behemoth, long gone. Causeway Street today is chock o’ block full of upscale bars, hotels, office buildings, and restaurants. In Cashman’s protracted heyday, a beer and a shot at the Iron Horse inside North Station qualified as the area’s fine dining.
Amid change, especially in speedy, sweeping grandiose makeovers like we’ve seen on Causeway, things too easily can get lost. Cashman was a reminder of that over the weekend.
A franchise mainstay throughout the proud era that spanned the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, Cashman deserves to be found again, his sweater dusted off, his No. 12 retired to the rafters. However a case could be made that it might be more fitting if ”12” were stenciled onto the boards, in all four corners — a proper tribute to a guy who transformed corner work — a lost element in today’s game — into an art form.
“Was there ever a better corner man?” noted Richard Johnson, the Sports Museum’s curator and ad-hoc Bruins historian. “Strong. Tough. Kind of that Richard Widmark character, machine gun in the violin case … and into the corner he’d go to sort of, you know, clear the air.”
Corners in Cashman’s day were a place of divine chaos, where pucks went, and elbows and sticks and fights often followed. The corner boards in the old Garden had ample give in them, though none swayed like the boards in the aged Buffalo Auditorium. The brazen, fearless, 6-foot-1-inch Cashman knew the nooks, the crannies and the nuances. He knew how to come out alive.
Above all, he knew what it took to gain possession of the puck and pivot toward the slot, stick-cradled on his blade, and then often spot Phil Esposito no more than a stick length from the crease.
“I just had Phil throw it in my corner all the time,” kidded Cashman, explaining how he honed his corner craft. “No … it’s part of what I played. I played the right wing, and when I played on left wing I knew I was playing with a great guy that scored goals.”
Esposito, his No. 7 retired on Causeway 30-plus years ago, knocked in 459 goals in his 625 games as a Bruin across eight-plus years, during what was undeniably the club’s greatest era. Ken Hodge, Esposito’s right winger most of the time, topped everyone on the roster by assisting on 160 of those goals. Bobby Orr put his name on 130. Cashman helped set up 102, many of them with embedded splinters from the corner boards.
“My job … I knew if I could get the puck to [Esposito], he would put it in the net,” added Cashman. “And I worked on it. In practice, it would be dumped in there dozens of times. I’d use my feet, be physical. I adjusted to what I needed to do to be part of the team and it worked.”
The Bruins won two of their Cups (’70 and ‘72) in that span and, as has been noted ad infinitum the last half-century, they had the talent to win at least two or three more that decade. But Orr’s troublesome knee was already in a state of advanced deconstruction by Cup No. 2, and the market forces of the rival WHA sucked away some key contributors, most notably Gerry Cheevers, Derek Sanderson, and Johnny “Pie” McKenzie.
Through it all, including even after Esposito and Hodge were wheeled to the Rangers, Cashman stayed. When he packed up as a player following the ‘83 playoffs — the Bruins losing to the powerhouse Islanders in the Eastern Conference final — he had played 1,027 regular-season games with the eight-spoked B on his chest.
Like so many others, Cashman could have left for bigger bucks, a change in scenery. Even Orr departed, hitching on as an unrestricted free agent with the Blackhawks. But not Cash. He held in place as the best of times faded, ultimately to serve as the bridge to the Lunchpail AC era under Don Cherry.
It was a delightful and colorful revival for the franchise during which the Bruins twice lost to the deeper, more talented Habs in the Cup Final (’77 and ‘78) and again in the ‘79 conference final in the infamous too-many-men-on-the-ice-in-the-bleepin’-Forum Game 7.
Until the recent retirements of Patrice Bergeron (1,294 games) and David Krejci (1,032), Cashman stood as the lone Bruin to have reached the 1,000-game plateau with the franchise and to retire without having played for another NHL team.
The mark underscored both Cashman’s length of service and, above all, his loyalty. He also finished with 793 points, and 88 more he picked up across 145 playoff games.
It’s beyond time to raise his No. 12 to its rightful place among the club’s other legends. If not Cashman, then who?
“My whole life,” he said late Saturday night, 40-plus years of changes gone by, forgotten decades later, “was a Boston Bruin.”
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com.