The ankle is feeling fine, Brandon Carlo is happy to report, and he’s been back skating now for over a month. X-rays last month of his broken fibula, which had the Bruins defenseman again watching the playoffs from the sidelines, were clean and encouraging.
“You can’t even see where the bone cracked when you look at the X-rays,” said a relieved Carlo, reached the other day at his new summer home in Denver. “Each time I’ve gotten on the ice, it’s progressed so much. Throughout the entire skate now, I feel pretty comfortable on the ice . . . no problem.”
All of which leaves the 21-year-old Carlo eager to get back to work when the Bruins report to camp early next month. He will be returning for his third season, the first two of which were distinctly different experiences.
In Year 1, Carlo was captain Zdeno Chara’s running mate, with Big Z setting the physical tone and allowing his partner some room to roam. In Year 2, he matched with Torey Krug, the club’s backend offensive sparkplug, and it took much of 2017-18 for Carlo to define his game and grow more confident as a physical presence.
“Given the experience of the first two years, you know, I learned a lot last year, and I think that was a good thing for me to go through early on in my career — a year where there was a lot more ups and downs,” he said. “I wish I would have recognized in the beginning how good of a first year I’d had — and had a little bit more confidence coming into camp and throughout the year.”
Carlo, encouraged by coach Bruce Cassidy to find a prescription for some “mean pills,” indeed improved his physical presence over the final 4-6 weeks of the season. He didn’t morph into the Black and Gold’s blue-line bouncer, but his work in the defensive zone showed more bite and purpose, critical ingredients when paired with the smaller and less defensively inclined Krug.
Hoping to add to that momentum in 2018-19, Carlo said he has put on some muscle this summer while working out at the University of Denver with fellow NHLers Paul Stastny, Tyler Bozak, and Kyle Quincey. The 6-foot-5-inch Carlo last season played in the 205-208-pound range, but lately has been working out at just under 215. The added bit of heft and a more aggressive mind-set will be the ingredients he’ll hope to emphasize from the start of his third pro season.
“I think last year was good for me in an aspect,” he said, “to learn so much about myself and my game. Coming into this third year, I have really high expectations for myself. I expect to be back on track with helping out in every aspect that I can. I think overall I have to come in with a little bit of a chip on my shoulder and have a little more confidence in myself and my overall game.”
Still young enough to be playing in college, perhaps headed into his senior year, Carlo is among Boston’s more impressive young talents. But his game does need definition, refining, focus. It remains to be seen just what role(s) he’ll thrive in as a pro.
Blessed with impressive legs for a big defenseman, Carlo showed rare flashes of offensive ability in his rookie year, scratching together a half-dozen goals and 16 points. Last season, looking for solid footing as Krug’s partner on the second pairing, he totaled only a half-dozen assists. For all his size and speed, he was too hesitant on many of his shifts, and the need to shake that timidity was what had Cassidy joking about mean pills.
“I’d say the last 15 games that I was in the lineup last year, I was trying to focus a little more on the body,” Carlo said. “And I think it brought my overall game around. I really like the way I was playing at that point and I felt a lot more confident on the ice in those situations. It’s funny how you go through a year and all of a sudden one day something clicks for you and you realize, ‘Hey, why wasn’t I doing that the whole time?’ I think it’s just the way that it goes. It’s a learning experience. I’m still young, so . . . going through that and having that opportunity to have that switch kind of go off in my mind, I think last year was really important for me and will carry along to the rest of my career.”
Meanwhile, Carlo continues his daily workouts at the University of Denver, where he works out under the watchful eye of trainer Matt Shaw. Fellow Bruin Danton Heinen has visited a couple of times and likely will stay at Carlo’s new condo when he returns later in the month to train.
Carlo grew up south of the city, in Colorado Springs, but recently bought his place in Denver, enabling him to zip down the highway for the 60-minute drive to visit his family. It’s a far easier trek in the summer than when Carlo’s parents shuttled him back and forth to play for the AAA Colorado Thunderbirds in his mid-teens.
In about two weeks, Carlo will return to Boston to join in captain’s practices that are getting under way this coming week in Brighton. He’s planning to drive, about a 30-hour haul, because Winnie, his English bulldog, isn’t one for air travel.
