Sports historian and Bruins expert Tom Whalen compares today’s Bruins team with Bobby Orr and the 1970s winning team.
As the Boston Bruins (and fans) prepare to face the St. Louis Blues for Game 7 of the championship series, sports historian Tom Whalen draws similarities and differences between the 1970 vs. 2019 Stanley Cup face-offs. Pulling from his experience writing a book on Bobby Orr and the Bruins — who incidentally beat St. Louis to win the Stanley Cup nearly 50 years ago — Tom compares the Boston Bruins then and now.
Q: One image of Torey Krug is drawing comparisons to the image of Bobby Orr soaring through the air after scoring the overtime goal to win Boston the 1970 Stanley Cup, also against the Blues. Do you agree with this comparison — and have you noticed any other striking play comparisons in the championship series?
A: The Krug image is certainly vivid and compelling but it really can’t hold a candle to Orr’s game and series winner. The latter ended a 29-year Stanley Cup drought for Boston. Taken by veteran Boston Record- American staff photographer Ray Lussier with his Nikon F camera with a 35 mm lens, the iconic black and white photo captures a victorious Orr frozen in mid-flight parallel to the ice with his arms raised in unrestrained joy after St. Louis defenseman Noel Picard had tripped him. “Oh, that’s a different picture,” Orr thought when he first saw the image in a centerpiece newspaper spread a couple of days later. He had no idea. In the decades to follow, “Flying Bobby” would become the hockey equivalent to the Mona Lisa-a ubiquitous presence in the annals of the sport. “The photo is everywhere,” Randy Lussier said of his late father’s masterpiece in a 2016 St. Louis Post-Dispatch interview. “In Boston, there’s not a sports bar you can walk in and it’s not up on the wall. I think one of the surprising places I saw it was in a geometry textbook.”
I’m guessing Krug’s “Shot Heard Round the World” will never make it into a geometry textbook.
What are the biggest differences and similarities between the 1970 Bruins team and 2019 Bruins team?
This year’s Bruins squad had a very good, highly talented roster of hockey players. But no one is talking about Messrs. Zdeno Chara, Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, Torey Krug, David Krejci and Tuukka Rask starting a dynasty here. They were lucky that the Tampa Bay Lightning-the best team in the NHL’s rugged Eastern Conference-were upset in the opening round of the playoffs by the Columbus Blue Jackets. Otherwise, the Bruins, a lackluster 1–3 against the Lightning on the season, might have ended up watching this Stanley Cup Final on their La-Z-Boy recliners at home. As it was, the Bruins had their hands full with the pesky Blue Jackets in the second round and, of course, the Blues in the final.
The 1970 B’s were different. Nicknamed “The Big, Bad Bruins” for their propensity to out-brawl and intimidate their opponents (“If you fight one Bruin, you have to fight 18 of us,” Sinden said), the team was a juggernaut. They tied the Chicago Black Hawks for most points on the regular schedule and were even better in the playoffs, steamrolling over the New York Rangers, Hawks and the St. Louis Blues to earn their fourth Stanley Cup in franchise history. Bobby Orr became the first defenseman in history to lead the league in overall scoring (goals and assists), en route to winning the league’s regular season and playoff most valuable player awards. He had plenty of help, however. Future Hockey Hall of Fame center Phil Esposito led the league in goals (43) by parking his burly 6–1, 205 pound body in front of the net. “Jesus saves, but Esposito scores on the rebound” was a popular saying New Englanders came up with to celebrate Esposito’s offensive proficiency. Add to this mix the effervescent gifts of Johnny Bucyk, Derek Sanderson, Ken Hodge, John “Pie” McKenzie and Gerry Cheevers, who combined for 13 career All-Star game appearances, and it’s not too difficult to see how they won another Stanley Cup in 1972.
What Bruins player (if any) is most like Bobby Orr? Why?
There is no one. There will be only one Bobby Orr, just as there will be only one Willie Mays in baseball. Orr’s well-documented knee ailments over the years might have slowed him down some, but they did not prevent him from regularly bringing fans to their feet with his dazzling end-to-end rushes, superb stickhandling and brilliantly improvised sweeps around defenders. In short, Orr was a human highlight reel; a Michael Jordan on ice. As Boston sports columnist and author Ray Fitzgerald wrote, “Orr played hockey for a living.” That is like saying Picasso drew pictures for a living. His was a style of hockey never before seen in Boston, or anywhere else for that matter. Orr played the game with the grace of a Bolshoi balleteer. He was Nureyev on skates. When he was into his game, the Boston Garden was transformed into Swan Lake.”
What makes Bobby Orr one of the greatest of all time?
Orr radically transformed what it was to be a defenseman in hockey. Before he began his NHL career in 1966, it was unheard of for a backliner to be the leading goal scorer for his team, let alone the league. They played away from the opposing net. Orr changed all that with his offense-first mentality. “Any time you play against [Orr] you’re aware of his talent,” Detroit Red Wings great Gordie Howe once said. “It’s not only his puck control, he’s also one of the most accurate passers in the league and he can get away his shot as quick, if not quicker, than anyone I’ve ever seen. With that quickness, plus the ability to walk around anybody, and that heavy shot — I think he’s got one of the better shots in hockey — he’s got everything going for him. And he doesn’t make mistakes — and how can you improve on that?”
How has the NHL changed since 1970?
The players are bigger, stronger and more athletic which is good thing given that the pace of the game is so much faster than it was 50 years ago. Outside of Bobby Orr, who made his contemporaries look like they were standing still on the ice, I can’t think of many players from this era easily fitting into the modern game. They would more likely be languishing in the minors. A lot of this has to do with better training techniques, equipment, nutrition, coaching and analytics. Nor does it hurt that modern hockey arenas provide superior ice surfaces for players to operate. Of course, the NHL is no longer considered a small-time regional sport league played exclusively in cold weather cities. It is now a major multi-billion dollar North American corporate operation encompassing cities in such diverse locales Texas, Arizona, Nevada and Florida. It competes with the National Football League, National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball for fan dollars and overall media exposure.
What is the main difference between 1970 Boston and 2019 Boston?
Boston today is a premier international city laying claim to the title of “Hub of the Universe” when it comes to the rich vitality of its academic, financial and cultural institutions. Fifty years ago, the city was still struggling to shed its provincial backwater reputation after a century of economic decline. But thanks to the far-sighted liberal progressive policies of then Mayor Kevin White, who was the driving force behind the game-changing Faneuil Hall Marketplace, a once moribund downtown was resurrected into a dynamic place for people to live, shop and work. Boston has never looked back. Interestingly, none of this impressed Bobby Orr and Company when White invited them to a City Hall reception to honor their 1970 championship, however. Mischievous forward John “Pie” McKenzie, who notched 29 goals and 41 assists on the season, decided to liven up things by dumping a pitcher of beer on Hizzoner’s head.
They weren’t called “The Big, Bad Bruins” for nothing.