He was a delightful bundle of whimsical sleight-of-hand moves, delivered at varying speeds on the attack. The NHL of today is a Formula 1 racetrack, flat-out speed from start to finish. But that was not the game back then.
In the 1970s and ’80s, when Rick Middleton rocked and rolled his way to a career 448 goals, hockey was a sport of stops and starts, often with a dash of bloody mayhem mixed into the intoxicating brew. Amid it all, the slick Bruins right winger with No. 16 on his back could dictate a play’s tempo as if he had filched that stick from Arthur Fiedler, who swung a smaller baton to different scores in another old building across town.
These Middleton moves had a technical term. He called them his “Howdy Doodys.” A quick drop of the shoulder. A devilish shake of the head. A deke to the outside, a stutter-step, a seamless shift to a third or fourth gear, a puck between a defenseman’s legs . . . Howdy Doody, pal, and goodbye.
“Didn’t work every time, mind you,” said Middleton, who was traded here from the Rangers in 1976 and was soon dubbed “Nifty” by then-Bruins goalie Gerry Cheevers. “The main idea was to get the defenseman to look down, and if he did, then I had him, he was toast.
“But then you had guys like Larry Robinson, and no matter how many Howdy Doodys I’d give him, I’d end up on my butt. So I learned how to fall. I got pretty good at falling.”
Middleton, who turns 65 next week, returns to Causeway Street Thursday night, and this time to rise in perpetuity. With family and friends at his side, and an alumni box chock-full of old pals such as Stan Jonathan, Don Marcotte, and Peter McNab, “Nifty” will hoist his No. 16 to the Garden rafters, where it will reside as the 11th retired number in franchise history.
There have been bigger names up there (Schmidt, Orr, Bourque, Neely) but none as crafty or as beguiling with the puck on his stick. Middleton was a singular, fascinating talent, one that has been rendered virtually extinct on the NHL icescape. The game today slows down for no maestro, every inch of the ice is checked, and bigger and faster goalies, their clunky leather leg pads now museum pieces, dominate the game through their collective mute force.
Which is not to say the NHL in 2018-19 is bereft of its offensive stars. A few, such as Patrick Kane in Chicago and Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh, are fast, brilliant players, paid handsome sums for their ability to create plays and score. No one can shoot with the force and accuracy of Washington’s Alex Ovechkin. A full-speed Connor McDavid in Edmonton is a sight to behold, the only player who can control the puck at such a high tempo.
Middleton, though, was different, in the way Red Sox fans might remember how Luis Tiant was unique. Others threw harder than El Tiante. Still others could claim better sinkers, sliders, and curves. But as a package, with his big hips gyrating and his glances heavenward before delivering, he too was a force we had not seen, and have not seen since.
“No one was like Nifty,” said Don Cherry, his coach here from the start, who’ll be on the ice for the fete. “Different game now, eh? I don’t think you’ll see anyone like him again.”
Before Middleton, noted his old linemate John Bucyk, the game had greats such as Gordie Howe and Rocket Richard. But Middleton, said Bucyk, was “dazzling” and “trouble” because of his ability to handle the puck in tight spaces and undress defensemen and goalies.
“You don’t see that kind of talent anymore,” said Bucyk, who along with Jean Ratelle was on Middleton’s opening night line in Boston in October 1976. “He was playing keepaway out there. And he did that as a penalty-killer, too. He’d get the puck and you’d think we were the ones with the power play.”
How did this happen? And where? According to Middleton, the answer is 80 Gilroy Street, in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough in the early 1960s. His father, owner and operator of a one-man offset printing business, hoped his son would follow his steps in the paper-and-ink trade.
“He tried hard to teach it to me,” recalled Middleton. “But I had no yearning to be a printer.”
Instead, he played. Everything. Hockey day and night. Sometimes football and rugby, for Winston Churchill, the local high school. But most of all, it was hockey.
If he wasn’t at an indoor rink, Middleton was in front of the family home on Gilroy, playing road hockey through the afternoon and into the night, often under a single streetlight.
“I know that sounds idyllic, but it was,” he recalled. “It was like every kid in the neighborhood was the same age, and we’d have games on our street or around the corner. Everywhere.”