“With their smooshed noses, they don’t allow them to fly,” explained Carlo. “Kind of unfortunate for travel, but she’s a good one . . . up in the air, they can’t breath as well. So they’ve had some incidents where those dogs have passed away while flying because they can’t get enough oxygen. So, they’re banned from airlines. So we’ll be driving. Me and Winnie . . . like Winnie the Pooh. She’s a chubby little bear.”
ST. CATHARINES’ BEST
Mikita was an athletic marvel
Sad day in Chicago last Tuesday with the passing of Stan Mikita, 78, the Blackhawks famed center whose statue is among the Hawks icons stationed outside the United Center. The family’s statement did not give a cause of death, but Mikita in recent years was severely debilitated by the effects of Lewy body dementia — a disease that often alters its victim’s mood, behavior, movement, and thought.
Born Stanislaus Gvoth in what was then Communist-ruled Czechoslovakia, he was sent by his parents as a young child to live in St. Catharines, Ontario, where he took the family name of his aunt and uncle.
The Mikitas lived at No. 10 Geneva Street, about a mile south of the Queen Elizabeth Way. The Cheevers family, whose son also would grow up to be a Hockey Hall of Famer, grew up at No. 430 Geneva Street, about a mile north of the QEW.
“Stan and I butted heads all the time in sports,” Gerry Cheevers recalled fondly on Wednesday, when reached at his home in Florida. “And I’ll tell you, without a doubt, he was the finest athlete St. Catharines has ever seen — in any sport. Hockey, great. Baseball, tremendous. Lacrosse, great player. Golf, better than a scratch golfer.”
Mikita, and fellow St. Catharines homeboy Bobby Hull, the famed Golden Jet who would play with him in Chicago, played on the same high school football team. Hull was a halfback and Mikita a flanker. By then, Cheevers was living in Toronto, tending net for St. Michael’s as his pathway to the NHL. Mikita remained in St. Cats, where the Blackhawks sponsored the local team and therefore owned his playing rights.
More than 60 years later, Cheevers this past week openly recalled the envy he and many other kids in town felt toward Mikita as a schoolboy. He and Mikita were born less than four months apart and Mikita, who arrived in town without knowing a word of English, picked up every sport with ease and mastered all of them.
As a Little League catcher, recalled Cheevers, Mikita could throw out would-be base stealers from a sitting position. Cheevers played third base on the same St. Cats team and only moved in to catch because one pitcher on the staff had a running feud with the ever-feisty Mikita.
“No doubt in my mind that Stan could have played in the major leagues — be it as a catcher or some other position,” recalled Cheevers. “Just a great, great athlete.”
But the Cheevers kid from No. 430 Geneva could flash a few moves of his own, learned in part to avoid the glare, and potential merciless barbs, of the kid at No. 10. When he was 12 years old, recalled Cheevers, his parents insisted he take piano lessons from a local teacher, Pearl Lachman.
What could be worse than piano lessons that stole time from his hockey, lacrosse, baseball, and golf endeavors? Answer: piano lessons with Pearl Lachman, who also happened to live on Geneva Street . . . right next door to . . . the Mikitas.
“Every Monday night, 7:30, I’ll never forget it,” said Cheevers. “No way did I want Stan to know . . . because, I mean . . . piano lessons, right? I spent my whole week figuring out how I could get in and out of there without [him] seeing me.”
Throughout their careers, Cheevers and Mikita remained good friends. One regret Cheevers has is that St. Catharines never paid fitting tribute to his pal, although he figures Mikita wasn’t so fond of his hometown, some of his childhood days made difficult because he struggled to learn the language, and some of the envy that surrounded his athletic gifts.
Mikita was busy in retirement and often volunteered time to aid deaf hockey players. He liked the work, he said, in part because as a child he knew what it was like not to understand the words buzzing around him.
Cheevers, who will turn 78 in September, never mastered the piano.
“I’m very good at ‘Chopsticks,’ that’s as far as I got,” he said. “After about five years of lessons.”
Did the kid who lived next door to Pearl Lachman ever catch him taking lessons? “Good question, I don’t know,” said Cheevers. “Believe me, if he only knew what I went through so he wouldn’t see me sneaking in there.”
A new role for Gretzky in China
Most of the Bruins varsity will depart for China on Sept. 10, for a swing through Shenzhen and Beijing, stops that will include exhibition games against the Dougie Hamilton-less Calgary Flames.
