Confronting ghosts and slaying dragons
NEW YORK — It’s not very often when you get to meet a person that contributed to one of the worst moments of your life as a sports fan.
But that happened to me at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night. The silver-haired gentleman sitting in the press box was Johnny Bucyk, the former Boston Bruins center, who has been with that organization in one capacity or another for 56 years.
It had been 41 years and 12 days since May 11, 1972, the night the Bruins defeated the New York Rangers, 3-0, to win that year’s Stanley Cup in six games.
Bucyk, as the captain, was the guy who accepted the Cup and began skating around the Garden ice with it, leading the band of marauders who had just defeated the Rangers. It was that same Garden ice on which the Rangers won 4-3 in overtime on Thursday night, staving off elimination to the Bruins in another playoff round.
In 1972, I was sitting up in the rafters in section 442 with my brother and some friends who regularly came to the games in those days. I was 21, a college kid and devote Rangers fan. I still am. I couldn’t watch Bucyk skate around the ice with the Cup, and so I fled down the stairwell into the lobby.
Bucyk, Boston’s all-time leading scorer with 545 goals, could only smile as I told him that story.
“We had a lot of power on that team in the 1970s,” Bucyk said. “I was just thrilled to be skating around the ice holding that Cup. It was a big thrill. That’s the last time that happened. The captain didn’t skate around the ice with the Cup alone anymore after that. He passed it on to the whole team. It was a great thrill that I got the honor to do that.”
They were the big bad Bruins. Bobby Orr, the best player I’ve ever seen. Phil Esposito, a player I came to admire after he was traded to the Rangers and I covered him as a professional sportswriter. Gerry Cheevers, the great goalie. The Bruins were terrors and Derek Sanderson was one of the game’s early goons who could actually play.
Bucyk said that Sanderson was one of their real characters and that reminded me of Game 3 of the quarterfinals in 1970 between these same two teams here at MSG. The Rangers had been bullied, bloodied and dominated in the first two games of the series in old Boston Garden.
As Game 3 began, one the first faceoffs came just to the left of the Rangers goal. Eddie Giacomin, the terrific Rangers goalie, skated over to Sanderson in the circle and pointed the glove hand in his face. The puck dropped and two Rangers took Sanderson into the boards, inciting a melee that led to some 200 penalty minutes.
The ice looked like the last scene of the movie “Slap Shot” with opposition players paired off and fighting all over the ice. The only thing missing was Oggie Oglethorpe.
As he turned it tuned out, Giacomin said this to Sanderson when he skated out of his goal to confront him: “The only reason we’re here tonight is to get you.” The Rangers got him and won the game.
“But it didn’t help,” Bucyk said. “We still ended up winning the series.”
A few weeks later, the Bruins one that 1970 Cup against the St. Louis Blues on the goal scored by a flying Orr, who is immortalized and frozen in time perpendicular to the ice in a statue just outside Boston’s TD Garden.
Great memories. For Bucyk.
“The one in 1972 is one of those things you remember,” he said. “But 1970 was a better one. We won the Cup right in Boston and I was able to skate around the Garden with it. That was probably one of the highlights of my career.”
For me, one of the highlights was covering the 1994 Stanley Cup finals for Sport Magazine and being in this Garden the night the Rangers won Game 7, 3-2, over Vancouver. It was their first Cup victory in 54 years. Captain Mark Messier carried the Rangers that year and talked about slaying that dragon of a drought.
The last line of my story read like this: “If the Rangers don’t win again for another 54 years, well, that will be somebody else’s dragon to slay.”
Now it has been another 20 years since then and I find that it’s become my problem all over again. After all, add a 1979 loss in five games to the Canadiens and the Rangers have only been to the finals three times in my 61 years. But at least the Rangers lived to die another day against the big bad Bruins on Thursday night and I had the privilege of meeting John Bucyk.
That’s one less dragon I have left to slay.