For those of us who remember when the NHL was a hard find on television, the coverage these days by NBC and NBC Sports Network in the United States of the Stanley Cup playoffs is an embarrassment of riches of rink-length proportions.
Here in the Hub of Hockey, fans of a certain age (hand up here!) remember the Bruins in their Ch. 9 WMUR days, weekend highlight packages of games earlier in the week, narrated in studio by Fred Cusick. The signal was scratchy and snowy in the Boston area, but it was the only visual connection to the Black and Gold. So what if it was tough on the eyes?
Then came the early years of WSBK TV-38, which required viewers to have a UHF antenna, or converter box, and ample amounts of tinfoil wrapped around the flimsy metal loop of an antenna to help pull in the signal. If the foil alone didn’t work, it helped to have someone hold it in place, or lift the entire converter box high above the TV. That’s good right there, don’t move!
Now, thanks to the NHL’s deal with NBC, we can watch every playoff game in high definition, all of it narrated by a knowledgeable and passionate crew, including Mike Emrick, Mike Milbury, Ed Olczyk, and Pierre McGuire.
Late this past week, those four commentators, along with executive producer Sam Flood, held a conference call ahead of the upcoming Bruins-Blues Cup Final. Other than Olczyk, age 3½ at the time of the last Bruins-Blues Final, all of them had vivid memories of watching the clinching game, May 10, 1970, when Bobby Orr potted the OT winner against St. Louis and went flying through the air, the image captured for eternity by photographer Ray Lussier.
Emrick, who just won his seventh Emmy Award, was teaching at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pa., some 25 miles northwest of downtown Pittsburgh.
“Over the summer I got the poster,” recalled Emrick, “but I was watching on black-and-white television just like everybody else that didn’t have the money for color back in those days.”
Emrick, with an astounding memory for detail, recalled ordering the Orr poster the same day he sent away for a picture of goalie Gump Worsley in a Canadiens uniform. When they arrived on campus, he said, a friend in the school’s accounting department put the Gumper’s picture right over the office safe.
“Seems like an appropriate place for Gump Worsley to be,” said Emrick.
Milbury, in his final days as a senior at Walpole High, watched the game in his family’s living room with, as he recalled, “a whole bunch of Milburys.”
“You have to put this in context,” he added. “That era, I mean, you think of the mania around the Patriots or the Red Sox, people were delirious about the Orr era. You’d go to school after a Thursday night game on Friday, that’s all anybody talked about.”
On that sweltering Mother’s Day afternoon, he recalled, the Milburys all watched the CBS broadcast on a black-and-white TV, with the legendary Dan Kelly handling the play by play.
“It was just an explosion of emotion,” said Milbury, recalling when Orr scored. “People actually ran out of their house and up and down the street screaming. It was as wonderful a sporting experience as I’ve ever had. I remember it vividly, and it was that goal by Orr that stuck in everyone’s mind. I didn’t need the poster then and I don’t need the poster now to remember it.”
Only a few miles away at Noble & Greenough in Dedham, Flood watched with his father, Richard, the school’s hockey coach.
“On a black-and-white TV with squiggly lines,” recalled Sam Flood. “And even through the squiggly lines you could see Bobby Orr fine. It was one of the great memories, bonding with your dad who was a coach and seeing all that happen.”
Flood soon had the Orr picture hanging on his wall, and later had one in his office, signed by Orr.
“Just an incredible moment of joy when that goal went in, for a whole city,” said Flood. “And we were all down on the ice at Noble & Greenough, jumping in the air, pretending we were flying like Bobby Orr.”
McGuire, who grew up in Montreal, watched the Canadian television feed of the game, while sitting on the couch at his uncle’s house.
“I remember it like it was yesterday, especially having had a chance to talk to both Derek Sanderson and Bobby Orr years later about it,” said McGuire. “I have the same poster and picture that most everybody else has. Really grateful for that. I have it hanging on my wall in my office up in Mont Tremblant, Quebec, so, yeah, I remember it clear as day. When you’re a kid growing up in Montreal, you didn’t always cheer for the Boston Bruins, but you could always find a way to cheer for Bobby Orr, and that was one of the things that I always took out of watching the Bruins play, especially in those days, just how great Bobby Orr was.”