However, with Hamilton about to begin a new life on the Hurricanes backline, the Bruins are bound to bump into another far more famous ex-Albertan. Wayne Gretzky last Tuesday signed a long-term deal with Beijing Kunlun Red Star, China’s lone entry in the KHL. The Great One will be Red Star’s global ambassador as the capital city of 21 million preps to host the 2022 Winter Olympic Games.
Gretzky, 57, is scheduled to bop around Beijing, Shenzhen, and Shanghai for seven days (Sept. 12-18) and ultimately will stage hockey schools, first in Beijing and Shenzhen, and then 20 other cities.
The Chinese government is eager to have more kids playing sports, particularly ice- and snow-based, in advance of the Tournament of Rings in 2022. But wait till Chinese parents begin to learn the tricky finances of $800 skates, $150 sticks . . . never mind the joy of 5 a.m. practice sessions.
Meanwhile, the NHL and NHLPA have yet to decide if the ’22 Games will include the NHL rank and file. Many players remain disgruntled that the NHL didn’t allow participation in this year’s Games in South Korea.
Prior to the NHL bosses issuing their hell-no-we-won’t-go directive for South Korea, Russian superstar Alexander Ovechkin mused over the prospect of shirking his Capitals duties for a couple of weeks in order to play for Russia. But Ovie stayed put, and four months later he helped the Capitals capture the franchise’s first championship. You may have seen a picture or two of him holding the Stanley Cup?
One wonders if the outcome would have been the same had Ovechkin opted for the late-winter vacation skating for Vladimir Putin’s warriors in PyeongChang.
Farewell to a friend
Hockey lost a dear friend with the recent passing of Clark Booth, best known for his rich prose and eloquent reports — sports and myriad other subjects — for Channel 5, WCVB.
The Cardinal, as he was known by many of his friends, started as a sports reporter for the Quincy Patriot Ledger and transitioned to local TV sports in the 1960s. In later years, he dismissed frequent offers to leave Ch. 5 for more lucrative network opportunities. He was a man both loyal and fussy about his fit, as he was with his words.
Your faithful puck chronicler had the good fortune to cover many of the same events. We stood side by side at ice level in the old Montreal Forum for the Bruins’ fateful “too many men on the ice” game. In 1986, we were both working in New York the night the ground ball eluded Bill Buckner and the “Curse” continued.
In 1978, we were both at Fenway Park for the one-game playoff with the Yankees, and Bucky Dent’s bloop homer off Sox starter Mike Torrez, whom Luis Tiant nicknamed “Taco.” I can still hear Booth after the Buckner gaffe eight years later, standing amid a clutch of dumbstruck Boston reporters inside Shea Stadium: “Well . . . Taco’s off the hook!”
On a personal note, what I’ll remember most about the Cardinal is the short typewritten note he sent my way when I was a kid fresh out of college, in the fall of 1975. Already the city’s gold standard for sports broadcasting, he had read some innocuous story about high school football I wrote as a Globe copyboy/correspondent. Keep up the good work, he said. A kindness forever remembered.
A nifty honor
Rick Middleton’s two 100-point seasons came with Gerry Cheevers as the Bruins’ coach, and it was Cheevers who gave the slick right winger his “Nifty” moniker. “I remember coaching, and every time we came to a moment of truth on the ice, he’d be out there and look at me to come off. I’d shake my head and say, ‘Are you kidding? Stay out there!’ Even if they looked like they were about to die, I wanted him out there.” Middleton will have his No. 16 raised to the Garden rafters on Nov. 29, prior to a matchup vs. the Islanders. “Just thrilled for him,” said Cheevers. “He’s what it’s all about.” . . . The Sports Museum will hold its annual golf outing/fund-raiser Aug. 20 at Andover Country Club. Middleton, coach Bruce Cassidy, Reggie Lemelin, Brad Park, and Barry Pederson will be among the Bruins celebs teeing it up. Still a few foursomes open. For more info, go to sportsmuseum.org . . . Brandon Carlo is entering the final year of his three-year, entry level contract with the Bruins. The sides have not yet begun talks on a new deal . . . It was widely reported on Saturday that Brady Tkachuk, the Senators’ top draft pick in June (No. 4 overall), has decided to turn pro rather than return to Boston University for his sophomore season . . . The Bruins open their season Oct. 3 in D.C., so only 52 days to go before we see Brett Connolly and crew lift the Cup banner to the rafters.