This excerpt from The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Boston Bruins by Globe reporter Fluto Shinzawa is printed with the permission of Triumph Books. For more information and to order a copy, please visit Triumph’s website.
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At Walpole High School, Mike Milbury was excellent at football, hockey, and baseball. He was good enough to score a scholarship to play hockey at Colgate. Regardless of his skill, Milbury never considered himself worthy of stepping onto the professional ice he considered the ultimate sheet of ice: at Boston Garden alongside the heroes of his childhood.
“I never allowed myself to dream about the Bruins very much,” said Milbury. “I played all sports. I was a pretty good baseball player. I dreamed that dream, but I never thought it was within my grasp. As much as we had a pretty good team at Walpole High School, I was going to Colgate. I was thinking, Maybe I’ll go to Europe. There were a lot of guys going there to make enough money to eat and party for a couple months.”
But by July of 1974, Milbury had built up enough of a resume at Walpole High, Colgate, and during a tryout for the Boston Braves to earn an invitation to his hometown team’s training camp. Even then, it seemed more like a dream.
“I never allowed myself the fantasy,” Milbury said, “that I would play for that team.”
His fantasy turned into a 754-game reality, with every NHL appearance taking place in the Black-and-Gold jersey he always admired. Milbury then became the ninth Bruins player to step behind the team’s bench. Milbury played and coached with the ferocity and doggedness that dropped him onto the organization’s radar in the first place. Few Bruins matched the spirit with which Milbury approached either profession.
“I like to think I was among the people that sustained the image of the team—that being you tried hard every night and did whatever it took,” Milbury said. “For those who say you can play without fear, there’s fear there. Even the toughest players have fear. You have to find a way to play through it.”
Milbury was often the one making his opponents scared. His most productive season was in 1977–78, when he scored eight goals and 30 assists for 38 points in 80 games. He also compiled 151 penalty minutes, a total he would surpass in five other seasons. The rugged defenseman had no reservations about shedding his mitts when necessary, which was quite often when Don Cherry was calling out orders as the Bruins’ coach.
Milbury’s willingness to fight, however, was a manifestation of the do-anything approach with which he entered the league and stayed in it. His break came in 1974 when he scored a five-game tryout with the Boston Braves, who had seen him participate in the Syracuse Invitational Tournament. After completing his senior season at Colgate, Milbury borrowed a friend’s car and drove back home in hopes of making a good professional impression. He played hard. He fought. That summer, the call came. The 22-year-old who was hauling furniture for a summer job had the opportunity to compete for an NHL paycheck.
For his first day of camp, Milbury was placed in the second group. The first group included his idols: Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito. Only that after a long night of lubrication, some of Milbury’s stars weren’t sprinting to hit the ice.
“The only guy left in the room is Espo,” said Milbury, who had arrived hours early for his session. “He’s running late. Everybody else is on the ice and Phil was fidgeting with his skates. Bobby walked back into the room and said, ‘Phil, what the [expletive] are you doing? It’s time to get on the ice and practice. It’s two minutes to eight, we’ve got a new coach, we didn’t win [expletive] last year, get the [expletive] on the ice.’ I’m hiding in the bathroom stall. Here are two of my idols. You knew at the time who was running the show. It was eye-popping, not only for its intensity. The point was made and the point got through to me. It was time to go to work.”
Milbury did not make the varsity that year. He was assigned to Rochester of the AHL. Milbury learned the craft of making the front of his net a hostile area, with his stick as well as his fists.
“It was part of the deal back then,” Milbury said of fighting. “It became part of my game. I wasn’t Terry O’Reilly tough, but I had my fair share. It was a time, too, when being a little bit squirrelly was good playing on defense. They allowed you to express yourself in front of the net more often. I guess I expressed myself pretty well.”
Milbury’s most colorful expression took place off the ice. On December 23, 1979, at the conclusion of the Bruins’ 4–3 win over the Rangers at Madison Square Garden, a fan hit Stan Jonathan and grabbed his stick. Milbury had retreated to the dressing room. But when he learned that O’Reilly had climbed into the stands to address the situation, Milbury felt he had no choice but to follow. Moments later, Milbury entered NHL infamy by clubbing a fan with his own shoe. The NHL suspended O’Reilly for eight games and sat Milbury down for six.
To Milbury, it was a case of sticking up for teammates. Such was the expectation once he pulled the Bruins jersey over his head. It was why Cherry, the bold Canadian, took a liking to the American, one of the few U.S. players in the league at the time. The two regularly commuted to and from practice.
“I think he saw a bit of a longshot and an underdog,” Milbury said of why he caught Cherry’s attention. “I was willing and was a hard worker. I think he saw some of those things in himself. Here’s a guy who spent many years in the minor leagues and played all of one National Hockey League game.”
Milbury could not help but play hard for Cherry. Milbury expected the same thing after he retired as a player and became a coach. Milbury’s initial desire was to enter hockey operations with the Maine Mariners, the Bruins’ farm club. But general manager Harry Sinden believed Milbury would be best served coaching as well. Sinden explained that a manager’s most important decision was hiring the right coach. Having experience behind the bench, Sinden believed, would serve Milbury well when it came time to hire his own man.
After a two-year AHL apprenticeship, Milbury became the Bruins’ coach on May 16, 1989. It did not take Milbury long to make his mark. In Milbury’s first season, the Bruins dispatched Hartford, Montreal, and Washington in the playoffs to set up a revenge match against Edmonton in the Stanley Cup Final. The Bruins were tight and talented. Ray Bourque and Cam Neely were at the peak of their powers. Andy Moog and Reggie Lemelin were dependable in goal. But they did not have enough firepower to hang with the mighty Oilers.
“We had fun like Grapes’ teams had fun,” Milbury said. “Guys went out together. It was a really good group, a fun group to be around, a really hard-working group. It was a magical run.”