Olczyk, only 3½, was at his parents’ home in Chicago, 1,000 miles west of all the hoopla on Causeway Street. He caught up to the story later, during the years he made his improbable climb to the NHL as the rare inner-city American kid with the dream to play in the best hockey league in the world.
“I remember seeing that picture for the first time,” he said, “and that was like one of those, as an American-born player, to see that picture and wanting to somehow, some way, get to the National Hockey League . . . I don’t care if you’re a Bruins fan or not, you emulate that. I think that’s one of those pictures that everybody knows when they either saw it live or heard about it. It’s just an incredible lasting memory.”
WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?
Nylander finally finding his form
Perhaps he just needed time to get his legs moving, or maybe it’s the wider sheets in Europe allowing him more room and time to create, but William Nylander has been a better version of himself while wearing the Three Crowns for Sweden at the World Championship in Slovakia.
“He can do everything,” Swedish captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson told Expressen newspaper. “He backchecks, puts the puck between the skates of the opponents, and skates by them. He makes hockey fun.”
Yep, that is the same Nylander who turned in a 1-2—3 line for the Maple Leafs in Round 1 vs. Bruins. After submitting a tepid 1-3—4 in seven games against Boston the previous spring. Headed into weekend play, he led the World Championship with 18 points.
Immediately following Toronto’s knockout by the Bruins, Leafs GM Kyle Dubas took a big one for the team, blaming himself for not getting Nylander under contract well before the Nov. 1 deadline this season. The holdout hurt Nylander, his production limited to 7-20—27 through 54 games. Truth is, Nylander never got his game on track, even by mid-April.
Now under contract for five more years at a little less than $7 million a season, Nylander will be the subject of myriad trade rumors headed into the June 21-22 draft in Vancouver. Dubas has a number of free agents to appease, the biggest of whom is Mitch Marner, the team’s leading scorer the past two seasons, in only his second and third seasons.
Marner, if he is reasonable, will look for something between Nylander’s $7 million and the $11.6 million Auston Matthews will bank each of the next five seasons. However, Marner is well within his “comp” range to ask for Matthews money, and it doesn’t appear Dubas would have any choice but to sign on the dotted line. All of which could force the GM to take Nylander to the trade market.
Clifton came as a bit of a surprise
Headed into the annual rookie tournament in September, with the Bruins seemingly loaded with kids ready to push for varsity roster openings, the little-known Connor Clifton barely registered on the “ones to watch” list.
But here he is now, expected to team with Matt Grzelcyk on the No. 3 defense pair when the Bruins open the Cup Final Monday against the Blues.
“There’s a coming-out party, I think, every playoff and every year,” noted Bruins GM Don Sweeney, a surprise himself when he made the Boston roster nearly full time only halfway into his first season after graduating from Harvard in 1988. “You have players that will surprise and rise to the occasion. And Connor, look, he’s a game kid. Right from Day 1, the way Bruce [Cassidy] described it, he didn’t know if he was going to be a forward or a defenseman.”
In part, that’s because the 24-year-old Clifton has a penchant for getting ahead of the play. During the rookie tournament, Providence coach Jay Leach chuckled in disbelief after watching Clifton pushing out on a two-on-one break while shorthanded. Not conventional wisdom.
However, since arriving in Boston to help fill in for the usual array of injuries to the backline, Clifton increasingly has gained Cassidy’s trust. He can skate, defend intelligently, push the play when the time is right (a work in progress), and can top all that off with some punishing checks, reminiscent of the big belts dealt out by ex-Bruins blue liner Johnny Boychuk. Clifton hits to hurt.
Clifton, a 2017 Quinnipiac grad, originally was drafted by the Coyotes (No. 133, 2013). He was a free agent after college, played in 2017-18 with Providence, and then signed his NHL deal just a year ago last May. He’s on the books for one more season at a paltry $725,000.
“I think the lesson is for all players, the next player who is looking for his opportunity,” said Sweeney, asked if Clifton’s success served as a model for identifying, or drafting, players. “You’re part of an organization for a lot of reasons. You’ve been identified, the work is just beginning. Really, everybody gets to the start line and who’s willing to do the things that in the moment, that the team needs you to do? Some guys rise to that, some guys go in and accept the responsibility that’s being asked of them in the moment and they’ll move forward, and some guys won’t. They’ll see themselves in a different way.