The moves he ultimately brought to the NHL were the Gilroy moves, all the dekes, the head fakes, the crafty finish at the net. Never a need to move the nets for oncoming traffic, by the way. The kids on Gilroy early on figured out it was best to set the nets close to the curbs and chase the ball on a diagonal “kitty-corner” across the street.
“Drivers figured it out,” he said. “They just sort of drove figure-eights between the nets. Heck with that move-the-net stuff.”
In the thick of all the traffic, practice made perfect. His formal path to the NHL ultimately included two years in Oshawa, where the great Bobby Orr had played junior hockey, and a season with AHL Providence, where he was the Reds’ leading scorer before joining the Rangers as a 20-year-old for the 1974-75 season.
He needed to work hard to improve his skating prior to junior, and it was his midget coach, Frank Miller, who helped him over that hurdle. (Miller, now in his 80s, will be on the ice Thursday night, alongside Cherry.) But the moves came ready-made from the Gilroy curbside.
“Honestly, I think I developed it on the street,” Middleton said. “You pretty much do all the shifting, left foot to right foot, head fake, shoulder fake . . . all the same thing. Slip the ball through . . . slip the puck through the stick.”
And, well . . . Howdy Doody.
Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy, who grew up in Ottawa, was hooked on the Bruins as a kid because of Orr. He was only 11 when Middleton came to Boston in ’76 — the same October, by the way, that Orr first pulled on his new sweater with the Black Hawks.
“Loved Nifty, even though I was a defenseman,” said Cassidy. “Crafty. One-on-one. Played in traffic. I liked watching him and Barry Pederson feed off each other.”
Pederson came later, after Ratelle had retired. Middleton’s early days had Cherry pairing him up with Bucyk and Ratelle. In his time in New York, recalled Middleton, Rod Gilbert rode to Ratty’s right. His time didn’t come until Boston general manager Harry Sinden dished Ken Hodge, Phil Esposito’s ex-running mate, to the Rangers to bring Middleton to Boston.
Middleton’s first night in the Spoked-B: a hat trick. It was the club’s home opener and a shockingly sparse first-night crowd of 9,221 — roughly half the crowd that will be in the Garden Thursday night — showed up for what was the first official game of the post-Orr era. No. 4’s departure rocked the psyche of Black and Gold fans. Leaving town as a free agent was something new, and soul-crushing.
“The Jacobs Bros.,” read one sign in the stands, “sold us down the river without an Orr.”
Truth was, ownership had offered Orr an ownership stake to remain in Black and Gold, something Orr had not been told by then-agent Alan Eagleson before he signed with Chicago.
Meanwhile, before the night was over, the long-haired kid with no helmet and the curlicue moves had begun to win their hearts.
“I mean, c’mon, I was playing with Bucyk and Ratelle,” recalled Middleton. “How could I not score a hat trick?”
Globe scribe Fran Rosa, who covered the Bruins for decades, wrapped up Middleton’s debut this way in his game story: “No. 16 Rick Middleton scored three goals. He might be the scoring star every team needs.”
Decades later, it’s the speedy, hard-shooting David Pastrnak (19 goals this season) who has the hearts of Bruins fans. Tiny dashes of Middleton can be found in Pastrnak’s game, and also in Brad Marchand’s attack.
But overall, speed frames, and arguably dilutes, everything now. Pastrnak and Marchand dart around like caffeinated waterbugs, some of their moves hard to detect even in slow-mo replay.
In the ’70s and ’80s, Middleton often skated into open acres in the offensive zone and almost could be heard giggling if the defenseman backed in too far, or if the goalie trundled out to try a poke-check. A quick tour through YouTube will show a series of goalies flopping like catches of the day, flat on their back, with a calm Middleton slipping the puck by them Gilroy-style.
“There’s no slowing the play down anymore,” said Middleton. “The defensemen skate so well because they have to — if they hit you, they’re called for interference. And the goalies are so big, their equipment is so big. I always shot between their legs, and that shot’s not there anymore. So I don’t think I could play today.”
All the more reason to enjoy the show Thursday night. Rick Middleton’s final bow on Causeway begins at 6:30 p.m. If you’re running late, call ahead. He’s always had a knack for slowing things down.