The Big Bads: They came, they skated, they conquered

As has been noted a couple or three times here over the course of this notably long season, it’s painful watching these contemporary Bruins slog, stagger, and stammer their way toward a thinly grasped playoff post.

That’s especially the case when you consider that all the blood, sweat, and tears is being expended for the dubious honor of near certain elimination in the first Stanley Cup round, probably at the hands of the swifter, more talented, more driven, and –  and this is painful to admit – even grittier likes of the  Washington Capitals or Pittsburgh Penguins. Did you ever think you’d live long enough to have to ponder such indignity?

All of which makes the noteworthy anniversary the Bruins are observing this year just a touch bittersweet. For, you see, it was 40 years ago this very spring that the Bruins ended a 29-year drought  by slugging their way to The Cup in one of the most colorful, raucous, and happy sporting campaigns this tired old town has ever witnessed.

Formal recognition of the celebrated “Big Bad Bruins” and their banner year  occurred a couple of weeks ago with the gathering of most of that memorable team’s now gray and aging warriors, led by Harry Sinden, who coached them, and Bobby Orr, who personified them. It was a nice enough party but if the intentions were good, the ceremonies were a bit flat, which is invariably the case with such gigs. True magic is impossible to re-capture. Like the man said, “you can’t go home again.”

But you are free to remember glorious things past grandly and embellish them, if you choose. Where’s the harm? Those old Bruins of sacred memory are easy to embellish. They even demand it.

The beloved Big Bads who ruled this town from 1968 to 1974 and their blood kin, the “Lunch Pail Gang,” who charmed us the more from 1975 through 1979 were already the stuff of legend when they skated off into fond memory. For that all too brief run of a dozen seasons they made hockey the game of choice hereabouts. “Jesus saves and Esposito scores on the rebound” was but one of the rallying cries.  They featured a fine blend of the highly talented and the irrepressibly rowdy with all of it tempered by soaring spirit mingled with a breezy touch of irreverence. Above all this was a team, a true Band of Brothers, and the haunted old Garden of treasured memory was their Agincourt.

So much of the credit goes to Orr. Not only for his art, which was matchless, but even more so for his attitude, which was impeccable. He was that rare superstar who excelled on the field of play but was even more of a star in his own locker room. His teammates didn’t merely follow him, they worshipped him. As little more than a kid – back when we thought of him as the Byronesque “Childe Bobby” – he understood the mores and canons of his very tribal game more deeply than the most grizzled of veterans.

Bobby Orr was many things, but most of all he was loyal; intensely loyal to his buddies, to his game, and especially to his upbringing and heritage which provided him with uncanny instinct for how best to bear himself and manage the acclaim, all of which he did superbly. I never encountered an athlete at any time in any game who was, all things considered, more admirable. 

Now 62 (inconceivable as that may seem), Orr retains a certain ageless grace as he moves carefully through the years.  He has always been very private and remains guarded. Avoiding even the hint of a prima donna’s prerogatives was always crucial to him. All of that he’s managed well by being invariably polite and gracious when called upon while keeping the world at arm’s length, determined above all to avoid becoming a mere celebrity. He had no interest in trading on his fame, which may be the main reason it has not only persisted but greatly grown. In a weary age crowned by cynicism there are few heroes left. But Bobby Orr, the eternal kid out of Parry Sound, Ontario, is surely one of them.

Forty years, indeed! It seems more like a hundred given all that’s come and gone and so deeply changed. That team so smartly assembled by Milt Schmidt and brilliantly molded by Harry Sinden would not be possible today. Those early ‘70’s championships came at the end of a remarkable era amidst the rumblings of the dawning of modern sport, dominated by expansion, free agency, and money. It was that turbulence along with the miserable luck that essentially finished Orr at the age of 26 that brought them down. They won two Cups. They might, and maybe should have, won a half dozen.  
It was Orr’s timeless flight after tucking Derek Sanderson’s nifty feed past Glenn Hall that endures as the lasting image of the 1970 championship. The roar in that building when Captain Johnny Bucyk skated the big silver goblet around the rink remains the richest and most resonant bellow of elation I’ve ever heard at a sporting event. It had nothing to do with that longing to be saved that John Updike famously perceived at Fenway. Rather it was entirely about joy and it rings down through the years. In the ensuing party, still the most uproarious this town has ever seen, the high point came when Pie McKenzie poured a pitcher of beer over Boston Mayor Kevin White’s head. They could do no wrong.  

In the tribute they staged a couple of weeks ago ,many were back but not all. Among the missing were the incomparable Gerry Cheevers, so much the soul of that team, and the tough as nails Wayne Cashman, and his pal Phil Esposito, still larger than life and Roman to the core. But the elegant Orr was there, serving as de facto master of ceremonies, and of course, the Chief, Mr. Bucyk, who has never left, and that affable pair, Ken Hodge and Eddie Westfall, and the white-haired quartet of Sanderson, McKenzie, Dallas Smith, and the genial Eddie Johnston. Properly at the head of the line when they massed on the ice was Harry Sinden. So the old guard had a quorum.

They won again in 1972 but before the echoes had faded, NHL expansion combined with the raids of the brand new World Hockey Association to rattle the would-be dynasty. Yet they bore on and the reprise orchestrated by Sinden and Don Cherry in the late ‘70s was almost as much fun as the rollicking escapades of the Orr-Esposito firewagon. Valor remained their trademark and with Sinden’s remarkable legerdemain countering the parsimonious whims of a rigid ownership, they remained a flagship franchise for another generation.

And you were left to wonder what might have been had Orr gotten to play alongside a healthy Brad Park a dozen years with Ray Bourque along for the ride. It has not been a lucky team and so much has been so unfair.  Just ask Gord Kluzak or Michael Telven or Ian Young or Cam Neely or Normand Leveille, all of them cut down so young, much like Orr.

When they won in 1970, it ended a barren siege of 29 years between sips from the Cup. Back then, quenching that thirst had become an obsession around these parts, another of the rallying cries. When this season invariably concludes again short of the goal it will bring to 38 years the latest drought. But few will notice and it will occasion no more than a whimper. That is the greatest difference between then and now, and it’s poignant.
Nor is there a budding hockey Messiah out there from some windy outpost of a Parry Sound who might deliver us. Those days, too, are gone.