“That’s how you can carve out a career. Good for Connor and good for us.”
They’ve hit upon something
NBC’s Mike Milbury credited Bruins president Cam Neely for aiding Sweeney in being ever-mindful of the stiff brand of hockey Bruins fans enjoy.
“I played with Cam Neely and coached Cam Neely,” noted Milbury. “Played with him for a year, and I remember one day in practice, he hit me along the wall, and I’d never been hit like it before — I was airborne and I didn’t know when I was going to come down. Really, I felt like I’d been shot out of a cannon.”
Milbury eventually landed on the ice with a thud, only to find the right wing behemoth standing over him with “a big grin on his face.”
“When Cam Neely took over as president,” added Milbury, “he said, ‘We have to play to the Bruins’ identity.’ So that passed along to Sweeney, who had been a long-time Bruin. They know people in Boston want a club that is down and dirty. So they have made an effort to bring in some beefy players.”
The roster that Cassidy will lead into the Cup Final is not as heavy as the one that defeated the Canucks in the 2011 Final. That is particularly evident on the backline, with its pair of 5-foot-9-inch defensemen, Torey Krug and Grzelcyk.
“They’re small and quick, but smart and good puck-handling players,” said Milbury. “And that is complemented with the size of [Brandon] Carlo and the humongous size of Zdeno Chara. And if [injured] Kevan Miller was around, his kind of grit. So they’ve added some balance to the approach, which I think has worked.”
Craig Berube, age 53 and only six months younger than Cassidy, spent the bulk of his playing days with the Capitals and just missed playing in Washington for Cassidy when the latter was bench boss across two seasons (2002-04). Berube had two stints for the Capitals, the second of which ended Jan. 11, 2001, when he was dealt to the Islanders for the draft pick that became. wait for it, Robert Mueller. Yep, only this Robert Mueller, a German goalie prospect, never made it to Washington. No collusion. No obstruction of pucks. Cassidy’s first year behind the Capitals’ bench turned out to be Berube’s final NHL season as a player, spent with Calgary . . . St. Louis left winger David Perron, who went to the Cup Final last year with Vegas, scored the Blues’ opening goal Tuesday in the clincher vs. the Sharks. Originally a Blues first-round pick (No. 26, 2007), his name came up frequently in Boston in the summer of 2009 when then-Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli was hunting for partners in a Phil Kessel deal. Concussion issues subsequently diminished Perron’s upside, but he has averaged 0.63 points over 779 NHL games. Kessel has proven a more robust 0.83. Kessel, still the subject of trade rumors in Pittsburgh, will be among the first next season to reach the 1,000-game plateau. He has logged 996 games and a career line of 357-466—823 . . . Jumbo Joe Thornton, who looked like Old Man Frozen River in the Sharks’ loss to the Blues, told reporters in San Jose on Thursday that he won’t play again unless it’s with the Sharks. He will turn 40 in July, 22 years after the Bruins made him the No. 1 pick in the 1997 draft. Thornton has averaged a little more than 40 points the last three seasons, and though well liked, it’s probably time that GM Doug Wilson extends the farewell handshake. A far bigger concern for Wilson: What to do with captain/unrestricted free agent Joe Pavelski, the gritty pivot who will turn 35 in July. He just finished the five-year/$30 million deal he signed in the summer of 2013. Still has game, but at what price and term? . . . Remember Neil Armstrong, the veteran NHL linesman? He called the lines in Games 1 and 2 of the 1970 Cup Final between the Blues and Bruins. His son, Doug Armstrong, is the current GM of the Blues. Doug also was the Dallas Stars GM (2002-07) and was the one to hire free agent Don Sweeney, then age 37, to play one last season (2003-04) with the Stars. The top scorer in Dallas that year: ex-Bruin Bill Guerin (69 points) . . . Despite rumors they were courting ex-Habs goalie Patrick Roy to be their coach, the Senators on Thursday broke from the Old Boys Recycling Network and hired Toronto assistant D.J. Smith, who just wrapped up his fourth year on Mike Babcock’s staff. The Oilers still have to pick their guy to replace Ken Hitchcock, with most of the smart money on ex-Whalers winger Dave Tippett.