When Rick Middleton’s No. 16 climbed to the rafters of Garden on 29 November 2018, it was the first time the Bruins jersey was retired in 14 years.
That raises one question. what took them so long?
Middleton ranks fourth on the Bruins’ all-time assessment list, behind only Ray Bourque, Johnny Bucyk and Phil Esposito and one place ahead of Bobby Orr. That’s the air that Middleton cleans up – No. 9 on the best Bruins-besides-Bobby list – breathing in air there. And while there is a decent debate about whether he can or should go to the Hockey Hall of Fame – counting his two seasons with Rangers, he only finished 12 points out of 1,000 – there is little doubt he is included in the Bruins pantheon.
Middleton arrived in Boston through one of the most underrated trades in league history. At the beginning of the 1975-76 season, GM Harry Sinden had exchanged Phil Esposito and Carol Vadnais for Brad Park and Jean Ratelle (plus NHL short-timer Joe Zanussi), which was credited with making B among the NHL elite for the next decade. But what he made the following May was true theft.
Sinden gave the old linemate of the Esposito Rangers in Boston, Ken Hodge, and took a talented child who was known to have some defensiveness at Middleton.
Season and change later, Hodge is out of the league while Middleton will play 881 matches for B, averaging better than one point match (402-496-898) and scoring 100 points in 111 playoff matches. He even overhauled his reputation as a special offense skater.
When he arrived in Boston, the right wing had some work to do in his all-around game.
“At the end of the year,” said his then coach, Don Cherry, on the eve of Middleton’s retirement ceremony, “we must introduce him to our goalkeeper.”
But he not only made himself a better player, but a man who would collect votes for the Selke Trophy and, on the retirement night of that number, he still holds the club record for short goals with 25, a record of surviving for 30 years. until Brad Marchand finally sets a new one, which currently stands at 27.
While he filled a few gaps in his game, Middleton was still, first and foremost, a goal scorer. From 1979-80 to 1983-84, Middleton registered five direct seasons of 40 goals (with a season of 51 goals in 1981-82 while playing with midfielder Barry Pederson) and had two seasons of 100 points in that range. He enjoyed his best results season at 82-83, when he recorded a total of 11-22-33 in 17 playoffs before B surrendered to the New York Islanders in the conference finals.
According to hockey-reference.com, Middleton is ranked sixth in the percentage of shooting at 19.72% and top among the players who play 1,000 matches. Part of the reason is that he often shoots into empty nets. Not blessed with a boom shot, Middleton is a sublime one-on-one player who can dipsy-do around the defender and then pretend the goaltender before calmly tucking the chip home, leaving rubble behind him. There was never a nickname that was more precise than his nickname, “Nifty.”
Middleton is one of only a few Bruins on this list who never won the Stanley Cup, but he got a good consolation prize in his last season with the B’s.
Perhaps no other Bruin in history suffered more at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens. His teams lost three consecutive seasons to Habs in the late 70s – twice in the Final and other times in too many heartbreaking matches in ’79 – and then lost the first four round series directly to Habs in the mid ’80- only won two matches in the four series.
But in 1988, in his final season with the Bruins and with the club ready for another revival, B stopped the 45-year playoff curse against the Canadiens, won the best division final series of seven matches in five matches, and won it at the Montreal Forum, no less.
The B will lose to another great dynasty team, the Edmonton Oilers, in the Cup final, but the win over Montreal is a pretty good parting gift for a career that deserves it.
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