Don Lynch, a 34-year-old Marine captain at the time, was sitting in the back of the plane as the rest of the passengers boarded the flight at Logan.
“Last row, cramped, sitting right next to Fred Cusick,’’ Lynch recalled the other day from his home in North Dallas. “All of a sudden, I look up, and here they come . . . Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito . . . the whole Bruins team, loading up the plane for the game in Minnesota.’’
Lynch, now 75 and nearly 20 years retired as a Marine major general, still holds the proof of his memorable, serendipitous encounter. At the urging of Cusick, then the voice of the Bruins on Channel 38, Lynch grabbed a copy of the March 1974 Playboy magazine, walked it up the aisle, and asked the boys in Black and Gold if they would sign the cover.
“I didn’t say a whole lot to any of them, to be honest,’’ recalled Lynch, stationed then at Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford, his first assignment after returning from duty in Vietnam. “Orr was playing cards, I remember that. Most of them were playing cards, reading, or just talking. Nice bunch of guys.’’
These were the Big Bad Bruins golden years. Two Stanley Cups (1970 and ’72). Orr that season (1973-74) was on his way to winning his seventh consecutive Norris Trophy as the game’s top defenseman. Esposito would win his fourth consecutive Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s top scorer (68-77—145). They were the rock stars of a hockey-crazed Boston sports scene.
It was an era when scoring was plentiful, bloody donnybrooks routine, and virtually all teams traveled by commercial flights, often to the thrill of passengers, some of whom would go on to talk about such chance meetings for the rest of their lives.
“Esposito signed, too,’’ recalled Lynch, “but he signed the centerfold, and that’s long gone now. I can’t tell you where that went. Actually, the whole magazine’s gone, but I still have the cover.’’
Not only does he have it, he has it framed, and those autographs have accompanied Lynch virtually everywhere he’s gone, including the Gulf War. In fact, for 40-plus years, it has left his possession only during a brief tour in Korea. Wherever he’s gone, the memory has gone, too.
“Frame’s hanging on the wall in my office here at home,’’ said Lynch, who retired in 1996 and now lives just south of Plano, Texas. “I go back and hide in the office when my wife’s mad at me.’’
Random episodes such as Lynch experienced rarely, if ever, exist anymore in the pro sports industry. The Bruins, like most sports franchises, shifted exclusively to charter flights by the mid or late ’80s. In the late ’70s, when I often booked the same commercial flights as the Bruins as a beat reporter, I witnessed dozens of those chance, in-air autograph sessions.
Fans loved it. Players, for the most part, accepted it as part of the landscape, even an obligation. Most of them seemed to like it. Not hard to imagine the fun-loving Esposito gleefully unfurling the centerfold and scratching out his name. Even the stately, subdued Cusick signed, directly under the capital “P” in Playboy. Orr and Gary Doak autographed the cover’s top right quadrant, John Bucyk closer to the middle.
Access to players in that era wasn’t micromanaged to the point it is today. Today’s pros rarely have chance encounters with fans. They park in secured parking lots, enter arenas and stadiums through private entrances, arrive on the field, floor, or ice through dedicated tunnels. To them, most of the fandom is noisy wallpaper.
Truth is, today’s fan experience isn’t much different for the media, a stark contrast to the era when Lynch collected his autographs. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, print reporters traveling on those same commercial flights with the Bruins often chatted in the aisles, sometimes in the adjacent seat, with the players. For the most part, it was a fun, respectful, and sometimes interesting experience. With no autographs, of course.
If time was tight, a 10-minute chat with, say, Bucyk would suffice for the next day’s story. The reporter would dash back to his seat, prop a portable typewriter in his lap, and bang out 600 or 700 words (careful to make a carbon copy) before the flight landed.
Upon leaving the flight, players, media, and other passengers would make their way to the baggage carousel, often the site of more autographs, and then media members were routinely invited aboard the team bus to the hotel. This, of course, after ponying up a buck in the pool won by the first guy — player, coach, trainer, or media member — to have his bag land first on the carousel.
These days, typical of many teams, only media members who work for rights-holders (The Sports Hub, NESN) are permitted to travel on Bruins flights and buses. The club will make a rare exception to mainstream media members, but by and large it’s a members-only policy.
Some clubs take the privacy to an extreme. Toronto, where Lou Lamoriello recently became general manager, in September barred all media (including rights-holders) from traveling with the Maple Leafs. Lamoriello instituted the same policy for decades when he was in charge of the Devils.
Lynch is forever grateful for his little bit of luck. Now in his senior years, he’s considering what he’ll do with the magazine cover. He reached out here last week, hoping to learn its value, thinking that he’ll gift it to someone someday and would like to be able to tell them its value. Phil Castinetti of Sportsworld in Peabody appraised its value at between $150 and $200.
Meanwhile, Lynch is looking ahead to his trip to Spain in April. He ran the Boston Marathon four times and learned to play hockey during his stay at Hanscom, and likes to stay active. He and Marine pals Butch Neal (Hull and Northeastern) and Jack Sheehan (Somerville and Boston College) have charted a 200-mile trek along the Camino de Santiago Trail in northern Spain. They’ll cover it in 14 days, said Lynch, each lugging about 18 pounds of gear.
“We’ll spend two weeks together, complaining and griping about walking 14-15 miles a day,’’ said Lynch, eager to see his Semper Fi friends. “We’re all either 75 or 73, and figure we won’t have a lot of walks left in us.’’
It’s the memories that linger, sometimes framed, sometime not.